University of Virginia Library


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It is a little remarkable, that—though disinclined to
talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside,
and to my personal friends—an autobiographical impulse
should twice in my life have taken possession of
me, in addressing the public. The first time was three
or four years since, when I favored the reader—inexcusably,
and for no earthly reason, that either the indulgent
reader or the intrusive author could imagine—
with a description of my way of life in the deep quietude
of an Old Manse. And now—because, beyond
my deserts, I was happy enough to find a listener or
two on the former occasion—I again seize the public
by the button, and talk of my three years' experience
in a Custom-House. The example of the famous “P.
P., Clerk of this Parish,” was never more faithfully
followed. The truth seems to be, however, that, when


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he casts his leaves forth upon the wind, the author
addresses, not the many who will fling aside his volume,
or never take it up, but the few who will understand
him, better than most of his schoolmates and life-mates.
Some authors, indeed, do far more than this,
and indulge themselves in such confidential depths of
revelation as could fittingly be addressed, only and exclusively,
to the one heart and mind of perfect sympathy;
as if the printed book, thrown at large on the wide
world, were certain to find out the divided segment of
the writer's own nature, and complete his circle of existence
by bringing him into communion with it. It is
scarcely decorous, however, to speak all, even where
we speak impersonally. But—as thoughts are frozen
and utterance benumbed, unless the speaker stand in
some true relation with his audience—it may be pardonable
to imagine that a friend, a kind and apprehensive,
though not the closest friend, is listening to our
talk; and then, a native reserve being thawed by this
genial consciousness, we may prate of the circumstances
that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still
keep the inmost Me behind its veil. To this extent
and within these limits, an author, methinks, may be
autobiographical, without violating either the reader's
rights or his own.

It will be seen, likewise, that this Custom-House
sketch has a certain propriety, of a kind always recognized
in literature, as explaining how a large portion of
the following pages came into my possession, and as
offering proofs of the authenticity of a narrative therein
contained. This, in fact,—a desire to put myself in


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my true position as editor, or very little more, of the
most prolix among the tales that make up my volume,
—this, and no other, is my true reason for assuming a
personal relation with the public. In accomplishing
the main purpose, it has appeared allowable, by a few
extra touches, to give a faint representation of a mode
of life not heretofore described, together with some of
the characters that move in it, among whom the author
happened to make one.

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what,
half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was
a bustling wharf,—but which is now burdened with
decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no
symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark
or brig, half-way down its melancholy length, discharging
hides; or, nearer at hand, a Nova Scotia schooner,
pitching out her cargo of firewood,—at the head, I
say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often
overflows, and along which, at the base and in the rear
of the row of buildings, the track of many languid
years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass,—here,
with a view from its front windows adown this not very
enlivening prospect, and thence across the harbour,
stands a spacious edifice of brick. From the loftiest
point of its roof, during precisely three and a half hours
of each forenoon, floats or droops, in breeze or calm,
the banner of the republic; but with the thirteen stripes
turned vertically, instead of horizontally, and thus indicating
that a civil, and not a military post of Uncle
Sam's government, is here established. Its front is ornamented


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with a portico of half a dozen wooden pillars,
supporting a balcony, beneath which a flight of wide
granite steps descends towards the street. Over the
entrance hovers an enormous specimen of the American
eagle, with outspread wings, a shield before her
breast, and, if I recollect aright, a bunch of intermingled
thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw.
With the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes
this unhappy fowl, she appears, by the fierceness
of her beak and eye and the general truculency of her
attitude, to threaten mischief to the inoffensive community;
and especially to warn all citizens, careful of
their safety, against intruding on the premises which
she overshadows with her wings. Nevertheless, vixenly
as she looks, many people are seeking, at this very
moment, to shelter themselves under the wing of the
federal eagle; imagining, I presume, that her bosom
has all the softness and snugness of an eider-down
pillow. But she has no great tenderness, even in
her best of moods, and, sooner or later,—oftener soon
than late,—is apt to fling off her nestlings with a
scratch of her claw, a dab of her beak, or a rankling
wound from her barbed arrows.

The pavement round about the above-described edifice—which
we may as well name at once as the
Custom-House of the port—has grass enough growing
in its chinks to show that it has not, of late days, been
worn by any multitudinous resort of business. In some
months of the year, however, there often chances a
forenoon when affairs move onward with a livelier
tread. Such occasions might remind the elderly citizen


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of that period, before the last war with England,
when Salem was a port by itself; not scorned, as she
is now, by her own merchants and ship-owners, who
permit her wharves to crumble to ruin, while their
ventures go to swell, needlessly and imperceptibly, the
mighty flood of commerce at New York or Boston.
On some such morning, when three or four vessels
happen to have arrived at once,—usually from Africa
or South America,—or to be on the verge of their
departure thitherward, there is a sound of frequent
feet, passing briskly up and down the granite steps.
Here, before his own wife has greeted him, you may
greet the sea-flushed ship-master, just in port, with his
vessel's papers under his arm in a tarnished tin box.
Here, too, comes his owner, cheerful or sombre, gracious
or in the sulks, accordingly as his scheme of the
now accomplished voyage has been realized in merchandise
that will readily be turned to gold, or has
buried him under a bulk of incommodities, such as nobody
will care to rid him of. Here, likewise,—the
germ of the wrinkle-browed, grizzly-bearded, careworn
merchant,—we have the smart young clerk, who gets
the taste of traffic as a wolf-cub does of blood, and
already sends adventures in his master's ships, when he
had better be sailing mimic boats upon a mill-pond.
Another figure in the scene is the outward-bound sailor,
in quest of a protection; or the recently arrived one,
pale and feeble, seeking a passport to the hospital.
Nor must we forget the captains of the rusty little
schooners that bring firewood from the British provinces;
a rough-looking set of tarpaulins, without the


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alertness of the Yankee aspect, but contributing an item
of no slight importance to our decaying trade.

Cluster all these individuals together, as they sometimes
were, with other miscellaneous ones to diversify
the group, and, for the time being, it made the Custom-House
a stirring scene. More frequently, however, on
ascending the steps, you would discern—in the entry,
if it were summer time, or in their appropriate rooms,
if wintry or inclement weather—a row of venerable
figures, sitting in old-fashioned chairs, which were tipped
on their hind legs back against the wall. Oftentimes
they were asleep, but occasionally might be
heard talking together, in voices between speech and a
snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes
the occupants of alms-houses, and all other human beings
who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized
labor, or any thing else but their own independent
exertions. These old gentlemen—seated, like Matthew,
at the receipt of custom, but not very liable to be
summoned thence, like him, for apostolic errands—
were Custom-House officers.

Furthermore, on the left hand as you enter the front
door, is a certain room or office, about fifteen feet
square, and of a lofty height; with two of its arched
windows commanding a view of the aforesaid dilapidated
wharf, and the third looking across a narrow lane,
and along a portion of Derby Street. All three give
glimpses of the shops of grocers, block-makers, slop-sellers,
and ship-chandlers; around the doors of which
are generally to be seen, laughing and gossiping, clusters
of old salts, and such other wharf-rats as haunt the


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Wapping of a seaport. The room itself is cobwebbed,
and dingy with old paint; its floor is strewn with gray
sand, in a fashion that has elsewhere fallen into long
disuse; and it is easy to conclude, from the general
slovenliness of the place, that this is a sanctuary into
which womankind, with her tools of magic, the broom
and mop, has very infrequent access. In the way of
furniture, there is a stove with a voluminous funnel;
an old pine desk, with a three-legged stool beside it;
two or three wooden-bottom chairs, exceedingly decrepit
and infirm; and,—not to forget the library,—
on some shelves, a score or two of volumes of the Acts
of Congress, and a bulky Digest of the Revenue Laws.
A tin pipe ascends through the ceiling, and forms a
medium of vocal communication with other parts of the
edifice. And here, some six months ago,—pacing
from corner to corner, or lounging on the long-legged
stool, with his elbow on the desk, and his eyes wandering
up and down the columns of the morning newspaper,—you
might have recognized, honored reader,
the same individual who welcomed you into his cheery
little study, where the sunshine glimmered so pleasantly
through the willow branches, on the western side of the
Old Manse. But now, should you go thither to seek
him, you would inquire in vain for the Loco-foco Surveyor.
The besom of reform has swept him out of
office; and a worthier successor wears his dignity and
pockets his emoluments.

This old town of Salem—my native place, though
I have dwelt much away from it, both in boyhood and
maturer years—possesses, or did possess, a hold on


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my affections, the force of which I have never realized
during my seasons of actual residence here. Indeed,
so far as its physical aspect is concerned, with its flat,
unvaried surface, covered chiefly with wooden houses,
few or none of which pretend to architectural beauty,
—its irregularity, which is neither picturesque nor
quaint, but only tame,—its long and lazy street, lounging
wearisomely through the whole extent of the peninsula,
with Gallows Hill and New Guinea at one end,
and a view of the alms-house at the other,—such being
the features of my native town, it would be quite as
reasonable to form a sentimental attachment to a disarranged
checkerboard. And yet, though invariably
happiest elsewhere, there is within me a feeling for
old Salem, which, in lack of a better phrase, I must be
content to call affection. The sentiment is probably
assignable to the deep and aged roots which my family
has struck into the soil. It is now nearly two centuries
and a quarter since the original Briton, the earliest
emigrant of my name, made his appearance in the wild
and forest-bordered settlement, which has since become
a city. And here his descendants have been born and
died, and have mingled their earthy substance with the
soil; until no small portion of it must necessarily be
akin to the mortal frame wherewith, for a little while,
I walk the streets. In part, therefore, the attachment
which I speak of is the mere sensuous sympathy of
dust for dust. Few of my countrymen can know what
it is; nor, as frequent transplantation is perhaps better
for the stock, need they consider it desirable to know.

But the sentiment has likewise its moral quality. The


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figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition
with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my
boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember.
It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling
with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference
to the present phase of the town. I seem to
have a stronger claim to a residence here on account
of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned
progenitor,—who came so early, with his
Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn street with
such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a
man of war and peace,—a stronger claim than for
myself, whose name is seldom heard and my face
hardly known. He was a soldier, legislator, judge;
he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the Puritanic
traits, both good and evil. He was likewise a bitter
persecutor; as witness the Quakers, who have remembered
him in their histories, and relate an incident of
his hard severity towards a woman of their sect, which
will last longer, it is to be feared, than any record of
his better deeds, although these were many. His son,
too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself
so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that
their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon
him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones,
in the Charter Street burial-ground, must still retain it,
if they have not crumbled utterly to dust! I know not
whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves
to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties;
or whether they are now groaning under the heavy
consequences of them, in another state of being. At


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all events, I, the present writer, as their representative,
hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and
pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have
heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition
of the race, for many a long year back, would argue
to exist—may be now and henceforth removed.

Doubtless, however, either of these stern and black-browed
Puritans would have thought it quite a sufficient
retribution for his sins, that, after so long a lapse
of years, the old trunk of the family tree, with so much
venerable moss upon it, should have borne, as its topmost
bough, an idler like myself. No aim, that I have
ever cherished, would they recognize as laudable; no
success of mine—if my life, beyond its domestic
scope, had ever been brightened by success—would
they deem otherwise than worthless, if not positively
disgraceful. “What is he?” murmurs one gray shadow
of my forefathers to the other. “A writer of
story-books! What kind of a business in life,—what
mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind
in his day and generation,—may that be? Why,
the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!”
Such are the compliments bandied between my
great-grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time!
And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong traits
of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.

Planted deep, in the town's earliest infancy and
childhood, by these two earnest and energetic men,
the race has ever since subsisted here; always, too,
in respectability; never, so far as I have known, disgraced
by a single unworthy member; but seldom or


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never, on the other hand, after the first two generations,
performing any memorable deed, or so much as
putting forward a claim to public notice. Gradually,
they have sunk almost out of sight; as old houses,
here and there about the streets, get covered half-way
to the eaves by the accumulation of new soil. From
father to son, for above a hundred years, they followed
the sea; a gray-headed shipmaster, in each generation,
retiring from the quarter-deck to the homestead,
while a boy of fourteen took the hereditary place
before the mast, confronting the salt spray and the
gale, which had blustered against his sire and grandsire.
The boy, also, in due time, passed from the forecastle
to the cabin, spent a tempestuous manhood, and
returned from his world-wanderings, to grow old, and
die, and mingle his dust with the natal earth. This
long connection of a family with one spot, as its place
of birth and burial, creates a kindred between the human
being and the locality, quite independent of any charm
in the scenery or moral circumstances that surround
him. It is not love, but instinct. The new inhabitant
—who came himself from a foreign land, or whose
father or grandfather came—has little claim to be
called a Salemite; he has no conception of the oyster-like
tenacity with which an old settler, over whom his
third century is creeping, clings to the spot where his
successive generations have been imbedded. It is no
matter that the place is joyless for him; that he is
weary of the old wooden houses, the mud and dust, the
dead level of site and sentiment, the chill east wind,
and the chillest of social atmospheres;—all these, and


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whatever faults besides he may see or imagine, are
nothing to the purpose. The spell survives, and just
as powerfully as if the natal spot were an earthly
paradise. So has it been in my case. I felt it almost
as a destiny to make Salem my home; so that the mould
of features and cast of character which had all along
been familiar here—ever, as one representative of the
race lay down in his grave, another assuming, as it
were, his sentry-march along the Main Street—might
still in my little day be seen and recognized in the old
town. Nevertheless, this very sentiment is an evidence
that the connection, which has become an unhealthy
one, should at last be severed. Human nature will
not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted
and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in
the same worn-out soil. My children have had other
birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within
my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed

On emerging from the Old Manse, it was chiefly this
strange, indolent, unjoyous attachment for my native
town, that brought me to fill a place in Uncle Sam's
brick edifice, when I might as well, or better, have
gone somewhere else. My doom was on me. It was
not the first time, nor the second, that I had gone away,
—as it seemed, permanently,—but yet returned, like
the bad half-penny; or as if Salem were for me the
inevitable centre of the universe. So, one fine morning,
I ascended the flight of granite steps, with the
President's commission in my pocket, and was introduced
to the corps of gentlemen who were to aid me


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in my weighty responsibility, as chief executive officer
of the Custom-House.

I doubt greatly—or rather, I do not doubt at all—
whether any public functionary of the United States,
either in the civil or military line, has ever had such a
patriarchal body of veterans under his orders as myself.
The whereabouts of the Oldest Inhabitant was at
once settled, when I looked at them. For upwards of
twenty years before this epoch, the independent position
of the Collector had kept the Salem Custom-House
out of the whirlpool of political vicissitude, which
makes the tenure of office generally so fragile. A
soldier,—New England's most distinguished soldier,
—he stood firmly on the pedestal of his gallant services;
and, himself secure in the wise liberality of the
successive administrations through which he had held
office, he had been the safety of his subordinates in
many an hour of danger and heart-quake. General
Miller was radically conservative; a man over whose
kindly nature habit had no slight influence; attaching
himself strongly to familiar faces, and with difficulty
moved to change, even when change might have
brought unquestionable improvement. Thus, on taking
charge of my department, I found few but aged men.
They were ancient sea-captains, for the most part, who,
after being tost on every sea, and standing up sturdily
against life's tempestuous blast, had finally drifted into
this quiet nook; where, with little to disturb them, except
the periodical terrors of a Presidential election,
they one and all acquired a new lease of existence.
Though by no means less liable than their fellow-men


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to age and infirmity, they had evidently some talisman
or other that kept death at bay. Two or three of their
number, as I was assured, being gouty and rheumatic,
or perhaps bed-ridden, never dreamed of making their
appearance at the Custom-House, during a large part
of the year; but, after a torpid winter, would creep
out into the warm sunshine of May or June, go lazily
about what they termed duty, and, at their own leisure
and convenience, betake themselves to bed again. I
must plead guilty to the charge of abbreviating the
official breath of more than one of these venerable
servants of the republic. They were allowed, on my
representation, to rest from their arduous labors, and
soon afterwards—as if their sole principle of life had
been zeal for their country's service; as I verily believe
it was—withdrew to a better world. It is a pious
consolation to me, that, through my interference, a
sufficient space was allowed them for repentance of the
evil and corrupt practices, into which, as a matter of
course, every Custom-House officer must be supposed
to fall. Neither the front nor the back entrance of the
Custom-House opens on the road to Paradise.

The greater part of my officers were Whigs. It was
well for their venerable brotherhood, that the new Surveyor
was not a politician, and, though a faithful Democrat
in principle, neither received nor held his office
with any reference to political services. Had it been
otherwise,—had an active politician been put into this
influential post, to assume the easy task of making
head against a Whig Collector, whose infirmities withheld
him from the personal administration of his office,


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—hardly a man of the old corps would have drawn
the breath of official life, within a month after the exterminating
angel had come up the Custom-House
steps. According to the received code in such matters,
it would have been nothing short of duty, in a
politician, to bring every one of those white heads
under the axe of the guillotine. It was plain enough
to discern, that the old fellows dreaded some such discourtesy
at my hands. It pained, and at the same time
amused me, to behold the terrors that attended my advent;
to see a furrowed cheek, weather-beaten by half
a century of storm, turn ashy pale at the glance of so
harmless an individual as myself; to detect, as one or
another addressed me, the tremor of a voice, which, in
long-past days, had been wont to bellow through a
speaking-trumpet, hoarsely enough to frighten Boreas
himself to silence. They knew, these excellent old
persons, that, by all established rule,—and, as regarded
some of them, weighed by their own lack of efficiency
for business,—they ought to have given place to
younger men, more orthodox in politics, and altogether
fitter than themselves to serve our common Uncle. I
knew it too, but could never quite find in my heart to
act upon the knowledge. Much and deservedly to my
own discredit, therefore, and considerably to the detriment
of my official conscience, they continued, during
my incumbency, to creep about the wharves, and loiter
up and down the Custom-House steps. They spent a
good deal of time, also, asleep in their accustomed
corners, with their chairs tilted back against the wall;
awaking, however, once or twice in a forenoon, to bore


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one another with the several thousandth repetition of
old sea-stories, and mouldy jokes, that had grown to be
pass-words and countersigns among them.

The discovery was soon made, I imagine, that the
new Surveyor had no great harm in him. So, with
lightsome hearts, and the happy consciousness of being
usefully employed,—in their own behalf, at least, if
not for our beloved country,—these good old gentlemen
went through the various formalities of office.
Sagaciously, under their spectacles, did they peep into
the holds of vessels! Mighty was their fuss about little
matters, and marvellous, sometimes, the obtuseness
that allowed greater ones to slip between their fingers!
Whenever such a mischance occurred,—when a wagon-load
of valuable merchandise had been smuggled
ashore, at noonday, perhaps, and directly beneath
their unsuspicious noses,—nothing could exceed the
vigilance and alacrity with which they proceeded to
lock, and double-lock, and secure with tape and sealing-wax,
all the avenues of the delinquent vessel. Instead
of a reprimand for their previous negligence, the case
seemed rather to require an eulogium on their praiseworthy
caution, after the mischief had happened; a
grateful recognition of the promptitude of their zeal,
the moment that there was no longer any remedy!

Unless people are more than commonly disagreeable,
it is my foolish habit to contract a kindness for
them. The better part of my companion's character,
if it have a better part, is that which usually comes
uppermost in my regard, and forms the type whereby
I recognize the man. As most of these old Custom-House


Page 17
officers had good traits, and as my position in
reference to them, being paternal and protective, was
favorable to the growth of friendly sentiments, I soon
grew to like them all. It was pleasant, in the summer
forenoons,—when the fervent heat, that almost liquefied
the rest of the human family, merely communicated
a genial warmth to their half-torpid systems,—it
was pleasant to hear them chatting in the back entry, a
row of them all tipped against the wall, as usual; while
the frozen witticisms of past generations were thawed
out, and came bubbling with laughter from their lips.
Externally, the jollity of aged men has much in common
with the mirth of children; the intellect, any
more than a deep sense of humor, has little to do with
the matter; it is, with both, a gleam that plays upon the
surface, and imparts a sunny and cheery aspect alike
to the green branch, and gray, mouldering trunk. In
one case, however, it is real sunshine; in the other, it
more resembles the phosphorescent glow of decaying

It would be sad injustice, the reader must understand,
to represent all my excellent old friends as in their
dotage. In the first place, my coadjutors were not invariably
old; there were men among them in their
strength and prime, of marked ability and energy, and
altogether superior to the sluggish and dependent mode
of life on which their evil stars had cast them. Then,
moreover, the white locks of age were sometimes found
to be the thatch of an intellectual tenement in good
repair. But, as respects the majority of my corps of
veterans, there will be no wrong done, if I characterize


Page 18
them generally as a set of wearisome old souls, who
had gathered nothing worth preservation from their
varied experience of life. They seemed to have flung
away all the golden grain of practical wisdom, which
they had enjoyed so many opportunities of harvesting,
and most carefully to have stored their memories with
the husks. They spoke with far more interest and
unction of their morning's breakfast, or yesterday's, to-day's,
or to-morrow's dinner, than of the shipwreck of
forty or fifty years ago, and all the world's wonders
which they had witnessed with their youthful eyes.

The father of the Custom-House—the patriarch,
not only of this little squad of officials, but, I am bold
to say, of the respectable body of tide-waiters all over
the United States—was a certain permanent Inspector.
He might truly be termed a legitimate son of the
revenue system, dyed in the wool, or rather, born in
the purple; since his sire, a Revolutionary colonel, and
formerly collector of the port, had created an office for
him, and appointed him to fill it, at a period of the
early ages which few living men can now remember.
This Inspector, when I first knew him, was a man of
fourscore years, or thereabouts, and certainly one of
the most wonderful specimens of winter-green that
you would be likely to discover in a lifetime's search.
With his florid cheek, his compact figure, smartly
arrayed in a bright-buttoned blue coat, his brisk and
vigorous step, and his hale and hearty aspect, altogether,
he seemed—not young, indeed—but a kind
of new contrivance of Mother Nature in the shape of
man, whom age and infirmity had no business to touch


Page 19
His voice and laugh, which perpetually reëchoed
through the Custom-House, had nothing of the tremulous
quaver and cackle of an old man's utterance;
they came strutting out of his lungs, like the crow of a
cock, or the blast of a clarion. Looking at him merely
as an animal,—and there was very little else to look
at,—he was a most satisfactory object, from the
thorough healthfulness and wholesomeness of his system,
and his capacity, at that extreme age, to enjoy all,
or nearly all, the delights which he had ever aimed at,
or conceived of. The careless security of his life in
the Custom-House, on a regular income, and with but
slight and infrequent apprehensions of removal, had no
doubt contributed to make time pass lightly over him.
The original and more potent causes, however, lay in
the rare perfection of his animal nature, the moderate
proportion of intellect, and the very trifling admixture
of moral and spiritual ingredients; these latter qualities,
indeed, being in barely enough measure to keep the
old gentleman from walking on all-fours. He possessed
no power of thought, no depth of feeling, no troublesome
sensibilities; nothing, in short, but a few commonplace
instincts, which, aided by the cheerful temper
that grew inevitably out of his physical well-being, did
duty very respectably, and to general acceptance, in
lieu of a heart. He had been the husband of three
wives, all long since dead; the father of twenty children,
most of whom, at every age of childhood or maturity,
had likewise returned to dust. Here, one would
suppose, might have been sorrow enough to imbue the
sunniest disposition, through and through, with a sable


Page 20
tinge. Not so with our old Inspector! One brief sigh
sufficed to carry off the entire burden of these dismal
reminiscences. The next moment, he was as ready
for sport as any unbreeched infant; far readier than
the Collector's junior clerk, who, at nineteen years,
was much the elder and graver man of the two.

I used to watch and study this patriarchal personage
with, I think, livelier curiosity than any other form of
humanity there presented to my notice. He was, in
truth, a rare phenomenon; so perfect in one point of
view; so shallow, so delusive, so impalpable, such an
absolute nonentity, in every other. My conclusion was
that he had no soul, no heart, no mind; nothing, as I
have already said, but instincts; and yet, withal, so
cunningly had the few materials of his character been
put together, that there was no painful perception of
deficiency, but, on my part, an entire contentment with
what I found in him. It might be difficult—and it
was so—to conceive how he should exist hereafter,
so earthy and sensuous did he seem; but surely his
existence here, admitting that it was to terminate with
his last breath, had been not unkindly given; with no
higher moral responsibilities than the beasts of the field,
but with a larger scope of enjoyment than theirs, and
with all their blessed immunity from the dreariness and
duskiness of age.

One point, in which he had vastly the advantage over
his four-footed brethren, was his ability to recollect the
good dinners which it had made no small portion of the
happiness of his life to eat. His gourmandism was a
highly agreeable trait; and to hear him talk of roast-meat


Page 21
was as appetizing as a pickle or an oyster. As
he possessed no higher attribute, and neither sacrificed
nor vitiated any spiritual endowment by devoting all
his energies and ingenuities to subserve the delight and
profit of his maw, it always pleased and satisfied me to
hear him expatiate on fish, poultry, and butcher's meat,
and the most eligible methods of preparing them for
the table. His reminiscences of good cheer, however
ancient the date of the actual banquet, seemed to bring
the savor of pig or turkey under one's very nostrils.
There were flavors on his palate, that had lingered
there not less than sixty or seventy years, and were still
apparently as fresh as that of the mutton-chop which
he had just devoured for his breakfast. I have heard
him smack his lips over dinners, every guest at which,
except himself, had long been food for worms. It was
marvellous to observe how the ghosts of bygone meals
were continually rising up before him; not in anger or
retribution, but as if grateful for his former appreciation,
and seeking to reduplicate an endless series of
enjoyment, at once shadowy and sensual. A tenderloin
of beef, a hind-quarter of veal, a spare-rib of pork,
a particular chicken, or a remarkably praiseworthy
turkey, which had perhaps adorned his board in the
days of the elder Adams, would be remembered; while
all the subsequent experience of our race, and all the
events that brightened or darkened his individual career,
had gone over him with as little permanent effect as
the passing breeze. The chief tragic event of the old
man's life, so far as I could judge, was his mishap
with a certain goose, which lived and died some twenty


Page 22
or forty years ago; a goose of most promising figure,
but which, at table, proved so inveterately tough that
the carving-knife would make no impression on its
carcass; and it could only be divided with an axe and

But it is time to quit this sketch; on which, however,
I should be glad to dwell at considerably more length,
because, of all men whom I have ever known, this individual
was fittest to be a Custom-House officer. Most
persons, owing to causes which I may not have space
to hint at, suffer moral detriment from this peculiar
mode of life. The old Inspector was incapable of it,
and, were he to continue in office to the end of time,
would be just as good as he was then, and sit down to
dinner with just as good an appetite.

There is one likeness, without which my gallery of
Custom-House portraits would be strangely incomplete;
but which my comparatively few opportunities for observation
enable me to sketch only in the merest outline.
It is that of the Collector, our gallant old General,
who, after his brilliant military service, subsequently
to which he had ruled over a wild Western
territory, had come hither, twenty years before, to
spend the decline of his varied and honorable life.
The brave soldier had already numbered, nearly or
quite, his threescore years and ten, and was pursuing
the remainder of his earthly march, burdened with
infirmities which even the martial music of his own
spirit-stirring recollections could do little towards lightening.
The step was palsied now, that had been foremost
in the charge. It was only with the assistance of


Page 23
a servant, and by leaning his hand heavily on the iron
balustrade, that he could slowly and painfully ascend
the Custom-House steps, and, with a toilsome progress
across the floor, attain his customary chair beside the
fireplace. There he used to sit, gazing with a somewhat
dim serenity of aspect at the figures that came
and went; amid the rustle of papers, the administering
of oaths, the discussion of business, and the casual
talk of the office; all which sounds and circumstances
seemed but indistinctly to impress his senses, and hardly
to make their way into his inner sphere of contemplation.
His countenance, in this repose, was mild and
kindly. If his notice was sought, an expression of
courtesy and interest gleamed out upon his features;
proving that there was light within him, and that it was
only the outward medium of the intellectual lamp that
obstructed the rays in their passage. The closer you
penetrated to the substance of his mind, the sounder it
appeared. When no longer called upon to speak, or
listen, either of which operations cost him an evident
effort, his face would briefly subside into its former not
uncheerful quietude. It was not painful to behold this
look; for, though dim, it had not the imbecility of decaying
age. The framework of his nature, originally
strong and massive, was not yet crumbled into ruin.

To observe and define his character, however, under
such disadvantages, was as difficult a task as to trace
out and build up anew, in imagination, an old fortress,
like Ticonderoga, from a view of its gray and broken
ruins. Here and there, perchance, the walls may remain
almost complete; but elsewhere may be only a


Page 24
shapeless mound, cumbrous with its very strength, and
overgrown, through long years of peace and neglect,
with grass and alien weeds.

Nevertheless, looking at the old warrior with affection,—for,
slight as was the communication between
us, my feeling towards him, like that of all bipeds and
quadrupeds who knew him, might not improperly be
termed so,—I could discern the main points of his
portrait. It was marked with the noble and heroic
qualities which showed it to be not by a mere accident,
but of good right, that he had won a distinguished name.
His spirit could never, I conceive, have been characterized
by an uneasy activity; it must, at any period of
his life, have required an impulse to set him in motion;
but, once stirred up, with obstacles to overcome, and an
adequate object to be attained, it was not in the man to
give out or fail. The heat that had formerly pervaded
his nature, and which was not yet extinct, was never of
the kind that flashes and flickers in a blaze, but, rather,
a deep, red glow, as of iron in a furnace. Weight,
solidity, firmness; this was the expression of his repose,
even in such decay as had crept untimely over him, at
the period of which I speak. But I could imagine, even
then, that, under some excitement which should go
deeply into his consciousness,—roused by a trumpet-peal,
loud enough to awaken all of his energies that
were not dead, but only slumbering,—he was yet capable
of flinging off his infirmities like a sick man's gown,
dropping the staff of age to seize a battle-sword, and
starting up once more a warrior. And, in so intense a
moment, his demeanour would have still been calm.


Page 25
Such an exhibition, however, was but to be pictured in
fancy; not to be anticipated, nor desired. What I saw
in him—as evidently as the indestructible ramparts of
Old Ticonderoga, already cited as the most appropriate
simile—were the features of stubborn and ponderous
endurance, which might well have amounted to obstinacy
in his earlier days; of integrity, that, like most of
his other endowments, lay in a somewhat heavy mass,
and was just as unmalleable and unmanageable as a
ton of iron ore; and of benevolence, which, fiercely as
he led the bayonets on at Chippewa or Fort Erie, I
take to be of quite as genuine a stamp as what actuates
any or all the polemical philanthropists of the age.
He had slain men with his own hand, for aught I
know;—certainly, they had fallen, like blades of grass
at the sweep of the scythe, before the charge to which
his spirit imparted its triumphant energy;—but, be
that as it might, there was never in his heart so much
cruelty as would have brushed the down off a butterfly's
wing. I have not known the man, to whose innate
kindliness I would more confidently make an appeal.

Many characteristics—and those, too, which contribute
not the least forcibly to impart resemblance in
a sketch—must have vanished, or been obscured,
before I met the General. All merely graceful attributes
are usually the most evanescent; nor does Nature
adorn the human ruin with blossoms of new beauty,
that have their roots and proper nutriment only in the
chinks and crevices of decay, as she sows wall-flowers
over the ruined fortress of Ticonderoga. Still, even in
respect of grace and beauty, there were points well


Page 26
worth noting. A ray of humor, now and then, would
make its way through the veil of dim obstruction, and
glimmer pleasantly upon our faces. A trait of native
elegance, seldom seen in the masculine character after
childhood or early youth, was shown in the General's
fondness for the sight and fragrance of flowers. An
old soldier might be supposed to prize only the bloody
laurel on his brow; but here was one, who seemed to
have a young girl's appreciation of the floral tribe.

There, beside the fireplace, the brave old General
used to sit; while the Surveyor—though seldom, when
it could be avoided, taking upon himself the difficult
task of engaging him in conversation—was fond of
standing at a distance, and watching his quiet and
almost slumberous countenance. He seemed away
from us, although we saw him but a few yards off;
remote, though we passed close beside his chair; unattainable,
though we might have stretched forth our
hands and touched his own. It might be, that he lived
a more real life within his thoughts, than amid the unappropriate
environment of the Collector's office. The
evolutions of the parade; the tumult of the battle; the
flourish of old, heroic music, heard thirty years before;
—such scenes and sounds, perhaps, were all alive
before his intellectual sense. Meanwhile, the merchants
and ship-masters, the spruce clerks, and uncouth
sailors, entered and departed; the bustle of this commercial
and Custom-House life kept up its little murmur
round about him; and neither with the men nor
their affairs did the General appear to sustain the most
distant relation. He was as much out of place as an


Page 27
old sword—now rusty, but which had flashed once in
the battle's front, and showed still a bright gleam along
its blade—would have been, among the inkstands, paper-folders,
and mahogany rulers, on the Deputy Collector's

There was one thing that much aided me in renewing
and re-creating the stalwart soldier of the Niagara
frontier,—the man of true and simple energy. It was
the recollection of those memorable words of his,—
“I'll try, Sir!”—spoken on the very verge of a desperate
and heroic enterprise, and breathing the soul
and spirit of New England hardihood, comprehending
all perils, and encountering all. If, in our country,
valor were rewarded by heraldic honor, this phrase—
which it seems so easy to speak, but which only he,
with such a task of danger and glory before him, has
ever spoken—would be the best and fittest of all mottoes
for the General's shield of arms.

It contributes greatly towards a man's moral and intellectual
health, to be brought into habits of companionship
with individuals unlike himself, who care little
for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must
go out of himself to appreciate. The accidents of my
life have often afforded me this advantage, but never
with more fulness and variety than during my continuance
in office. There was one man, especially, the
observation of whose character gave me a new idea of
talent. His gifts were emphatically those of a man of
business; prompt, acute, clear-minded; with an eye
that saw through all perplexities, and a faculty of arrangement
that made them vanish, as by the waving of


Page 28
an enchanter's wand. Bred up from boyhood in the
Custom-House, it was his proper field of activity; and
the many intricacies of business, so harassing to the
interloper, presented themselves before him with the
regularity of a perfectly comprehended system. In
my contemplation, he stood as the ideal of his class.
He was, indeed, the Custom-House in himself; or, at
all events, the main-spring that kept its variously revolving
wheels in motion; for, in an institution like
this, where its officers are appointed to subserve their
own profit and convenience, and seldom with a leading
reference to their fitness for the duty to be performed,
they must perforce seek elsewhere the dexterity which
is not in them. Thus, by an inevitable necessity, as a
magnet attracts steel-filings, so did our man of business
draw to himself the difficulties which everybody met
with. With an easy condescension, and kind forbearance
towards our stupidity,—which, to his order of
mind, must have seemed little short of crime,—would
he forthwith, by the merest touch of his finger, make
the incomprehensible as clear as daylight. The merchants
valued him not less than we, his esoteric friends.
His integrity was perfect; it was a law of nature with
him, rather than a choice or a principle; nor can it be
otherwise than the main condition of an intellect so
remarkably clear and accurate as his, to be honest and
regular in the administration of affairs. A stain on his
conscience, as to any thing that came within the range
of his vocation, would trouble such a man very much
in the same way, though to a far greater degree, than
an error in the balance of an account, or an ink-blot


Page 29
on the fair page of a book of record. Here, in a
word,—and it is a rare instance in my life,—I had
met with a person thoroughly adapted to the situation
which he held.

Such were some of the people with whom I now
found myself connected. I took it in good part at the
hands of Providence, that I was thrown into a position
so little akin to my past habits; and set myself seriously
to gather from it whatever profit was to be had.
After my fellowship of toil and impracticable schemes,
with the dreamy brethren of Brook Farm; after living
for three years within the subtile influence of an intellect
like Emerson's; after those wild, free days on the
Assabeth, indulging fantastic speculations beside our
fire of fallen boughs, with Ellery Channing; after
talking with Thoreau about pine-trees and Indian relics,
in his hermitage at Walden; after growing fastidious
by sympathy with the classic refinement of Hillard's
culture; after becoming imbued with poetic sentiment
at Longfellow's hearth-stone;—it was time, at length,
that I should exercise other faculties of my nature, and
nourish myself with food for which I had hitherto had
little appetite. Even the old Inspector was desirable,
as a change of diet, to a man who had known Alcott.
I looked upon it as an evidence, in some measure, of
a system naturally well balanced, and lacking no essential
part of a thorough organization, that, with such
associates to remember, I could mingle at once with
men of altogether different qualities, and never murmur
at the change.

Literature, its exertions and objects, were now of


Page 30
little moment in my regard. I cared not, at this period,
for books; they were apart from me. Nature,—
except it were human nature,—the nature that is developed
in earth and sky, was, in one sense, hidden
from me; and all the imaginative delight, wherewith
it had been spiritualized, passed away out of my mind.
A gift, a faculty, if it had not departed, was suspended
and inanimate within me. There would have been
something sad, unutterably dreary, in all this, had I not
been conscious that it lay at my own option to recall
whatever was valuable in the past. It might be true,
indeed, that this was a life which could not, with impunity,
be lived too long; else, it might make me permanently
other than I had been, without transforming
me into any shape which it would be worth my while
to take. But I never considered it as other than a transitory
life. There was always a prophetic instinct, a
low whisper in my ear, that, within no long period, and
whenever a new change of custom should be essential
to my good, a change would come.

Meanwhile, there I was, a Surveyor of the Revenue,
and, so far as I have been able to understand, as good
a Surveyor as need be. A man of thought, fancy,
and sensibility, (had he ten times the Surveyor's proportion
of those qualities,) may, at any time, be a man
of affairs, if he will only choose to give himself the
trouble. My fellow-officers, and the merchants and
sea-captains with whom my official duties brought me
into any manner of connection, viewed me in no other
light, and probably knew me in no other character.
None of them, I presume, had ever read a page of my


Page 31
inditing, or would have cared a fig the more for me, if
they had read them all; nor would it have mended the
matter, in the least, had those same unprofitable pages
been written with a pen like that of Burns or of Chaucer,
each of whom was a Custom-House officer in his
day, as well as I. It is a good lesson—though it may
often be a hard one—for a man who has dreamed of
literary fame, and of making for himself a rank among
the world's dignitaries by such means, to step aside
out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized,
and to find how utterly devoid of significance,
beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he
aims at. I know not that I especially needed the lesson,
either in the way of warning or rebuke; but, at any
rate, I learned it thoroughly; nor, it gives me pleasure
to reflect, did the truth, as it came home to my perception,
ever cost me a pang, or require to be thrown off in
a sigh. In the way of literary talk, it is true, the Naval
Officer—an excellent fellow, who came into office
with me, and went out only a little later—would often
engage me in a discussion about one or the other of his
favorite topics, Napoleon or Shakspeare. The Collector's
junior clerk, too,—a young gentleman who, it was
whispered, occasionally covered a sheet of Uncle Sam's
letter-paper with what, (at the distance of a few yards,)
looked very much like poetry,—used now and then to
speak to me of books, as matters with which I might
possibly be conversant. This was my all of lettered
intercourse; and it was quite sufficient for my necessities.

No longer seeking nor caring that my name should


Page 32
be blazoned abroad on title-pages, I smiled to think that
it had now another kind of vogue. The Custom-House
marker imprinted it, with a stencil and black paint, on
pepper-bags, and baskets of anatto, and cigar-boxes,
and bales of all kinds of dutiable merchandise, in testimony
that these commodities had paid the impost, and
gone regularly through the office. Borne on such queer
vehicle of fame, a knowledge of my existence, so far
as a name conveys it, was carried where it had never
been before, and, I hope, will never go again.

But the past was not dead. Once in a great while,
the thoughts, that had seemed so vital and so active, yet
had been put to rest so quietly, revived again. One of
the most remarkable occasions, when the habit of by-gone
days awoke in me, was that which brings it within
the law of literary propriety to offer the public the
sketch which I am now writing.

In the second story of the Custom-House, there is
a large room, in which the brick-work and naked rafters
have never been covered with panelling and plaster.
The edifice—originally projected on a scale adapted
to the old commercial enterprise of the port, and with
an idea of subsequent prosperity destined never to be
realized—contains far more space than its occupants
know what to do with. This airy hall, therefore, over
the Collector's apartments, remains unfinished to this
day, and, in spite of the aged cobwebs that festoon its
dusky beams, appears still to await the labor of the
carpenter and mason. At one end of the room, in a
recess, were a number of barrels, piled one upon another,
containing bundles of official documents. Large


Page 33
quantities of similar rubbish lay lumbering the floor.
It was sorrowful to think how many days, and weeks,
and months, and years of toil, had been wasted on
these musty papers, which were now only an encumbrance
on earth, and were hidden away in this forgotten
corner, never more to be glanced at by human eyes.
But, then, what reams of other manuscripts—filled,
not with the dulness of official formalities, but with the
thought of inventive brains and the rich effusion of deep
hearts—had gone equally to oblivion; and that, moreover,
without serving a purpose in their day, as these
heaped up papers had, and—saddest of all—without
purchasing for their writers the comfortable livelihood
which the clerks of the Custom-House had gained
by these worthless scratchings of the pen! Yet not
altogether worthless, perhaps, as materials of local history.
Here, no doubt, statistics of the former commerce
of Salem might be discovered, and memorials
of her princely merchants,—old King Derby,—old
Billy Gray,—old Simon Forrester,—and many another
magnate in his day; whose powdered head,
however, was scarcely in the tomb, before his mountain-pile
of wealth began to dwindle. The founders
of the greater part of the families which now compose
the aristocracy of Salem might here be traced,
from the petty and obscure beginnings of their traffic,
at periods generally much posterior to the Revolution,
upward to what their children look upon as long-established

Prior to the Revolution, there is a dearth of records;
the earlier documents and archives of the Custom-House


Page 34
having, probably, been carried off to Halifax,
when all the King's officials accompanied the British
army in its flight from Boston. It has often been a
matter of regret with me; for, going back, perhaps,
to the days of the Protectorate, those papers must have
contained many references to forgotten or remembered
men, and to antique customs, which would have affected
me with the same pleasure as when I used to pick up
Indian arrow-heads in the field near the Old Manse.

But, one idle and rainy day, it was my fortune to
make a discovery of some little interest. Poking and
burrowing into the heaped-up rubbish in the corner;
unfolding one and another document, and reading the
names of vessels that had long ago foundered at sea
or rotted at the wharves, and those of merchants, never
heard of now on 'Change, nor very readily decipherable
on their mossy tombstones; glancing at such matters
with the saddened, weary, half-reluctant interest
which we bestow on the corpse of dead activity,—and
exerting my fancy, sluggish with little use, to raise up
from these dry bones an image of the old town's
brighter aspect, when India was a new region, and only
Salem knew the way thither,—I chanced to lay my
hand on a small package, carefully done up in a piece
of ancient yellow parchment. This envelope had the
air of an official record of some period long past, when
clerks engrossed their stiff and formal chirography on
more substantial materials than at present. There was
something about it that quickened an instinctive curiosity,
and made me undo the faded red tape, that tied
up the package, with the sense that a treasure would


Page 35
here be brought to light. Unbending the rigid folds of
the parchment cover, I found it to be a commission,
under the hand and seal of Governor Shirley, in favor
of one Jonathan Pue, as Surveyor of his Majesty's
Customs for the port of Salem, in the Province of
Massachusetts Bay. I remembered to have read (probably
in Felt's Annals) a notice of the decease of Mr.
Surveyor Pue, about fourscore years ago; and likewise,
in a newspaper of recent times, an account of the digging
up of his remains in the little grave-yard of St.
Peter's Church, during the renewal of that edifice.
Nothing, if I rightly call to mind, was left of my respected
predecessor, save an imperfect skeleton, and
some fragments of apparel, and a wig of majestic frizzle;
which, unlike the head that it once adorned, was
in very satisfactory preservation. But, on examining
the papers which the parchment commission served
to envelop, I found more traces of Mr. Pue's mental
part, and the internal operations of his head, than the
frizzled wig had contained of the venerable skull

They were documents, in short, not official, but of a
private nature, or, at least, written in his private capacity,
and apparently with his own hand. I could account
for their being included in the heap of Custom-House
lumber only by the fact, that Mr. Pue's death
had happened suddenly; and that these papers, which
he probably kept in his official desk, had never come
to the knowledge of his heirs, or were supposed to relate
to the business of the revenue. On the transfer
of the archives to Halifax, this package, proving to be


Page 36
of no public concern, was left behind, and had remained
ever since unopened.

The ancient Surveyor—being little molested, I suppose,
at that early day, with business pertaining to his
office—seems to have devoted some of his many leisure
hours to researches as a local antiquarian, and
other inquisitions of a similar nature. These supplied
material for petty activity to a mind that would otherwise
have been eaten up with rust. A portion of his
facts, by the by, did me good service in the preparation
of the article entitled “Main Street,” included in
the present volume. The remainder may perhaps be
applied to purposes equally valuable, hereafter; or not
impossibly may be worked up, so far as they go, into
a regular history of Salem, should my veneration for
the natal soil ever impel me to so pious a task. Meanwhile,
they shall be at the command of any gentleman,
inclined, and competent, to take the unprofitable labor
off my hands. As a final disposition, I contemplate
depositing them with the Essex Historical Society.

But the object that most drew my attention, in the
mysterious package, was a certain affair of fine red
cloth, much worn and faded. There were traces about
it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly
frayed and defaced; so that none, or very little, of
the glitter was left. It had been wrought, as was easy
to perceive, with wonderful skill of needlework; and
the stitch (as I am assured by ladies conversant with
such mysteries) gives evidence of a now forgotten art,
not to be recovered even by the process of picking
out the threads. This rag of scarlet cloth,—for time,


Page 37
and wear, and a sacrilegious moth, had reduced it to
little other than a rag,—on careful examination, assumed
the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter
A. By an accurate measurement, each limb proved
to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length.
It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an
ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn,
or what rank, honor, and dignity, in by-past times, were
signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are
the fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw
little hope of solving. And yet it strangely interested
me. My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet
letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly,
there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation,
and which, as it were, streamed forth from
the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my
sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind.

While thus perplexed,—and cogitating, among other
hypotheses, whether the letter might not have been one
of those decorations which the white men used to contrive,
in order to take the eyes of Indians,—I happened
to place it on my breast. It seemed to me,—
the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word,
—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation
not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning
heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but
red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall
upon the floor.

In the absorbing contemplation of the scarlet letter,
I had hitherto neglected to examine a small roll of dingy
paper, around which it had been twisted. This I


Page 38
now opened, and had the satisfaction to find, recorded
by the old Surveyor's pen, a reasonably complete explanation
of the whole affair. There were several
foolscap sheets, containing many particulars respecting
the life and conversation of one Hester Prynne, who
appeared to have been rather a noteworthy personage
in the view of our ancestors. She had flourished during
a period between the early days of Massachusetts and
the close of the seventeenth century. Aged persons,
alive in the time of Mr. Surveyor Pue, and from whose
oral testimony he had made up his narrative, remembered
her, in their youth, as a very old, but not decrepit
woman, of a stately and solemn aspect. It had
been her habit, from an almost immemorial date, to go
about the country as a kind of voluntary nurse, and
doing whatever miscellaneous good she might; taking
upon herself, likewise, to give advice in all matters,
especially those of the heart; by which means, as a
person of such propensities inevitably must, she gained
from many people the reverence due to an angel, but,
I should imagine, was looked upon by others as an intruder
and a nuisance. Prying farther into the manuscript,
I found the record of other doings and sufferings
of this singular woman, for most of which the reader
is referred to the story entitled “The Scarlet Letter”;
and it should be borne carefully in mind, that the
main facts of that story are authorized and authenticated
by the document of Mr. Surveyor Pue. The original
papers, together with the scarlet letter itself,—a
most curious relic,—are still in my possession, and
shall be freely exhibited to whomsoever, induced by the


Page 39
great interest of the narrative, may desire a sight of
them. I must not be understood as affirming, that, in
the dressing up of the tale, and imagining the motives
and modes of passion that influenced the characters who
figure in it, I have invariably confined myself within
the limits of the old Surveyor's half a dozen sheets of
foolscap. On the contrary, I have allowed myself,
as to such points, nearly or altogether as much license
as if the facts had been entirely of my own invention.
What I contend for is the authenticity of the outline.

This incident recalled my mind, in some degree, to
its old track. There seemed to be here the groundwork
of a tale. It impressed me as if the ancient Surveyor,
in his garb of a hundred years gone by, and
wearing his immortal wig,—which was buried with
him, but did not perish in the grave,—had met me in
the deserted chamber of the Custom-House. In his
port was the dignity of one who had borne his Majesty's
commission, and who was therefore illuminated by a
ray of the splendor that shone so dazzlingly about the
throne. How unlike, alas! the hang-dog look of a
republican official, who, as the servant of the people,
feels himself less than the least, and below the lowest,
of his masters. With his own ghostly hand, the obscurely
seen, but majestic, figure had imparted to me
the scarlet symbol, and the little roll of explanatory
manuscript. With his own ghostly voice, he had exhorted
me, on the sacred consideration of my filial duty
and reverence towards him,—who might reasonably
regard himself as my official ancestor,—to bring his
mouldy and moth-eaten lucubrations before the public.


Page 40
“Do this,” said the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue, emphatically
nodding the head that looked so imposing
within its memorable wig, “do this, and the profit shall
be all your own! You will shortly need it; for it is
not in your days as it was in mine, when a man's office
was a life-lease, and oftentimes an heirloom. But, I
charge you, in this matter of old Mistress Prynne, give
to your predecessor's memory the credit which will be
rightfully its due!” And I said to the ghost of Mr.
Surveyor Pue,—“I will!”

On Hester Prynne's story, therefore, I bestowed
much thought. It was the subject of my meditations
for many an hour, while pacing to and fro across my
room, or traversing, with a hundredfold repetition, the
long extent from the front-door of the Custom-House
to the side-entrance, and back again. Great were the
weariness and annoyance of the old Inspector and the
Weighers and Gaugers, whose slumbers were disturbed
by the unmercifully lengthened tramp of my passing
and returning footsteps. Remembering their own former
habits, they used to say that the Surveyor was
walking the quarter-deck. They probably fancied that
my sole object—and, indeed, the sole object for which
a sane man could ever put himself into voluntary
motion—was, to get an appetite for dinner. And to
say the truth, an appetite, sharpened by the east-wind
that generally blew along the passage, was the only
valuable result of so much indefatigable exercise. So
little adapted is the atmosphere of a Custom-House to
the delicate harvest of fancy and sensibility, that, had I
remained there through ten Presidencies yet to come,


Page 41
I doubt whether the tale of “The Scarlet Letter”
would ever have been brought before the public eye.
My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not
reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the figures with
which I did my best to people it. The characters of
the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable,
by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual
forge. They would take neither the glow of passion
nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all
the rigidity of dead corpses, and stared me in the face
with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance.
“What have you to do with us?” that expression
seemed to say. “The little power you might once
have possessed over the tribe of unrealities is gone!
You have bartered it for a pittance of the public gold.
Go, then, and earn your wages!” In short, the
almost torpid creatures of my own fancy twitted me
with imbecility, and not without fair occasion.

It was not merely during the three hours and a half
which Uncle Sam claimed as his share of my daily
life, that this wretched numbness held possession of
me. It went with me on my sea-shore walks and rambles
into the country, whenever—which was seldom
and reluctantly—I bestirred myself to seek that invigorating
charm of Nature, which used to give me such
freshness and activity of thought, the moment that I stepped
across the threshold of the Old Manse. The same
torpor, as regarded the capacity for intellectual effort,
accompanied me home, and weighed upon me in the
chamber which I most absurdly termed my study. Nor
did it quit me, when, late at night, I sat in the deserted


Page 42
parlour, lighted only by the glimmering coal-fire and the
moon, striving to picture forth imaginary scenes, which,
the next day, might flow out on the brightening page in
many-hued description.

If the imaginative faculty refused to act at such an
hour, it might well be deemed a hopeless case. Moonlight,
in a familiar room, falling so white upon the
carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly,—making
every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a
morning or noontide visibility,—is a medium the most
suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his
illusive guests. There is the little domestic scenery of
the well-known apartment; the chairs, with each its
separate individuality; the centre-table, sustaining a
work-basket, a volume or two, and an extinguished
lamp; the sofa; the book-case; the picture on the
wall;—all these details, so completely seen, are so
spiritualized by the unusual light, that they seem to
lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect.
Nothing is too small or too trifling to undergo
this change, and acquire dignity thereby. A child's
shoe; the doll, seated in her little wicker carriage; the
hobby-horse;—whatever, in a word, has been used or
played with, during the day, is now invested with a
quality of strangeness and remoteness, though still
almost as vividly present as by daylight. Thus, therefore,
the floor of our familiar room has become a
neutral territory, somewhere between the real world
and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary
may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the
other. Ghosts might enter here, without affrighting us.


Page 43
It would be too much in keeping with the scene to
excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover
a form, beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in
a streak of this magic moonshine, with an aspect that
would make us doubt whether it had returned from
afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside.

The somewhat dim coal-fire has an essential influence
in producing the effect which I would describe.
It throws its unobtrusive tinge throughout the room,
with a faint ruddiness upon the walls and ceiling, and a
reflected gleam from the polish of the furniture. This
warmer light mingles itself with the cold spirituality of
the moonbeams, and communicates, as it were, a heart
and sensibilities of human tenderness to the forms
which fancy summons up. It converts them from
snow-images into men and women. Glancing at the
looking-glass, we behold—deep within its haunted
verge—the smouldering glow of the half-extinguished
anthracite, the white moonbeams on the floor, and a
repetition of all the gleam and shadow of the picture,
with one remove farther from the actual, and nearer to
the imaginative. Then, at such an hour, and with this
scene before him, if a man, sitting all alone, cannot
dream strange things, and make them look like truth,
he need never try to write romances.

But, for myself, during the whole of my Custom-House
experience, moonlight and sunshine, and the
glow of fire-light, were just alike in my regard; and
neither of them was of one whit more avail than the
twinkle of a tallow-candle. An entire class of susceptibilities,
and a gift connected with them,—of no great


Page 44
richness or value, but the best I had,—was gone from

It is my belief, however, that, had I attempted a different
order of composition, my faculties would not
have been found so pointless and inefficacious. I might,
for instance, have contented myself with writing out
the narratives of a veteran shipmaster, one of the
Inspectors, whom I should be most ungrateful not to
mention; since scarcely a day passed that he did not
stir me to laughter and admiration by his marvellous
gifts as a story-teller. Could I have preserved the
picturesque force of his style, and the humorous coloring
which nature taught him how to throw over his
descriptions, the result, I honestly believe, would have
been something new in literature. Or I might readily
have found a more serious task. It was a folly, with
the materiality of this daily life pressing so intrusively
upon me, to attempt to fling myself back into another
age; or to insist on creating the semblance of a world
out of airy matter, when, at every moment, the impalpable
beauty of my soap-bubble was broken by the
rude contact of some actual circumstance. The wiser
effort would have been, to diffuse thought and imagination
through the opaque substance of to-day, and thus
to make it a bright transparency; to spiritualize the
burden that began to weigh so heavily; to seek, resolutely,
the true and indestructible value that lay hidden
in the petty and wearisome incidents, and ordinary
characters, with which I was now conversant. The
fault was mine. The page of life that was spread out
before me seemed dull and commonplace, only because


Page 45
I had not fathomed its deeper import. A better
book than I shall ever write was there; leaf after leaf
presenting itself to me, just as it was written out by
the reality of the flitting hour, and vanishing as fast as
written, only because my brain wanted the insight and
my hand the cunning to transcribe it. At some future
day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered fragments
and broken paragraphs, and write them down,
and find the letters turn to gold upon the page.

These perceptions have come too late. At the instant,
I was only conscious that what would have been
a pleasure once was now a hopeless toil. There was
no occasion to make much moan about this state of
affairs. I had ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor
tales and essays, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor
of the Customs. That was all. But, nevertheless,
it is any thing but agreeable to be haunted by a
suspicion that one's intellect is dwindling away; or
exhaling, without your consciousness, like ether out of
a phial; so that, at every glance, you find a smaller
and less volatile residuum. Of the fact, there could
be no doubt; and, examining myself and others, I was
led to conclusions in reference to the effect of public
office on the character, not very favorable to the mode
of life in question. In some other form, perhaps, I
may hereafter develop these effects. Suffice it here
to say, that a Custom-House officer, of long continuance,
can hardly be a very praiseworthy or respectable
personage, for many reasons; one of them, the tenure
by which he holds his situation, and another, the very
nature of his business, which—though, I trust, an


Page 46
honest one—is of such a sort that he does not share in
the united effort of mankind.

An effect—which I believe to be observable, more
or less, in every individual who has occupied the position—is,
that, while he leans on the mighty arm of the
Republic, his own proper strength departs from him.
He loses, in an extent proportioned to the weakness or
force of his original nature, the capability of self-support.
If he possess an unusual share of native energy,
or the enervating magic of place do not operate too
long upon him, his forfeited powers may be redeemable.
The ejected officer—fortunate in the unkindly
shove that sends him forth betimes, to struggle amid a
struggling world—may return to himself, and become
all that he has ever been. But this seldom happens.
He usually keeps his ground just long enough for his
own ruin, and is then thrust out, with sinews all unstrung,
to totter along the difficult footpath of life as
he best may. Conscious of his own infirmity,—that
his tempered steel and elasticity are lost,—he for ever
afterwards looks wistfully about him in quest of support
external to himself. His pervading and continual hope
—a hallucination, which, in the face of all discouragement,
and making light of impossibilities, haunts him
while he lives, and, I fancy, like the convulsives throes
of the cholera, torments him for a brief space after
death—is, that, finally, and in no long time, by some
happy coincidence of circumstances, he shall be restored
to office. This faith, more than any thing else,
steals the pith and availability out of whatever enterprise
he may dream of undertaking. Why should he toil


Page 47
and moil, and be at so much trouble to pick himself
up out of the mud, when, in a little while hence, the
strong arm of his Uncle will raise and support him?
Why should he work for his living here, or go to dig
gold in California, when he is so soon to be made happy,
at monthly intervals, with a little pile of glittering
coin out of his Uncle's pocket? It is sadly curious to
observe how slight a taste of office suffices to infect a
poor fellow with this singular disease. Uncle Sam's
gold—meaning no disrespect to the worthy old gentleman—has,
in this respect, a quality of enchantment
like that of the Devil's wages. Whoever touches it
should look well to himself, or he may find the bargain
to go hard against him, involving, if not his soul, yet
many of its better attributes; its sturdy force, its courage
and constancy, its truth, its self-reliance, and all
that gives the emphasis to manly character.

Here was a fine prospect in the distance! Not that
the Surveyor brought the lesson home to himself, or
admitted that he could be so utterly undone, either by
continuance in office, or ejectment. Yet my reflections
were not the most comfortable. I began to grow melancholy
and restless; continually prying into my mind,
to discover which of its poor properties were gone, and
what degree of detriment had already accured to the
remainder. I endeavoured to calculate how much longer
I could stay in the Custom-House, and yet go forth
a man. To confess the truth, it was my greatest apprehension,—at
it would never be a measure of policy to
turn out so quiet an individual as myself, and it being
hardly in the nature of a public officer to resign,—it


Page 48
was my chief trouble, therefore, that I was likely to
grow gray and decrepit in the Surveyorship, and become
much such another animal as the old Inspector.
Might it not, in the tedious lapse of official life that lay
before me, finally be with me as it was with this venerable
friend,—to make the dinner-hour the nucleus
of the day, and to spend the rest of it, as an old dog
spends it, asleep in the sunshine or the shade? A
dreary look-forward this, for a man who felt it to be
the best definition of happiness to live throughout the
whole range of his faculties and sensibilities! But, all
this while, I was giving myself very unnecessary alarm.
Providence had meditated better things for me than I
could possibly imagine for myself.

A remarkable event of the third year of my Surveyorship—to
adopt the tone of “P. P.”—was the election
of General Taylor to the Presidency. It is essential,
in order to a complete estimate of the advantages
of official life, to view the incumbent at the in-coming
of a hostile administration. His position is then one of
the most singularly irksome, and, in every contingency,
disagreeable, that a wretched mortal can possibly occupy;
with seldom an alternative of good, on either hand,
although what presents itself to him as the worst event
may very probably be the best. But it is a strange experience,
to a man of pride and sensibility, to know
that his interests are within the control of individuals
who neither love nor understand him, and by whom,
since one or the other must needs happen, he would
rather be injured than obliged. Strange, too, for one
who has kept his calmness throughout the contest, to


Page 49
observe the bloodthirstiness that is developed in the
hour of triumph, and to be conscious that he is himself
among its objects! There are few uglier traits of human
nature than this tendency—which I now witnessed
in men no worse than their neighbours—to grow cruel,
merely because they possessed the power of inflicting
harm. If the guillotine, as applied to office-holders,
were a literal fact, instead of one of the most apt of
metaphors, it is my sincere belief, that the active members
of the victorious party were sufficiently excited to
have chopped off all our heads, and have thanked
Heaven for the opportunity! It appears to me—who
have been a calm and curious observer, as well in victory
as defeat—that this fierce and bitter spirit of
malice and revenge has never distinguished the many
triumphs of my own party as it now did that of the
Whigs. The Democrats take the offices, as a general
rule, because they need them, and because the practice
of many years has made it the law of political warfare,
which, unless a different system be proclaimed, it were
weakness and cowardice to murmur at. But the long
habit of victory has made them generous. They know
how to spare, when they see occasion; and when they
strike, the axe may be sharp, indeed, but its edge is
seldom poisoned with ill-will; nor is it their custom
ignominiously to kick the head which they have just
struck off.

In short, unpleasant as was my predicament, at best,
I saw much reason to congratulate myself that I was on
the losing side, rather than the triumphant one. If,
heretofore, I had been none of the warmest of partisans,


Page 50
I began now, at this season of peril and adversity,
to be pretty acutely sensible with which party my predilections
lay; nor was it without something like regret
and shame, that, according to a reasonable calculation
of chances, I saw my own prospect of retaining office
to be better than those of my Democratic brethren.
But who can see an inch into futurity, beyond his
nose? My own head was the first that fell!

The moment when a man's head drops off is seldom
or never, I am inclined to think, precisely the most
agreeable of his life. Nevertheless, like the greater
part of our misfortunes, even so serious a contingency
brings its remedy and consolation with it, if the sufferer
will but make the best, rather than the worst, of the
accident which has befallen him. In my particular
case, the consolatory topics were close at hand, and,
indeed, had suggested themselves to my meditations a
considerable time before it was requisite to use them.
In view of my previous weariness of office, and vague
thoughts of resignation, my fortune somewhat resembled
that of a person who should entertain an idea of
committing suicide, and, altogether beyond his hopes,
meet with the good hap to be murdered. In the Custom-House,
as before in the Old Manse, I had spent
three years; a term long enough to rest a weary brain;
long enough to break off old intellectual habits, and
make room for new ones; long enough, and too long,
to have lived in an unnatural state, doing what was
really of no advantage nor delight to any human being,
and withholding myself from toil that would, at least,
have stilled an unquiet impulse in me. Then, moreover,


Page 51
as regarded his unceremonious ejectment, the late
Surveyor was not altogether ill-pleased to be recognized
by the Whigs as an enemy; since his inactivity in
political affairs,—his tendency to roam, at will, in that
broad and quiet field where all mankind may meet,
rather than confine himself to those narrow paths
where brethren of the same household must diverge
from one another,—had sometimes made it questionable
with his brother Democrats whether he was a
friend. Now, after he had won the crown of martyrdom,
(though with no longer a head to wear it on,) the
point might be looked upon as settled. Finally, little
heroic as he was, it seemed more decorous to be overthrown
in the downfall of the party with which he had
been content to stand, than to remain a forlorn survivor,
when so many worthier men were falling; and, at last,
after subsisting for four years on the mercy of a hostile
administration, to be compelled then to define his position
anew, and claim the yet more humiliating mercy
of a friendly one.

Meanwhile, the press had taken up my affair, and
kept me, for a week or two, careering through the public
prints, in my decapitated state, like Irving's Headless
Horseman; ghastly and grim, and longing to be
buried, as a politically dead man ought. So much for
my figurative self. The real human being, all this
time, with his head safely on his shoulders, had brought
himself to the comfortable conclusion, that every thing
was for the best; and, making an investment in ink,
paper, and steel-pens, had opened his long-disused
writing-desk, and was again a literary man.


Page 52

Now it was, that the lucubrations of my ancient predecessor,
Mr. Surveyor Pue, came into play. Rusty
through long idleness, some little space was requisite
before my intellectual machinery could be brought to
work upon the tale, with an effect in any degree satisfactory.
Even yet, though my thoughts were ultimately
much absorbed in the task, it wears, to my eye,
a stern and sombre aspect; too much ungladdened by
genial sunshine; too little relieved by the tender and
familiar influences which soften almost every scene of
nature and real life, and, undoubtedly, should soften
every picture of them. This uncaptivating effect is
perhaps due to the period of hardly accomplished
revolution, and still seething turmoil, in which the story
shaped itself. It is no indication, however, of a lack
of cheerfulness in the writer's mind; for he was happier,
while straying through the gloom of these sunless
fantasies, than at any time since he had quitted the Old
Manse. Some of the briefer articles, which contribute
to make up the volume, have likewise been written
since my involuntary withdrawal from the toils and
honors of public life, and the remainder are gleaned
from annuals and magazines, of such antique date that
they have gone round the circle, and come back to
novelty again.[1] Keeping up the metaphor of the political
guillotine, the whole may be considered as the
Posthumous Papers of a Decapitated Surveyor;


Page 53
and the sketch which I am now bringing to a close, if
too autobiographical for a modest person to publish in
his lifetime, will readily be excused in a gentleman who
writes from beyond the grave. Peace be with all the
world! My blessing on my friends! My forgiveness
to my enemies! For I am in the realm of quiet!

The life of the Custom-House lies like a dream behind
me. The old Inspector,—who, by the by, I regret to
say, was overthrown and killed by a horse, some time
ago; else he would certainly have lived for ever,—he,
and all those other venerable personages who sat with
him at the receipt of custom, are but shadows in my
view; white-headed and wrinkled images, which my
fancy used to sport with, and has now flung aside for
ever. The merchants,—Pingree, Phillips, Shepard, Upton,
Kimball, Bertram, Hunt,—these, and many other
names, which had such a classic familiarity for my ear
six months ago,—these men of traffic, who seemed to
occupy so important a position in the world,—how little
time has it required to disconnect me from them all, not
merely in act, but recollection! It is with an effort
that I recall the figures and appellations of these few.
Soon, likewise, my old native town will loom upon me
through the haze of memory, a mist brooding over and
around it; as if it were no portion of the real earth,
but an overgrown village in cloud-land, with only imaginary
inhabitants to people its wooden houses, and
walk its homely lanes, and the unpicturesque prolixity
of its main street. Henceforth, it ceases to be a
reality of my life. I am a citizen of somewhere else.
My good townspeople will not much regret me; for


Page 54
—though it has been as dear an object as any, in my
literary efforts, to be of some importance in their eyes,
and to win myself a pleasant memory in this abode
and burial-place of so many of my forefathers—there
has never been, for me, the genial atmosphere which a
literary man requires, in order to ripen the best harvest
of his mind. I shall do better amongst other faces;
and these familiar ones, it need hardly be said, will do
just as well without me.

It may be, however,—O, transporting and triumphant
thought!—that the great-grandchildren of the
present race may sometimes think kindly of the scribbler
of bygone days, when the antiquary of days to
come, among the sites memorable in the town's history,
shall point out the locality of The Town-Pump!


At the time of writing this article, the author intended to
publish, along with “The Scarlet Letter,” several shorter tales
and sketches. These it has been thought advisable to defer.