The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

  The Custom House Introductory to The Scarlet Letter

page The Custom House: Introductory to The Scarlet Letter: Page 7

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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 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 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 handsaw. One great advantage the Inspector had over animals was his ability to remember good dinners, which had given his life so much happiness. His love of food was a wonderful trait: To hear him talk of roast meat made me as hungry as eating an appetizer. Since he had no higher sensibilities, he didn’t sacrifice any spirituality by devoting all his energy to pleasing his mouth. Because I didn’t have to worry about his nonexistent soul, I always enjoyed listening to him talk about fish, poultry, and meat and how best to cook them. When he described a feast, no matter how long ago he had enjoyed it, it was like the smell of the pig or turkey was right under your nose. He could taste flavors that hit his palate sixty or seventy years ago as clearly as the meat he’d just devoured for breakfast. I have heard him smack his lips remembering dinner parties, every guest at which (besides him) has been worm food for years. It was amazing to see how the ghosts of long-ago meals were always rising up before him—not in anger or blame, but as if they were grateful for the appreciation. It was as if the ghosts wanted to recreate old pleasures. The piece of beef, veal, pork, chicken, or turkey he might have eaten when John Adams was president are all remembered to this day. Not so all the history he’s seen, nor the successes and failures of his career. Those have affected him as little as a passing breeze. As far as I can tell, the most tragic event of the old man’s life was a mishap with a certain goose, which lived and died twenty or forty years ago. The bird looked quite delicious but turned out to be so tough that the carving knife couldn’t cut it, and it had to be tackled with an axe and a saw.
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. But it is time to abandon this sketch of the Inspector, though I would be glad to dwell on it a lot longer, since of all the men I have known, he was the best suited to being a Custom House officer. Most people, for reasons I may not have the space to explain, are morally weakened by this job. But the old Inspector was incapable of being corrupted, since there was nothing in him to corrupt. Had he remained at the Custom House until the end of time, he would emerge just as good as when he went in, 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. There’s one portrait my Custom House gallery would be incomplete without. I haven’t had many opportunities to observe the subject, though, so I can only sketch a little outline. The portrait is of the Collector, gallant old General Miller. After brilliant military service, after which he ruled a Western territory, the General came to Salem twenty years ago to live out his last decades.
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 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. The brave soldier was nearly seventy years old when I met him, and was burdened with illnesses even his stirring military recollections could not lessen. His once-commanding step had grown weak. He needed a servant’s assistance and the iron railing just to slowly, painfully climb the Custom House stairs and reach his chair beside the fireplace. He would sit there, gazing with a dim calm at the people who came and went. The rustle of paper, the oaths, and the chitchat of the office didn’t make an impression on him. His face was mild and kind. If someone spoke to him, his face would light up with courtesy and attention: His mind remained sharp though his senses had dulled. The more you learned of his mind, the sounder it appeared. When he wasn’t speaking or listening—and it took some physical effort for him to do either—his face would return to its former calmness. He wasn’t hard to look at: Though he had dimmed, he wasn’t losing his mind. And his physical frame, once so strong and massive, was not yet entirely ruined.