The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

  The Custom House Introductory to The Scarlet Letter

page The Custom House: Introductory to The Scarlet Letter: Page 12

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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 of no public concern, was left behind, and had remained ever since unopened. These were not official documents. They were his private thoughts, written in his own hand. Maybe they were among all this junk because Mr. Pine’s death had happened suddenly, and these papers, which he probably kept in his official desk, had not been discovered by his heirs or else were thought to be Custom House papers. When the British carried everything off to Halifax, this package, being of no public concern, was left behind. It had not been opened since.
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. I guess there wasn’t much business in those days, and old Mr. Pine must have filled the hours by researching local history. The research kept his mind from rusting. I used some of his research for a story entitled “Main Street,” included here. The rest I may use for other purposes, or perhaps as the basis for a history of Salem, if my fondness for my birthplace ever makes me so inclined. In the meantime, it will be available to anyone with the desire and the ability to take on that task. I imagine I’ll leave the papers to the Essex Historical Society in the end. But what most drew my attention to the mysterious package was a piece of fine red cloth, now worn and faded. There were hints of gold embroidery on it, but almost none of the glitter was left. It had been made with wonderfully skilled needlework: Women who would know say the stitches are evidence of a forgotten art. When I examined this rag of scarlet cloth (for time and moths had reduced it to that state), it took the shape of a letter.
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, 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. It was the capital letter A. Each side was exactly three and a quarter inches long. It was clearly meant as a piece of decorative clothing, but how it was worn and what honor it signified was a riddle I had little hope of solving, since fashions chance so quickly. And yet it interested me. My eyes locked onto the old scarlet letter and could not turn away. Surely there was some deep meaning in it, worthy of interpretation. I was sure that meaning streamed from the mystic symbol, speaking to my senses but escaping 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. Perplexed, and thinking that the letter might have been a decoration that white men used to distract the Indians, I placed the scarlet letter on my breast. I seemed to feel—you may smile, but do not doubt my word—I seemed to feel a burning heat, as though the letter were made of red-hot iron and not red cloth. I shuddered and involuntarily let it fall to 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 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 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. Absorbed in the scarlet letter, I hadn’t noticed a small roll of dingy paper. The letter had been twisted around it. I opened the roll. To my satisfaction, I found that it was an almost complete explanation of the whole affair, written with the old Surveyor’s pen. There were several sheets with many details about the life and sayings of a Hester Prynne. She seemed to have been a notable person who lived in the mid to late 1600s. Old men and women who were alive in the time of Mr. Surveyor Pine told him that they remembered Hester Prynne from their youth. They recalled her as very old, but in good health, with a stately and serious appearance. For as long as almost anyone could remember, she had gone around the countryside as a sort of volunteer nurse. She did whatever good she could and gave advice freely, especially in matters of the heart. Some looked on her as an angel, but I’m sure others considered her a busybody and a nuisance. Reading this manuscript further, I found a record of other deeds and sorrows of this exceptional woman. You can read about them in the story The Scarlet Letter. Bear in mind that the main facts of the story are attested to by the document of Mr. Surveyor Pine. I still have the original papers, along with the scarlet letter itself. I would be glad to show them to anyone who would like to see. You must not think that in dressing up the tale, and imagining the motives and the passions of the people in it, I have limited myself to what is written on those six sheets. On the contrary, I have allowed myself as much imaginative license as if I had made up the whole thing. But the outline of the story is true.