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The Scarlet Letter

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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 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 alertness of the Yankee aspect, but contributing an item of no slight importance to our decaying trade. The streets around this building—which I might as well say now is the Custom House of the port—have grass growing in their cracks, which shows how slow business has been. Some months, though, we’ll happen to have a busier morning. Such occasions might remind older citizens of the time before the War of 1812, when Salem was a thriving port—not scorned, as it is now, by its own merchants and ship owners, who let Salem crumble while they send their business to Boston and New York, who don’t need or notice it. On one of those rare busy mornings, when three or four boats were coming or going to Africa or South America, you can hear many people walking briskly up and down the granite steps of the Custom House. Before he’s seen his own wife, the sea-flushed ship’s captain comes here, newly arrived to port, holding his ship’s papers in a tarnished tin box under one arm. The ship’s owner is here, too. He’s cheerful, somber, gracious, or sulking, depending on whether his new merchandise will sell or will be impossible to get rid of. And here is a fresh young clerk, the seed of the wrinkled, grizzled, tired merchant he’ll become. He gets a taste for traffic like a wolf-cub gets a taste for blood. He’s already sending out merchandise of his own in his master’s ships, at an age when he should be sailing toy ships on a pond. Another figure on the scene is the outward-bound sailor, seeking proof of American citizenship. Or the recently arrived sailor, pale and feeble, requesting papers to visit the hospital. And we can’t forget the captains of the rusty little schooners hauling firewood: they’re a rough-looking bunch of tarps, but important 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. Group all of these people together, as they sometimes were, and throw in a few random others, and it makes the Custom House into quite a scene. More often, however, as you climbed the staircase you would notice venerable men sitting in old-fashioned chairs, which were tipped on their hind legs back against the wall. In the summer these men were in the entry; in wintry or bad weather, in their offices. They were often asleep, but sometimes you could hear them talking together in a half-snore, with that lack of energy characteristic of beggars, or people who live on charity, or anything other than their own work. These old men sat like the apostle Matthew when he collected taxes, though they were far less likely to be called off on a holy mission. They 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 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. On the left-hand side as you walk in the front door is an office, fifteen feet square and very tall. Two of its arched windows overlook the run-down wharf, and the third looks out on a narrow lane and part of Derby Street. All three windows give glimpses of shops: grocers, block-makers, slop-sellers, and ship-chandlers. Old sailors and other wharf-rats can be seen laughing and gossiping outside these stores. The room itself is cobwebbed and dingy with old paint; its floor is covered in gray sand, in a fashion that’s out of style everywhere else. It’s easy to tell that women, with their magic brooms and mops, haven’t had much access to the room. The furniture includes a stove with a large funnel, an old pine desk with a three-legged stool beside it, two or three beat-up wooden chairs, and a few dozen volumes of the Acts of Congress. A tin pipe rises through the ceiling, allowing communication with other parts of the building. Six months ago, you might have found me here, pacing from corner to corner or lounging on the long-legged stool with my elbow on the desk, skimming the morning paper—the same person who welcomed you into his cheery study, where the sunshine glimmers pleasantly through the willow branches on the western side of the Old Manse. But no more. The political tides washed me out of office, and a worthier man enjoys my old dignity and salary.

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