The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

  The Custom House Introductory to The Scarlet Letter

page The Custom House: Introductory to The Scarlet Letter: Page 11

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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 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 rank. In the second story of the Custom House there is a large room, in which the brickwork and naked rafters have never been covered with paneling and plaster. The building, which was built for boom times, and with the expectation that business would only grow, contains far more space than its occupants can use. So this room over the apartment of the Collector has never been finished. Although there are cobwebs festooning the beams, it looks like it’s still waiting for attention from the carpenter and the plasterer. At one end of the room, in an alcove, were a number of barrels piled on each other, filled with bundles of official documents. A lot of other trash was on the floor. It was sad to think how many days, and weeks, and months, and years of work had been wasted on those musty papers, which were now just a burden, hidden away in this corner, where no one would ever see them again. But then again, so many manuscripts filled with the thoughts of clever minds and the feelings of deep hearts have met the same fate as these official documents and without earning their writers the comfortable living Custom House officials had made with their worthless scribblings. And maybe the official documents weren’t even worthless. If nothing else, they preserved valuable local history: commerce statistics from the old days of Salem, memories of the merchants who did business then, whose heirs wasted the fortunes they had accumulated. There was family history in those papers too: records of the plain beginnings of Salem’s “aristocracy” in the days long before the Revolution.
Prior to the Revolution, there is a dearth of records; the earlier documents and archives of the Custom-House 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. Few records survive from before the Revolution. Those older documents were probably carried off by the British army when it retreated from Boston to Halifax. I have often regretted that. Those papers, some going back as far as the English Revolution, more than a hundred years before our own, must have contained references to forgotten men and obscure customs that would have given me the same pleasure I used to get from picking up Indian arrowheads in the field by my house.
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 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) 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 itself. But one lazy, rainy day I made a discovery of some interest. I was poking around in the piles of rubbish and unfolding one document after another, reading the names of ships that had rotted or sunk long ago and the names of merchants gone to their graves. I glanced at those papers with the saddened, weary interest with which we study dry history. I used my rusty imagination to call up old Salem in happier days, when India was newly discovered and only Salem ships could sail there. I happened to place my hand on a small package, carefully wrapped in a piece of ancient yellow parchment. The envelope seemed like an official record of a period long past, when everyone used better paper. Something about the package made me curious. I untied the faded red tape with the sense that a treasure was about to come to light. Raising the rigid fold of the parchment cover, I found it to be a commission signed by Governor Shirley, naming Jonathan Pine as Surveyor of His Majesty’s Customs for the Port of Salem, in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. I remembered reading in some old book a notice of the death of Mr. Surveyor Pine, about eighty years ago. I’d recently seen in the newspaper that his remains had been dug up when they renovated St. Peter’s Church. Nothing remained but his skeleton, some bits of fabric, and a majestic wig, which, unlike the head on which it rested, was very well preserved. Examining the papers that were wrapped in this commission, I found more traces of Mr. Pine’s brain and its workings than even his grave now contained.