The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

  The Custom House Introductory to The Scarlet Letter

page The Custom House: Introductory to The Scarlet Letter: Page 8

Original Text

Modern Text

To observe and define his character, however, under such disadvantages, was as difficult a task as to trace out and build up anew, in imagination, an old fortress, like Ticonderoga, from a view of its gray and broken ruins. Here and there, perchance, the walls may remain almost complete; but elsewhere may be only a shapeless mound, cumbrous with its very strength, and overgrown, through long years of peace and neglect, with grass and alien weeds. In that condition, however, observing and defining his character was as difficult as trying to plan and rebuild a fortress by looking at its gray and broken ruins. A wall might stand here and there, but elsewhere only a shapeless mound remained, overgrown with grass and weeds after long years of peace and neglect.
Nevertheless, looking at the old warrior with affection,—for, slight as was the communication between us, my feeling towards him, like that of all bipeds and quadrupeds who knew him, might not improperly be termed so,— I could discern the main points of his portrait. It was marked with the noble and heroic qualities which showed it to be not by a mere accident, but of good right, that he had won a distinguished name. His spirit could never, I conceive, have been characterized by an uneasy activity; it must, at any period of his life, have required an impulse to set him in motion; but, once stirred up, with obstacles to overcome, and an adequate object to be attained, it was not in the man to give out or fail. The heat that had formerly pervaded his nature, and which was not yet extinct, was never of the kind that flashes and flickers in a blaze, but, rather, a deep, red glow, as of iron in a furnace. Weight, solidity, firmness; this was the expression of his repose, even in such decay as had crept untimely over him, at the period of which I speak. But I could imagine, even then, that, under some excitement which should go deeply into his consciousness,—roused by a trumpet-peal, loud enough to awaken all of his energies that were not dead, but only slumbering,—he was yet capable of flinging off his infirmities like a sick man’s gown, dropping the staff of age to seize a battle-sword, and starting up once more a warrior. And, in so intense a moment, his demeanour would have still been calm. Such an exhibition, however, was but to be pictured in fancy; not to be anticipated, nor desired. What I saw in him—as evidently as the indestructible ramparts of Old Ticonderoga, already cited as the most appropriate simile—were the features of stubborn and ponderous endurance, which might well have amounted to obstinacy in his earlier days; of integrity, that, like most of his other endowments, lay in a somewhat heavy mass, and was just as unmalleable and unmanageable as a ton of iron ore; and of benevolence, which, fiercely, as he led the bayonets on at Chippewa or Fort Erie, I take to be of quite as genuine a stamp as what actuates any or all the polemical philanthropists of the age. He had slain men with his own hand, for aught I know;—certainly, they had fallen, like blades of grass at the sweep of the scythe, before the charge to which his spirit imparted its triumphant energy;—but, be that as it might, there was never in his heart so much cruelty as would have brushed the down off a butterfly’s wing. I have not known the man, to whose innate kindliness I would more confidently make an appeal. I looked at the old warrior with affection. We hadn’t talked much, but like all the men and animals who knew him, it’s fair to say I felt affectionate about him. And through these kind eyes, I could see the main points of his portrait. His noble and heroic qualities showed that his reputation was well deserved. I can’t imagine that he was ever restless. It must have taken a certain impulse to set him in motion. Once he was stirred up, though, and had obstacles to overcome and a worthy goal, it wasn’t in the man to quit or fail. Heat had once defined him, and wasn’t extinct yet. That heat was never the kind that flashes and flickers; rather, it was a deep red glow, like iron in a furnace. Old as he was when I met him, the man still exuded weight, solidity, and firmness. I could imagine that even at his age he could throw off his infirmities like a hospital gown and become a warrior once more, if the moment called for it. And even then he would have kept his calm demeanor. Such a moment, however, was only to be imagined, not expected or even desired. What I saw in the General—who was like a wall that remains standing in a ruin—was endurance, which might well have been stubborn hard-headedness in his younger days; integrity, which was so heavy it was as immovable as a ton of iron; and benevolence, which, though he’d led bayonet charges, was as genuine as an philanthropist’s. He may have killed men with his own hands for all I know, and he certainly killed them with his troops, but there wasn’t enough cruelty in his heart to brush the down off a butterfly’s wing. I have not met a kinder man.
Many characteristics—and those, too, which contribute not the least forcibly to impart resemblance in a sketch—must have vanished, or been obscured, before I met the General. All merely graceful attributes are usually the most evanescent; nor does Nature adorn the human ruin with blossoms of new beauty, that have their roots and proper nutriment only in the chinks and crevices of decay, as she sows wall-flowers over the ruined fortress of Ticonderoga. Still, even in respect of grace and beauty, there were points well worth noting. A ray of humor, now and then, would make its way through the veil of dim obstruction, and glimmer pleasantly upon our faces. A trait of native elegance, seldom seen in the masculine character after childhood or early youth, was shown in the General’s fondness for the sight and fragrance of flowers. An old soldier might be supposed to prize only the bloody laurel on his brow; but here was one, who seemed to have a young girl’s appreciation of the floral tribe. Yet many of the General’s character traits must have faded or vanished entirely before I met him. Our most graceful attributes are often the most fleeting, and nature doesn’t decorate decaying men with wildflowers like the ones that bloom on ruined fortresses. Even so, the General had some grace and beauty worth noting. A ray of humor would come from him now and then, and glimmer pleasantly on our faces. His fondness for the sight and smell of flowers revealed an elegance rarely seen in young men. An old soldier might be expected to think only of the glories he won in battle, but here was one who loved flowers as much as any young girl.
There, beside the fireplace, the brave old General used to sit; the Surveyor—though seldom, when it could be avoided, taking upon himself the difficult task of engaging him in conversation—was fond of standing at a distance, and watching his quiet and almost slumberous countenance. He seemed away from us, although we saw him but a few yards off; remote, though we passed close beside his chair; unattainable, though we might have stretched forth our hands and touched his own. It might be, that he lived a more real life within his thoughts, than amid the unappropriate environment of the Collector’s office. The evolutions of the parade; the tumult of the battle; the flourish of old, heroic music, heard thirty years before;—such scenes and sounds, perhaps, were all alive before his intellectual sense. Meanwhile, the merchants and ship-masters, the spruce clerks, and uncouth sailors, entered and departed; the bustle of this commercial and Custom-House life kept up its little murmur round about him; and neither with the men nor their affairs did the General appear to sustain the most distant relation. He was as much out of place as an old sword—now rusty, but which had flashed once in the battle’s front, and showed still a bright gleam along its blade—would have been, among the inkstands, paper-folders, and mahogany rulers, on the Deputy Collector’s desk. There, beside the fireplace, the brave old General used to sit, while the Surveyor would stand at a distance, without starting a conversation, watching his quiet, sleepy face. The General seemed far away, even though he was just a few yards off. We could have reached out and touched him, but still he seemed unattainable. Maybe his own thoughts were more real to him than the Custom House. Perhaps military parades, battles, and heroic music were still alive to him. Meanwhile, the merchants and ship masters, the young aides and foul-mouthed sailors, came and went. The Custom House bustled around the General, and he barely seemed to notice. He was as out of place as a rusty old sword, which had once flashed in battle and still gleamed slightly, would have been among the papers, file folders, and rulers on the Deputy Collector’s desk.