The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

  The Custom House Introductory to The Scarlet Letter

page The Custom House: Introductory to The Scarlet Letter: Page 6

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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 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. It would be unfair, you must understand, to suggest that all of my officers were senile. For starters, they weren’t all old. Some were in their prime, skillful and energetic, and much better than the sluggish jobs they’d been cursed with. And sometimes white hair covered a brain that worked well. But most of them were wearying old souls who had gained little of value from their wide experience. In terms of wisdom, they’d thrown out the baby and kept the bathwater. They spoke with far more interest about today’s breakfast, or yesterday’s, today’s, or tomorrow’s dinner than about the shipwrecks and wonders their youthful eyes had seen.
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. 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 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. The father figure of the Custom House (indeed, of Custom Houses throughout the United States) was a certain permanent Inspector. You could say he was dyed in the wool, or maybe born in royal purple. In the early days of the country, this man’s father, a colonel in the Revolutionary War and former custom-collector in Salem, created an office for his son. When I first met this Inspector, he was eighty years old, and one of the most vital specimens you could ever hope to meet. With his rosy cheeks, compact body, blue coat with bright buttons, quick step, and hearty appearance, he looked—not young, exactly—but like some new creation of Mother Nature’s: a man-like creature whom age and illness couldn’t touch. His voice and laugh, which always echoed in the Custom House, didn’t quaver like an old man’s; they strutted like the crow of a rooster or the blast of a trumpet. He was a remarkable animal: healthy, wholesome, and still capable of enjoying nearly all of life’s pleasures. His carefree job security and regular paycheck, marred only by slight and passing fears of being fired, had made time kind to him. The original cause of his wonderful state, though, was in his animal nature, his modest intellect, and the smallness of his moral and spiritual awareness. Indeed, he had barely enough mind and soul to keep him from walking on all fours. He had no power of thought, no deep feelings, no real emotion. Really, instead of a heart, he had nothing but a few common instincts and the cheerfulness that comes from good health. He had married three women, all long dead, and fathered twenty children, many of whom were dead too. You’d think so much death would darken even the sunniest temperament. But not so with our old Inspector. One brief sigh took care of all his sad memories. The next minute he was as ready to play as any boy, far readier even than his assistant, who at nineteen years was by far the older and more serious man.
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. I used to watch and study this father figure with greater curiosity than any other specimen of humanity I met. He was a rare phenomenon: so perfect in some ways, so shallow and deluded and blank in others. I concluded that he had no soul at all, no heart, no mind, nothing but instincts. Yet the few bits of his character had been assembled so cleverly that there were no obvious gaps. Indeed, I found him entirely satisfactory. It was hard to imagine him in the afterlife, since he was so earthly, but even if his life were to end with his final breath, it was not unkindly granted. The man had no more moral responsibilities than animals do, but he enjoyed profounder pleasures, and he had their immunity from the dreariness of old age.