The Scarlet Letter

Part 1 out of 5


by Nathaniel Hawthorne


Nathaniel Hawthorne was already a man of forty-six, and a tale
writer of some twenty-four years' standing, when "The Scarlet
Letter" appeared. He was born at Salem, Mass., on July 4th, 1804,
son of a sea-captain. He led there a shy and rather sombre life;
of few artistic encouragements, yet not wholly uncongenial, his
moody, intensely meditative temperament being considered. Its
colours and shadows are marvelously reflected in his "Twice-Told
Tales" and other short stories, the product of his first literary
period. Even his college days at Bowdoin did not quite break
through his acquired and inherited reserve; but beneath it all,
his faculty of divining men and women was exercised with almost
uncanny prescience and subtlety. "The Scarlet Letter," which
explains as much of this unique imaginative art, as is to be
gathered from reading his highest single achievement, yet needs
to be ranged with his other writings, early and late, to have its
last effect. In the year that saw it published, he began "The
House of the Seven Gables," a later romance or prose-tragedy of
the Puritan-American community as he had himself known it -
defrauded of art and the joy of life, "starving for symbols" as
Emerson has it. Nathaniel Hawthorne died at Plymouth, New
Hampshire, on May 18th, 1864.

The following is the table of his romances,
stories, and other works:

Fanshawe, published anonymously, 1826; Twice-Told Tales, 1st
Series, 1837; 2nd Series, 1842; Grandfather's Chair, a history
for youth, 1845: Famous Old People (Grandfather's Chair), 1841
Liberty Tree: with the last words of Grandfather's Chair, 1842;
Biographical Stories for Children, 1842; Mosses from an Old
Manse, 1846; The Scarlet Letter, 1850; The House of the Seven
Gables, 1851: True Stories from History and Biography (the whole
History of Grandfather's Chair), 1851 A Wonder Book for Girls and
Boys, 1851; The Snow Image and other Tales, 1851: The Blithedale
Romance, 1852; Life of Franklin Pierce, 1852; Tanglewood Tales
(2nd Series of the Wonder Book), 1853; A Rill from the Town-Pump,
with remarks, by Telba, 1857; The Marble Faun; or, The Romance of
Monte Beni (4 EDITOR'S NOTE) (published in England under the
title of "Transformation"), 1860, Our Old Home, 1863; Dolliver
Romance (1st Part in "Atlantic Monthly"), 1864; in 3 Parts, 1876;
Pansie, a fragment, Hawthorne' last literary effort, 1864;
American Note-Books, 1868; English Note Books, edited by Sophia
Hawthorne, 1870; French and Italian Note Books, 1871; Septimius
Felton; or, the Elixir of Life (from the "Atlantic Monthly"),
1872; Doctor Grimshawe's Secret, with Preface and Notes by
Julian Hawthorne, 1882.

Tales of the White Hills, Legends of New England, Legends of the
Province House, 1877, contain tales which had already been
printed in book form in "Twice-Told Tales" and the "Mosses"
"Sketched and Studies," 1883.

Hawthorne's contributions to magazines were numerous, and most of
his tales appeared first in periodicals, chiefly in "The Token,"
1831-1838, "New England Magazine," 1834,1835; "Knickerbocker,"
1837-1839; "Democratic Review," 1838-1846; "Atlantic Monthly,"
1860-1872 (scenes from the Dolliver Romance, Septimius Felton,
and passages from Hawthorne's Note-Books).

Works: in 24 volumes, 1879; in 12 volumes, with introductory
notes by Lathrop, Riverside Edition, 1883.

Biography, etc. ; A. H. Japp (pseud. H. A. Page), Memoir of N.
Hawthorne, 1872; J. T. Field's "Yesterdays with Authors," 1873 G.
P. Lathrop, "A Study of Hawthorne," 1876; Henry James English Men
of Letters, 1879; Julian Hawthorne, "Nathaniel Hawthorne and his
wife," 1885; Moncure D. Conway, Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne,
1891; Analytical Index of Hawthorne's Works, by E. M. O'Connor





























It is a little remarkable, that--though disinclined to talk
overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my
personal friends--an autobiographical impulse should twice in
my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public.
The first time was three or four years since, when I favoured the
reader--inexcusably, and for no earthly reason that either the
indulgent reader or the intrusive author could imagine--with a
description of my way of life in the deep quietude of an Old
Manse. And now--because, beyond my deserts, I was happy enough
to find a listener or two on the former occasion--I again seize
the public by the button, and talk of my three years' experience
in a Custom-House. The example of the famous "P. P. , Clerk of
this Parish," was never more faithfully followed. The truth
seems to be, however, that when he casts his leaves forth upon
the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside
his volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand
him better than most of his schoolmates or lifemates. Some
authors, indeed, do far more than this, and indulge themselves in
such confidential depths of revelation as could fittingly be
addressed only and exclusively to the one heart and
mind of perfect sympathy; as if the printed book, thrown at large
on the wide world, were certain to find out the divided segment
of the writer's own nature, and complete his circle of existence
by bringing him into communion with it. It is scarcely decorous,
however, to speak all, even where we speak impersonally. But, as
thoughts are frozen and utterance benumbed, unless the speaker
stand in some true relation with his audience, it may be
pardonable to imagine that a friend, a kind and apprehensive,
though not the closest friend, is listening to our talk; and
then, a native reserve being thawed by this genial consciousness,
we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of
ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil. To this
extent, and within these limits, an author, methinks, may be
autobiographical, without violating either the reader's rights or
his own.

It will be seen, likewise, that this Custom-House sketch has a
certain propriety, of a kind always recognised in literature, as
explaining how a large portion of the following pages came into
my possession, and as offering proofs of the authenticity of a
narrative therein contained. This, in fact--a desire to put
myself in my true position as editor, or very little more, of the
most prolix among the tales that make up my volume--this, and
no other, is my true reason for assuming a personal relation with
the public. In accomplishing the main purpose, it has appeared
allowable, by a few extra touches, to give a faint representation
of a mode of life not heretofore described, together with some of
the characters that move in it, among whom the author happened to
make one.

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century
ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf--but
which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and
exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps,
a bark or brig, half-way down its melancholy length, discharging
hides; or, nearer at hand, a Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out
her cargo of firewood--at the head, I say, of this dilapidated
wharf, which the tide often overflows, and along which, at the
base and in the rear of the row of buildings, the track of many
languid years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass--here,
with a view from its front windows adown this not very enlivening
prospect, and thence across the harbour, stands a spacious
edifice of brick. From the loftiest point of its roof, during
precisely three and a half hours of each forenoon, floats or
droops, in breeze or calm, the banner of the republic; but with
the thirteen stripes turned vertically, instead of horizontally,
and thus indicating that a civil, and not a military, post of
Uncle Sam's government is here established. Its front is
ornamented with a portico of half-a-dozen wooden pillars,
supporting a balcony, beneath which a flight of wide granite
steps descends towards the street Over the entrance hovers an
enormous specimen of the American eagle, with outspread wings, a
shield before her breast, and, if I recollect aright, a bunch of
intermingled thunder- bolts and barbed arrows in each claw. With
the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this unhappy
fowl, she appears by the fierceness of her beak and eye, and the
general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mischief to the
inoffensive community; and especially to warn all citizens careful of their
safety against intruding on the premises which she overshadows
with her wings. Nevertheless, vixenly as she looks, many people
are seeking at this very moment to shelter themselves under the
wing of the federal eagle; imagining, I presume, that her bosom
has all the softness and snugness of an eiderdown pillow. But
she has no great tenderness even in her best of moods, and,
sooner or later--oftener soon than late--is apt to fling off
her nestlings with a scratch of her claw, a dab of her beak, or a
rankling wound from her barbed arrows.

The pavement round about the above-described edifice--which we
may as well name at once as the Custom-House of the port--has
grass enough growing in its chinks to show that it has not, of
late days, been worn by any multitudinous resort of business. In
some months of the year, however, there often chances a forenoon
when affairs move onward with a livelier tread. Such occasions
might remind the elderly citizen of that period, before the last
war with England, when Salem was a port by itself; not scorned,
as she is now, by her own merchants and ship-owners, who permit
her wharves to crumble to ruin while their ventures go to swell,
needlessly and imperceptibly, the mighty flood of commerce at New
York or Boston. On some such morning, when three or four vessels
happen to have arrived at once usually from Africa or South
America--or to be on the verge of their departure thitherward,
there is a sound of frequent feet passing briskly up and down the
granite steps. Here, before his own wife has greeted him, you
may greet the sea-flushed ship-master, just in port, with his
vessel's papers under his arm in a
tarnished tin box. Here, too, comes his owner, cheerful, sombre,
gracious or in the sulks, accordingly as his scheme of the now
accomplished voyage has been realized in merchandise that will
readily be turned to gold, or has buried him under a bulk of
incommodities such as nobody will care to rid him of. Here,
likewise--the germ of the wrinkle-browed, grizzly-bearded,
careworn merchant--we have the smart young clerk, who gets the
taste of traffic as a wolf-cub does of blood, and already sends
adventures in his master's ships, when he had better be sailing
mimic boats upon a mill-pond. Another figure in the scene is the
outward-bound sailor, in quest of a protection; or the recently
arrived one, pale and feeble, seeking a passport to the hospital.
Nor must we forget the captains of the rusty little schooners
that bring firewood from the British provinces; a rough-looking
set of tarpaulins, without the alertness of the Yankee aspect,
but contributing an item of no slight importance to our decaying

Cluster all these individuals together, as they sometimes were,
with other miscellaneous ones to diversify the group, and, for
the time being, it made the Custom-House a stirring scene. More
frequently, however, on ascending the steps, you would discern --
in the entry if it were summer time, or in their appropriate
rooms if wintry or inclement weathers row of venerable figures,
sitting in old-fashioned chairs, which were tipped on their hind
legs back against the wall. Oftentimes they were asleep, but
occasionally might be heard talking together, ill
voices between a speech and a snore, and with that lack of energy
that distinguishes the occupants of alms-houses, and all other
human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on
monopolized labour, or anything else but their own independent
exertions. These old gentlemen--seated, like Matthew at the
receipt of custom, but not very liable to be summoned thence,
like him, for apostolic errands--were Custom-House officers.

Furthermore, on the left hand as you enter the front door, is a
certain room or office, about fifteen feet square, and of a lofty
height, with two of its arched windows commanding a view of the
aforesaid dilapidated wharf, and the third looking across a
narrow lane, and along a portion of Derby Street. All three give
glimpses of the shops of grocers, block-makers, slop-sellers, and
ship-chandlers, around the doors of which are generally to be
seen, laughing and gossiping, clusters of old salts, and such
other wharf-rats as haunt the Wapping of a seaport. The room
itself is cobwebbed, and dingy with old paint; its floor is
strewn with grey sand, in a fashion that has elsewhere fallen
into long disuse; and it is easy to conclude, from the general
slovenliness of the place, that this is a sanctuary into which
womankind, with her tools of magic, the broom and mop, has very
infrequent access. In the way of furniture, there is a stove
with a voluminous funnel; an old pine desk with a three-legged
stool beside it; two or three wooden-bottom chairs, exceedingly
decrepit and infirm; and--not to forget the library--on some
shelves, a score or two of volumes of the Acts of Congress, and a
bulky Digest of the Revenue laws. A
tin pipe ascends through the ceiling, and forms a medium of vocal
communication with other parts of be edifice. And here, some six
months ago--pacing from corner to corner, or lounging on the
long-legged tool, with his elbow on the desk, and his eyes
wandering up and down the columns of the morning newspaper--you
might have recognised, honoured reader, the same individual who
welcomed you into his cheery little study, where the sunshine
glimmered so pleasantly through the willow branches on the
western side of the Old Manse. But now, should you go thither to
seek him, you would inquire in vain for the Locofoco Surveyor.
The besom of reform hath swept him out of office, and a worthier
successor wears his dignity and pockets his emoluments.

This old town of Salem--my native place, though I have dwelt
much away from it both in boyhood and maturer years--possesses,
or did possess, a hold on my affection, the force of which I have
never realized during my seasons of actual residence here.
Indeed, so far as its physical aspect is concerned, with its
flat, unvaried surface, covered chiefly with wooden houses, few
or none of which pretend to architectural beauty--its
irregularity, which is neither picturesque nor quaint, but only
tame--its long and lazy street, lounging wearisomely through
the whole extent of the peninsula, with Gallows Hill and New
Guinea at one end, and a view of the alms-house at the other--such
being the features of my native town, it would be quite as
reasonable to form a sentimental attachment to a disarranged
checker-board. And yet, though invariably happiest elsewhere,
there is within me a feeling for Old Salem, which, in lack of a
better phrase, I must be content to call affection. The sentiment is
probably assignable to the deep and aged roots which my family
has stuck into the soil. It is now nearly two centuries and a
quarter since the original Briton, the earliest emigrant of my
name, made his appearance in the wild and forest--bordered
settlement which has since become a city. And here his
descendants have been born and died, and have mingled their
earthly substance with the soil, until no small portion of it
must necessarily be akin to the mortal frame wherewith, for a
little while, I walk the streets. In part, therefore, the
attachment which I speak of is the mere sensuous sympathy of dust
for dust. Few of my countrymen can know what it is; nor, as
frequent transplantation is perhaps better for the stock, need
they consider it desirable to know.

But the sentiment has likewise its moral quality. The figure of
that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and
dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination as far back
as I can remember. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of
home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference
to the present phase of the town. I seem to have a stronger
claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded,
sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned progenitor-who came so early,
with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn street with
such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man of war
and peace--a stronger claim than for myself, whose name is
seldom heard and my face hardly known. He was a soldier,
legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the
Puritanic traits, both good and evil. He was
likewise a bitter persecutor; as witness the Quakers, who have
remembered him in their histories, and relate an incident of his
hard severity towards a woman of their sect, which will last
longer, it is to be feared, than any record of his better deeds,
although these were many. His son, too, inherited the
persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the
martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to
have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his
dry old bones, in the Charter-street burial-ground, must still
retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust I know not
whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent,
and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are
now groaning under the heavy consequences of them in another
state of being. At all events, I, the present writer, as their
representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes,
and pray that any curse incurred by them--as I have heard, and
as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a
long year back, would argue to exist--may be now and henceforth

Doubtless, however, either of these stern and black-browed
Puritans would have thought it quite a sufficient retribution for
his sins that, after so long a lapse of years, the old trunk of
the family tree, with so much venerable moss upon it, should have
borne, as its topmost bough, an idler like myself. No aim that I
have ever cherished would they recognise as laudable; no success
of mine--if my life, beyond its domestic scope, had ever been
brightened by success--would they deem otherwise
than worthless, if not positively disgraceful. "What is he?"
murmurs one grey shadow of my forefathers to the other. "A
writer of story books! What kind of business in life--what mode
of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and
generation--may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as
well have been a fiddler!" Such are the compliments bandied
between my great grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time
And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their
nature have intertwined themselves with mine.

Planted deep, in the town's earliest infancy and childhood, by
these two earnest and energetic men, the race has ever since
subsisted here; always, too, in respectability; never, so far as
I have known, disgraced by a single unworthy member; but seldom
or never, on the other hand, after the first two generations,
performing any memorable deed, or so much as putting forward a
claim to public notice. Gradually, they have sunk almost out of
sight; as old houses, here and there about the streets, get
covered half-way to the eaves by the accumulation of new soil.
From father to son, for above a hundred years, they followed the
sea; a grey-headed shipmaster, in each generation, retiring from
the quarter-deck to the homestead, while a boy of fourteen took
the hereditary place before the mast, confronting the salt spray
and the gale which had blustered against his sire and grandsire.
The boy, also in due time, passed from the forecastle to the
cabin, spent a tempestuous manhood, and returned from his
world-wanderings, to grow old, and die, and mingle his dust with
the natal earth. This long connexion of a
family with one spot, as its place of birth and burial, creates a
kindred between the human being and the locality, quite
independent of any charm in the scenery or moral circumstances
that surround him. It is not love but instinct. The new
inhabitant--who came himself from a foreign land, or whose
father or grandfather came--has little claim to be called a
Salemite; he has no conception of the oyster--like tenacity
with which an old settler, over whom his third century is
creeping, clings to the spot where his successive generations
have been embedded. It is no matter that the place is joyless
for him; that he is weary of the old wooden houses, the mud and
dust, the dead level of site and sentiment, the chill east wind,
and the chillest of social atmospheres;--all these, and
whatever faults besides he may see or imagine, are nothing to the
purpose. The spell survives, and just as powerfully as if the
natal spot were an earthly paradise. So has it been in my case.
I felt it almost as a destiny to make Salem my home; so that the
mould of features and cast of character which had all along been
familiar here--ever, as one representative of the race lay down
in the grave, another assuming, as it were, his sentry-march
along the main street--might still in my little day be seen and
recognised in the old town. Nevertheless, this very sentiment is
an evidence that the connexion, which has become an unhealthy
one, should at least be severed. Human nature will not flourish,
any more than a potato, if it be planted and re-planted, for too
long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My
children have had other birth-places, and, so far as their
fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into
accustomed earth.

On emerging from the Old Manse, it was chiefly this strange,
indolent, unjoyous attachment for my native town that brought me
to fill a place in Uncle Sam's brick edifice, when I might as
well, or better, have gone somewhere else. My doom was on me, It
was not the first time, nor the second, that I had gone away--as it
seemed, permanently--but yet returned, like the bad
halfpenny, or as if Salem were for me the inevitable centre of
the universe. So, one fine morning I ascended the flight of
granite steps, with the President's commission in my pocket, and
was introduced to the corps of gentlemen who were to aid me in my
weighty responsibility as chief executive officer of the

I doubt greatly--or, rather, I do not doubt at all--whether
any public functionary of the United States, either in the civil
or military line, has ever had such a patriarchal body of
veterans under his orders as myself. The whereabouts of the
Oldest Inhabitant was at once settled when I looked at them. For
upwards of twenty years before this epoch, the independent
position of the Collector had kept the Salem Custom-House out of
the whirlpool of political vicissitude, which makes the tenure of
office generally so fragile. A soldier--New England's most
distinguished soldier--he stood firmly on the pedestal of his
gallant services; and, himself secure in the wise liberality of
the successive administrations through which he had held office,
he had been the safety of his subordinates in many an hour of
danger and heart-quake General Miller was radically conservative;
a man over whose kindly nature habit had no slight
influence; attaching himself strongly to familiar faces, and with
difficulty moved to change, even when change might have brought
unquestionable improvement. Thus, on taking charge of my
department, I found few but aged men. They were ancient
sea-captains, for the most part, who, after being tossed on every
sea, and standing up sturdily against life's tempestuous blast,
had finally drifted into this quiet nook, where, with little to
disturb them, except the periodical terrors of a Presidential
election, they one and all acquired a new lease of existence.
Though by no means less liable than their fellow-men to age and
infirmity, they had evidently some talisman or other that kept
death at bay. Two or three of their number, as I was assured,
being gouty and rheumatic, or perhaps bed-ridden, never dreamed
of making their appearance at the Custom-House during a large
part of the year; but, after a torpid winter, would creep out
into the warm sunshine of May or June, go lazily about what they
termed duty, and, at their own leisure and convenience, betake
themselves to bed again. I must plead guilty to the charge of
abbreviating the official breath of more than one of these
venerable servants of the republic. They were allowed, on my
representation, to rest from their arduous labours, and soon
afterwards--as if their sole principle of life had been zeal
for their country's service--as I verily believe it was--withdrew
to a better world. It is a pious consolation to me
that, through my interference, a sufficient space was allowed
them for repentance of the evil and corrupt practices into
which, as a matter of course, every Custom-House officer must be
supposed to fall. Neither the front nor the back entrance of the
Custom-House opens on the road to Paradise.

The greater part of my officers were Whigs. It was well for
their venerable brotherhood that the new Surveyor was not a
politician, and though a faithful Democrat in principle, neither
received nor held his office with any reference to political
services. Had it been otherwise--had an active politician been
put into this influential post, to assume the easy task of making
head against a Whig Collector, whose infirmities withheld him
from the personal administration of his office--hardly a man of
the old corps would have drawn the breath of official life within
a month after the exterminating angel had come up the
Custom-House steps. According to the received code in such
matters, it would have been nothing short of duty, in a
politician, to bring every one of those white heads under the axe
of the guillotine. It was plain enough to discern that the old
fellows dreaded some such discourtesy at my hands. It pained,
and at the same time amused me, to behold the terrors that
attended my advent, to see a furrowed cheek, weather-beaten by
half a century of storm, turn ashy pale at the glance of so
harmless an individual as myself; to detect, as one or another
addressed me, the tremor of a voice which, in long-past days, had
been wont to bellow through a speaking-trumpet, hoarsely enough
to frighten Boreas himself to silence. They knew, these
excellent old persons, that, by all established rule--and, as
regarded some of them, weighed by their own lack of
efficiency for business--they ought to have given place to
younger men, more orthodox in politics, and altogether fitter
than themselves to serve our common Uncle. I knew it, too, but
could never quite find in my heart to act upon the knowledge.
Much and deservedly to my own discredit, therefore, and
considerably to the detriment of my official conscience, they
continued, during my incumbency, to creep about the wharves, and
loiter up and down the Custom-House steps. They spent a good
deal of time, also, asleep in their accustomed corners, with
their chairs tilted back against the walls; awaking, however,
once or twice in the forenoon, to bore one another with the
several thousandth repetition of old sea-stories and mouldy
jokes, that had grown to be passwords and countersigns among

The discovery was soon made, I imagine, that the new Surveyor had
no great harm in him. So, with lightsome hearts and the happy
consciousness of being usefully employed--in their own behalf
at least, if not for our beloved country--these good old
gentlemen went through the various formalities of office.
Sagaciously under their spectacles, did they peep into the holds
of vessels Mighty was their fuss about little matters, and
marvellous, sometimes, the obtuseness that allowed greater ones
to slip between their fingers Whenever such a mischance
occurred--when a waggon-load of valuable merchandise had been
smuggled ashore, at noonday, perhaps, and directly beneath their
unsuspicious noses--nothing could exceed the vigilance and
alacrity with which they proceeded to lock, and double-lock, and
secure with tape and sealing--wax, all the avenues of
the delinquent vessel. Instead of a reprimand for their previous
negligence, the case seemed rather to require an eulogium on
their praiseworthy caution after the mischief had happened; a
grateful recognition of the promptitude of their zeal the moment
that there was no longer any remedy.

Unless people are more than commonly disagreeable, it is my
foolish habit to contract a kindness for them. The better part
of my companion's character, if it have a better part, is that
which usually comes uppermost in my regard, and forms the type
whereby I recognise the man. As most of these old Custom-House
officers had good traits, and as my position in reference to
them, being paternal and protective, was favourable to the growth
of friendly sentiments, I soon grew to like them all. It was
pleasant in the summer forenoons--when the fervent heat, that
almost liquefied the rest of the human family, merely
communicated a genial warmth to their half torpid systems--it
was pleasant to hear them chatting in the back entry, a row of
them all tipped against the wall, as usual; while the frozen
witticisms of past generations were thawed out, and came bubbling
with laughter from their lips. Externally, the jollity of aged
men has much in common with the mirth of children; the intellect,
any more than a deep sense of humour, has little to do with the
matter; it is, with both, a gleam that plays upon the surface,
and imparts a sunny and cheery aspect alike to the green branch
and grey, mouldering trunk. In one case, however, it is real
sunshine; in the other, it more resembles the phosphorescent glow
of decaying wood.
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 memory with the husks. They spoke with far more
interest and unction of their morning's breakfast, or
yesterday's, to-day's, or tomorrow'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.

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 re-echoed 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 which 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.

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 earthly 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.

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 savour of pig or turkey under
one's very nostrils. There were flavours 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 repudiate an endless series of
enjoyment. at once shadowy and sensual, A tender loin 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 carcase, and it could only be
divided with an axe and handsaw.

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 tile end of time, would be
just as good as he was then, 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 honourable life.

The brave soldier had already numbered, nearly or quite, his
three-score 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 crumpled into ruin.

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 grey 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

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 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 trumpets real, 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--was
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 or 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.

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 humour,
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.

There, beside the fireplace, the brave old General used to sit;
while 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
his 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

There was one thing that much aided me in renewing and
re-creating the stalwart soldier of the Niagara frontier--the
man of true and simple energy. It was the recollection of those
memorable words of his--"I'll try, Sir"--spoken on the very
verge of a desperate and heroic enterprise, and breathing the
soul and spirit of New England hardihood, comprehending all
perils, and encountering all. If, in our country, valour were
rewarded by heraldic honour, this phrase--which it seems so
easy to speak, but which only he, with such a task of danger and
glory before him, has ever spoken--would be the best and
fittest of all mottoes for the General's shield of arms.
It contributes greatly towards a man's moral and intellectual
health to be brought into habits of companionship with
individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and
whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to
appreciate. The accidents of my life have often afforded me this
advantage, but never with more fulness and variety than during my
continuance in office. There was one man, especially, the
observation of whose character gave me a new idea of talent. His
gifts were emphatically those of a man of business;
prompt, acute, clear-minded; with an eye that saw through all
perplexities, and a faculty of arrangement that made them vanish
as by the waving of an enchanter's wand. Bred up from boyhood in
the Custom-House, it was his proper field of activity; and the
many intricacies of business, so harassing to the interloper,
presented themselves before him with the regularity of a
perfectly comprehended system. In my contemplation, he stood as
the ideal of his class. He was, indeed, the Custom-House in
himself; or, at all events, the mainspring that kept its
variously revolving wheels in motion; for, in an institution
like this, where its officers are appointed to subserve their own
profit and convenience, and seldom with a leading reference to
their fitness for the duty to be performed, they must perforce
seek elsewhere the dexterity which is not in them. Thus, by an
inevitable necessity, as a magnet attracts steel-filings, so did
our man of business draw to himself the difficulties which
everybody met with. With an easy condescension, and kind
forbearance towards our stupidity--which, to his order of mind,
must have seemed little short of crime--would he forth-with, by
the merest touch of his finger, make the incomprehensible as
clear as daylight. The merchants valued him not less than we,
his esoteric friends. His integrity was perfect; it was a law of
nature with him, rather than a choice or a principle; nor can it
be otherwise than the main condition of an intellect so
remarkably clear and accurate as his to be honest and regular in
the administration of affairs. A stain on his conscience, as to
anything that came within the range of his vocation, would trouble
such a man very much in the same way, though to a far greater degree,
than an error in the balance of an account, or an ink-blot on the
fair page of a book of record. Here, in a word--and it is a
rare instance in my life--I had met with a person thoroughly
adapted to the situation which he held.

Such were some of the people with whom I now found myself
connected. I took it in good part, at the hands of Providence,
that I was thrown into a position so little akin to my past
habits; and set myself seriously to gather from it whatever
profit was to be had. After my fellowship of toil and
impracticable schemes with the dreamy brethren of Brook Farm;
after living for three years within the subtle influence of an
intellect like Emerson's; after those wild, free days on the
Assabeth, indulging fantastic speculations, beside our fire of
fallen boughs, with Ellery Channing; after talking with Thoreau
about pine-trees and Indian relics in his hermitage at Walden;
after growing fastidious by sympathy with the classic refinement
of Hillard's culture; after becoming imbued with poetic sentiment
at Longfellow's hearthstone--it was time, at length, that I
should exercise other faculties of my nature, and nourish myself
with food for which I had hitherto had little appetite. Even the
old Inspector was desirable, as a change of diet, to a man who
had known Alcott. I looked upon it as an evidence, in some
measure, of a system naturally well balanced, and lacking no
essential part of a thorough organization, that, with such
associates to remember, I could mingle at once with men of
altogether different qualities, and never murmur at the change.

Literature, its exertions and objects, were now of little moment
in my regard. I cared not at this period for books; they were
apart from me. Nature--except it were human nature--the
nature that is developed in earth and sky, was, in one sense,
hidden from me; and all the imaginative delight wherewith it had
been spiritualized passed away out of my mind. A gift, a
faculty, if it had not been departed, was suspended and inanimate
within me. There would have been something sad, unutterably
dreary, in all this, had I not been conscious that it lay at my
own option to recall whatever was valuable in the past. It might
be true, indeed, that this was a life which could not, with
impunity, be lived too long; else, it might make me permanently
other than I had been, without transforming me into any shape
which it would be worth my while to take. But I never considered
it as other than a transitory life. There was always a prophetic
instinct, a low whisper in my ear, that within no long period,
and whenever a new change of custom should be essential to my
good, change would come.

Meanwhile, there I was, a Surveyor of the Revenue and, so far as
I have been able to understand, as good a Surveyor as need be. A
man of thought, fancy, and sensibility (had he ten times the
Surveyor's proportion of those qualities), may, at any time, be a
man of affairs, if he will only choose to give himself the
trouble. My fellow-officers, and the merchants and sea-captains
with whom my official duties brought me into any manner of
connection, viewed me in no other light, and probably knew me in
no other character. None of them, I presume, had
ever read a page of my inditing, or would have cared a fig the
more for me if they had read them all; nor would it have mended
the matter, in the least, had those same unprofitable pages been
written with a pen like that of Burns or of Chaucer, each of whom
was a Custom-House officer in his day, as well as I. It is a
good lesson--though it may often be a hard one--for a man who
has dreamed of literary fame, and of making for himself a rank
among the world's dignitaries by such means, to step aside out of
the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized and to find
how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all
that he achieves, and all he aims at. I know not that I
especially needed the lesson, either in the way of warning or
rebuke; but at any rate, I learned it thoroughly: nor, it gives
me pleasure to reflect, did the truth, as it came home to my
perception, ever cost me a pang, or require to be thrown off in a
sigh. In the way of literary talk, it is true, the Naval Officer--an
excellent fellow, who came into the office with me, and
went out only a little later--would often engage me in a
discussion about one or the other of his favourite topics,
Napoleon or Shakespeare. The Collector's junior clerk, too a
young gentleman who, it was whispered occasionally covered a
sheet of Uncle Sam's letter paper with what (at the distance of a
few yards) looked very much like poetry--used now and then to
speak to me of books, as matters with which I might possibly be
conversant. This was my all of lettered intercourse; and it was
quite sufficient for my necessities.

No longer seeking or caring that my name should
be blasoned abroad on title-pages, I smiled to think that it had
now another kind of vogue. The Custom-House marker imprinted it,
with a stencil and black paint, on pepper-bags, and baskets of
anatto, and cigar-boxes, and bales of all kinds of dutiable
merchandise, in testimony that these commodities had paid the
impost, and gone regularly through the office. Borne on such
queer vehicle of fame, a knowledge of my existence, so far as a
name conveys it, was carried where it had never been before, and,
I hope, will never go again.

But the past was not dead. Once in a great while, the thoughts
that had seemed so vital and so active, yet had been put to rest
so quietly, revived again. One of the most remarkable occasions,
when the habit of bygone days awoke in me, was that which brings
it within the law of literary propriety to offer the public the
sketch which I am now writing.

In the second storey 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 labour 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,

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.

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
towns 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 favour of one Jonathan Pine, 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") a 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
graveyard 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.

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. Pine'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.

The ancient Surveyor--being little molested, 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
labour off my hands. As a final disposition I contemplate
depositing them with the Essex Historical Society. But the
object that most drew my attention to 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 discovered 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,
honour, 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.

When 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.

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 the
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
further 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 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.

This incident recalled my mind, in some degree, to its old track.
There seemed to be here the groundwork of a tale. It impressed
me as if the ancient Surveyor, in his garb of a hundred years
gone by, and wearing his immortal wig--which was buried with
him, but did not perish in the grave--had bet me in the
deserted chamber of the Custom-House. In his port was the
dignity of one who had borne His Majesty's commission, and who
was therefore illuminated by a ray of the splendour that shone so
dazzlingly about the throne. How unlike alas the hangdog look
of a republican official, who, as the servant of the people,
feels himself less than the least, and below the lowest of his
masters. With his own ghostly hand, the obscurely seen, but
majestic, figure had imparted to me the scarlet symbol and the
little roll of explanatory manuscript. With his own ghostly
voice he had exhorted me, on the sacred consideration of my
filial duty and reverence towards him--who might reasonably
regard himself as my official ancestor--to bring his mouldy and
moth-eaten lucubrations before the public. "Do this," said the
ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue, emphatically nodding the head that
looked so imposing within its memorable wig; "do this, and the
profit shall be all your own. You will shortly need it; for it is not in
your days as it was in mine, when a man's office was a life-lease, and
oftentimes an heirloom. But I charge you, in this matter of old
Mistress Prynne, give to your predecessor's memory the credit
which will be rightfully due" And I said to the ghost of Mr.
Surveyor Pue--"I will".

On Hester Prynne's story, therefore, I bestowed much thought. It
was the subject of my meditations for many an hour, while pacing
to and fro across my room, or traversing, with a hundredfold
repetition, the long extent from the front door of the
Custom-House to the side entrance, and back again. Great were
the weariness and annoyance of the old Inspector and the Weighers
and Gaugers, whose slumbers were disturbed by the unmercifully
lengthened tramp of my passing and returning footsteps.
Remembering their own former habits, they used to say that the
Surveyor was walking the quarter-deck. They probably fancied
that my sole object--and, indeed, the sole object for which a
sane man could ever put himself into voluntary motion--was to
get an appetite for dinner. And, to say the truth, an appetite,
sharpened by the east wind that generally blew along the passage,
was the only valuable result of so much indefatigable exercise.
So little adapted is the atmosphere of a Custom-house to the
delicate harvest of fancy and sensibility, that, had I remained
there through ten Presidencies yet to come, I doubt whether the
tale of "The Scarlet Letter" would ever have been brought before
the public eye. My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would
not reflect, or only with miserable
dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it. The
characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered
malleable by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual
forge. They would take neither the glow of passion nor the
tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of dead
corpses, and stared me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin
of contemptuous defiance. "What have you to do with us?" that
expression seemed to say. "The little power you might have once
possessed over the tribe of unrealities is gone You have
bartered it for a pittance of the public gold. Go then, and earn
your wages" In short, the almost torpid creatures of my own
fancy twitted me with imbecility, and not without fair occasion.

It was not merely during the three hours and a half which Uncle
Sam claimed as his share of my daily life that this wretched
numbness held possession of me. It went with me on my sea-shore
walks and rambles into the country, whenever--which was seldom
and reluctantly--I bestirred myself to seek that invigorating
charm of Nature which used to give me such freshness and activity
of thought, the moment that I stepped across the threshold of the
Old Manse. The same torpor, as regarded the capacity for
intellectual effort, accompanied me home, and weighed upon me in
the chamber which I most absurdly termed my study. Nor did it
quit me when, late at night, I sat in the deserted parlour,
lighted only by the glimmering coal-fire and the moon, striving
to picture forth imaginary scenes, which, the next day, might
flow out on the brightening page in many-hued description.

If the imaginative faculty refused to act at such an hour, it
might well be deemed a hopeless case. Moonlight, in a familiar
room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its
figures so distinctly--making every object so minutely visible,
yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility--is a medium the
most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his
illusive guests. There is the little domestic scenery of the
well-known apartment; the chairs, with each its separate
individuality; the centre-table, sustaining a work-basket, a
volume or two, and an extinguished lamp; the sofa; the book-case;
the picture on the wall--all these details, so completely seen,
are so spiritualised by the unusual light, that they seem to lose
their actual substance, and become things of intellect. Nothing
is too small or too trifling to undergo this change, and acquire
dignity thereby. A child's shoe; the doll, seated in her little
wicker carriage; the hobby-horse--whatever, in a word, has been
used or played with during the day is now invested with a quality
of strangeness and remoteness, though still almost as vividly
present as by daylight. Thus, therefore, the floor of our
familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between
the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary
may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.
Ghosts might enter here without affrighting us. It would be too
much in keeping with the scene to excite surprise, were we to
look about us and discover a form, beloved, but gone hence, now
sitting quietly in a streak of this magic moonshine, with an
aspect that would make us doubt whether it had returned
from afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside.

The somewhat dim coal fire has an essential Influence in
producing the effect which I would describe. It throws its
unobtrusive tinge throughout the room, with a faint ruddiness
upon the walls and ceiling, and a reflected gleam upon the polish
of the furniture. This warmer light mingles itself with the cold
spirituality of the moon-beams, and communicates, as it were, a
heart and sensibilities of human tenderness to the forms which
fancy summons tip. It converts them from snow-images into men
and women. Glancing at the looking-glass, we behold--deep
within its haunted verge--the smouldering glow of the
half-extinguished anthracite, the white moon-beams on the floor,
and a repetition of all the gleam and shadow of the picture, with
one remove further from the actual, and nearer to the
imaginative. Then, at such an hour, and with this scene before
him, if a man, sitting all alone, cannot dream strange things,
and make them look like truth, he need never try to write romances.

But, for myself, during the whole of my Custom-House experience,
moonlight and sunshine, and the glow of firelight, were just
alike in my regard; and neither of them was of one whit more
avail than the twinkle of a tallow-candle. An entire class of
susceptibilities, and a gift connected with them--of no great
richness or value, but the best I had--was gone from me.

It is my belief, however, that had I attempted a different order
of composition, my faculties would not have been found so
pointless and inefficacious. I might, for instance, have contented
myself with writing out the narratives of a veteran shipmaster, one
of the Inspectors, whom I should be most ungrateful not to mention,
since scarcely a day passed that he did not stir me to laughter and
admiration by his marvelous gifts as a story-teller. Could I have
preserved the picturesque force of his style, and the humourous
colouring which nature taught him how to throw over his descriptions,
the result, I honestly believe, would have been something new in
literature. Or I might readily have found a more serious task. It was
a folly, with the materiality of this daily life pressing so
intrusively upon me, to attempt to fling myself back into another
age, or to insist on creating the semblance of a world out of
airy matter, when, at every moment, the impalpable beauty of my
soap-bubble was broken by the rude contact of some actual
circumstance. The wiser effort would have been to diffuse
thought and imagination through the opaque substance of to-day,
and thus to make it a bright transparency; to spiritualise the
burden that began to weigh so heavily; to seek, resolutely, the
true and indestructible value that lay hidden in the petty and
wearisome incidents, and ordinary characters with which I was now
conversant. The fault was mine. The page of life that was
spread out before me seemed dull and commonplace only because I
had not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than I shall
ever write was there; leaf after leaf presenting itself to me,
just as it was written out by the reality of the flitting hour,
and vanishing as fast as written, only because my brain wanted
the insight, and my hand the cunning, to transcribe it. At some
future day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered fragments
and broken paragraphs, and write them down, and find the letters
turn to gold upon the page.

These perceptions had come too late. At the Instant, I was only
conscious that what would have been a pleasure once was now a
hopeless toil. There was no occasion to make much moan about
this state of affairs. I had ceased to be a writer of tolerably
poor tales and essays, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor
of the Customs. That was all. But, nevertheless, it is anything
but agreeable to be haunted by a suspicion that one's intellect
is dwindling away, or exhaling, without your consciousness, like
ether out of a phial; so that, at every glance, you find a
smaller and less volatile residuum. Of the fact there could be
no doubt and, examining myself and others, I was led to
conclusions, in reference to the effect of public office on the
character, not very favourable to the mode of life in question.
In some other form, perhaps, I may hereafter develop these
effects. Suffice it here to say that a Custom-House officer of
long continuance can hardly be a very praiseworthy or respectable
personage, for many reasons; one of them, the tenure by which he
holds his situation, and another, the very nature of his
business, which--though, I trust, an honest one--is of such a
sort that he does not share in the united effort of mankind.

An effect--which I believe to be observable, more or less, in
every individual who has occupied the position--is, that while
he leans on the mighty arm of the Republic, his own proper strength,
departs from him. He loses, in an extent proportioned to the weakness
or force of his original nature, the capability of self-support. If
he possesses an unusual share of native energy, or the enervating
magic of place do not operate too long upon him, his forfeited
powers may be redeemable. The ejected officer--fortunate in
the unkindly shove that sends him forth betimes, to struggle amid
a struggling world--may return to himself, and become all that
he has ever been. But this seldom happens. He usually keeps his
ground just long enough for his own ruin, and is then thrust out,
with sinews all unstrung, to totter along the difficult footpath
of life as he best may. Conscious of his own infirmity--that
his tempered steel and elasticity are lost--he for ever
afterwards looks wistfully about him in quest of support external
to himself. His pervading and continual hope--a hallucination,
which, in the face of all discouragement, and making light of
impossibilities, haunts him while he lives, and, I fancy, like
the convulsive throes of the cholera, torments him for a brief
space after death--is, that finally, and in no long time, by
some happy coincidence of circumstances, he shall be restored to
office. This faith, more than anything else, steals the pith and
availability out of whatever enterprise he may dream of
undertaking. Why should he toil and moil, and be at so much
trouble to pick himself up out of the mud, when, in a little
while hence, the strong arm of his Uncle will raise and support
him? Why should he work for his living here, or go to dig gold
in California, when he is so soon to be made happy, at monthly
intervals, with a little pile of glittering coin out of his Uncle's pocket?
It is sadly curious to observe how slight a taste of office suffices to
infect a poor fellow with this singular disease. Uncle Sam's
gold--meaning no disrespect to the worthy old gentleman--has,
in this respect, a quality of enchantment like that of the
devil's wages. Whoever touches it should look well to himself,
or he may find the bargain to go hard against him, involving, if
not his soul, yet many of its better attributes; its sturdy
force, its courage and constancy, its truth, its self-reliance,
and all that gives the emphasis to manly character.

Here was a fine prospect in the distance. Not that the Surveyor
brought the lesson home to himself, or admitted that he could be
so utterly undone, either by continuance in office or ejectment.
Yet my reflections were not the most comfortable. I began to
grow melancholy and restless; continually prying into my mind, to
discover which of its poor properties were gone, and what degree
of detriment had already accrued to the remainder. I endeavoured
to calculate how much longer I could stay in the Custom-House,
and yet go forth a man. To confess the truth, it was my greatest
apprehension--as it would never be a measure of policy to turn
out so quiet an individual as myself; and it being hardly in the
nature of a public officer to resign--it was my chief trouble,
therefore, that I was likely to grow grey and decrepit in the
Surveyorship, and become much such another animal as the old
Inspector. Might it not, in the tedious lapse of official life
that lay before me, finally be with me as it was with this
venerable friend--to make the dinner-hour the nucleus of the
day, and to spend the rest of it, as an old dog spends it, asleep
in the sunshine or in the shade? A dreary look-forward, this, for
a man who felt it to be the best definition of happiness to live
throughout the whole range of his faculties and sensibilities
But, all this while, I was giving myself very unnecessary alarm.
Providence had meditated better things for me than I could
possibly imagine for myself.

A remarkable event of the third year of my Surveyorship--to
adopt the tone of "P. P. "--was the election of General Taylor
to the Presidency. It is essential, in order to a complete
estimate of the advantages of official life, to view the
incumbent at the in-coming of a hostile administration. His
position is then one of the most singularly irksome, and, in
every contingency, disagreeable, that a wretched mortal can
possibly occupy; with seldom an alternative of good on either
hand, although what presents itself to him as the worst event may
very probably be the best. But it is a strange experience, to a
man of pride and sensibility, to know that his interests are
within the control of individuals who neither love nor understand
him, and by whom, since one or the other must needs happen, he
would rather be injured than obliged. Strange, too, for one who
has kept his calmness throughout the contest, to observe the
bloodthirstiness that is developed in the hour of triumph, and to
be conscious that he is himself among its objects! There are few
uglier traits of human nature than this tendency--which I now
witnessed in men no worse than their neighbours--to grow cruel,
merely because they possessed the power of inflicting harm. If
the guillotine, as applied to office-holders, were a literal fact, instead
of one of the most apt of metaphors, it is my sincere belief that the
active members of the victorious party were sufficiently excited to have
chopped off all our heads, and have thanked Heaven for the opportunity!
It appears to me--who have been a calm and curious observer, as
well in victory as defeat--that this fierce and bitter spirit
of malice and revenge has never distinguished the many triumphs
of my own party as it now did that of the Whigs. The Democrats
take the offices, as a general rule, because they need them, and
because the practice of many years has made it the law of
political warfare, which unless a different system be proclaimed,
it was weakness and cowardice to murmur at. But the long habit
of victory has made them generous. They know how to spare when
they see occasion; and when they strike, the axe may be sharp
indeed, but its edge is seldom poisoned with ill-will; nor is it
their custom ignominiously to kick the head which they have just
struck off.

In short, unpleasant as was my predicament, at best, I saw much
reason to congratulate myself that I was on the losing side
rather than the triumphant one. If, heretofore, l had been none
of the warmest of partisans I began now, at this season of peril
and adversity, to be pretty acutely sensible with which party my
predilections lay; nor was it without something like regret and
shame that, according to a reasonable calculation of chances, I
saw my own prospect of retaining office to be better than those
of my democratic brethren. But who can see an inch into futurity
beyond his nose? My own head was the first that fell

The moment when a man's head drops off is
seldom or never, I am inclined to think, precisely the most
agreeable of his life. Nevertheless, like the greater part of
our misfortunes, even so serious a contingency brings its remedy
and consolation with it, if the sufferer will but make the best
rather than the worst, of the accident which has befallen him.
In my particular case the consolatory topics were close at hand,
and, indeed, had suggested themselves to my meditations a
considerable time before it was requisite to use them. In view
of my previous weariness of office, and vague thoughts of
resignation, my fortune somewhat resembled that of a person who
should entertain an idea of committing suicide, and although
beyond his hopes, meet with the good hap to be murdered. In the
Custom-House, as before in the Old Manse, I had spent three years--a
term long enough to rest a weary brain: long enough to break
off old intellectual habits, and make room for new ones: long
enough, and too long, to have lived in an unnatural state, doing
what was really of no advantage nor delight to any human being,
and withholding myself from toil that would, at least, have
stilled an unquiet impulse in me. Then, moreover, as regarded
his unceremonious ejectment, the late Surveyor was not altogether
ill-pleased to be recognised by the Whigs as an enemy; since his
inactivity in political affairs--his tendency to roam, at will,
in that broad and quiet field where all mankind may meet, rather
than confine himself to those narrow paths where brethren of the
same household must diverge from one another--had sometimes
made it questionable with his brother Democrats whether he was a
friend. Now, after he had won the crown of martyrdom (though with
no longer a head to wear it on), the point might be looked upon as
settled. Finally, little heroic as he was, it seemed more decorous to be
overthrown in the downfall of the party with which he had been content
to stand than to remain a forlorn survivor, when so many worthier
men were falling: and at last, after subsisting for four years on the
mercy of a hostile administration, to be compelled then to define
his position anew, and claim the yet more humiliating mercy of a
friendly one.

Meanwhile, the press had taken up my affair, and kept me for a
week or two careering through the public prints, in my
decapitated state, like Irving's Headless Horseman, ghastly and
grim, and longing to be buried, as a political dead man ought.
So much for my figurative self. The real human being all this
time, with his head safely on his shoulders, had brought himself
to the comfortable conclusion that everything was for the best;
and making an investment in ink, paper, and steel pens, had
opened his long-disused writing desk, and was again a literary
Now it was that the lucubrations of my ancient predecessor, Mr.
Surveyor Pue, came into play. Rusty through long idleness, some
little space was requisite before my intellectual machinery could
be brought to work upon the tale with an effect in any degree
satisfactory. Even yet, though my thoughts were ultimately much
absorbed in the task, it wears, to my eye, a stern and sombre
aspect: too much ungladdened by genial sunshine; too little
relieved by the tender and familiar influences which soften
almost every scene of nature and real life, and
undoubtedly should soften every picture of them. This
uncaptivating effect is perhaps due to the period of hardly
accomplished revolution, and still seething turmoil, in which the
story shaped itself. It is no indication, however, of a lack of
cheerfulness in the writer's mind: for he was happier while
straying through the gloom of these sunless fantasies than at any
time since he had quitted the Old Manse. Some of the briefer
articles, which contribute to make up the volume, have likewise
been written since my involuntary withdrawal from the toils and
honours of public life, and the remainder are gleaned from
annuals and magazines, of such antique date, that they have gone
round the circle, and come back to novelty again. Keeping up the
metaphor of the political guillotine, the whole may be considered
and the sketch which I am now bringing to a close, if too
autobiographical for a modest person to publish in his lifetime,
will readily be excused in a gentleman who writes from beyond the
grave. Peace be with all the world My blessing on my friends My
forgiveness to my enemies For I am in the realm of quiet

The life of the Custom--House lies like a dream behind me. The
old Inspector--who, by-the-bye, l regret to say, was overthrown
and killed by a horse some time ago, else he would certainly have
lived for ever--he, and all those other venerable personages
who sat with him at the receipt of custom, are but shadows in my
view: white-headed and wrinkled images, which my fancy used to
sport with, and has now flung aside for ever. The merchants--
Pingree, Phillips, Shepard, Upton, Kimball, Bertram, Hunt--these
and many other names, which had such classic familiarity for my ear
six months ago,--these men of traffic, who seemed to occupy so
important a position in the world--how little time has it
required to disconnect me from them all, not merely in act, but
recollection It is with an effort that

I recall the figures and appellations of these few. Soon,
likewise, my old native town will loom upon me through the haze
of memory, a mist brooding over and around it; as if it were no
portion of the real earth, but an overgrown village in
cloud-land, with only imaginary inhabitants to people its wooden
houses and walk its homely lanes, and the unpicturesque prolixity
of its main street. Henceforth it ceases to be a reality of my
life; I am a citizen of somewhere else. My good townspeople will
not much regret me, for--though it has been as dear an object
as any, in my literary efforts, to be of some importance in their
eyes, and to win myself a pleasant memory in this abode and
burial-place of so many of my forefathers--there has never
been, for me, the genial atmosphere which a literary man requires
in order to ripen the best harvest of his mind. I shall do
better amongst other faces; and these familiar ones, it need
hardly be said, will do just as well without me.

It may be, however--oh, transporting and triumphant thought
I--that the great-grandchildren of the present race may
sometimes think kindly of the scribbler of bygone days, when the
antiquary of days to come, among the sites memorable in the
town's history, shall point out the locality of THE TOWN PUMP.



A throng of bearded men, in sad-coloured garments and grey
steeple-crowned hats, inter-mixed with women, some wearing hoods,
and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden
edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and
studded with iron spikes.

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue
and happiness they might originally project, have invariably
recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot
a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion
as the site of a prison. In accordance with this rule it may
safely be assumed that the forefathers of Boston had built the
first prison-house somewhere in the Vicinity of Cornhill, almost
as seasonably as they marked out the first burial-ground, on
Isaac Johnson's lot, and round about his grave, which
subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated sepulchres
in the old churchyard of King's Chapel. Certain it is that, some
fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was
already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age,
which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy
front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door
looked more antique than anything else in the New World. Like
all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a
youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the
wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with
burdock, pig-weed, apple-pern, and such unsightly vegetation,
which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so
early borne the black flower of civilised society, a prison. But
on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold,
was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its
delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance
and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the
condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that
the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.

This rose-bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in
history; but whether it had merely survived out of the stern old
wilderness, so long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks
that originally overshadowed it, or whether, as there is far
authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of
the sainted Ann Hutchinson as she entered the prison-door, we
shall not take upon us to determine. Finding it so directly on
the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from
that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise
than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader. It
may serve, let us hope, to symbolise some sweet moral blossom
that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close
of a tale of human frailty and sorrow


The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain
summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by
a pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston, all with
their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door.
Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the history
of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded
physiognomies of these good people would have augured some awful
business in hand. It could have betokened nothing short of the
anticipated execution of some rioted culprit, on whom the
sentence of a legal tribunal had but confirmed the verdict of
public sentiment. But, in that early severity of the Puritan
character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be
drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful
child, whom his parents had given over to the civil authority,
was to be corrected at the whipping-post. It might be that an
Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be
scourged out of the town, or an idle or vagrant Indian, whom the
white man's firewater had made riotous about the streets, was to
be driven with stripes into the shadow of the forest. It might
be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter-tempered
widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows. In either
case, there was very much the same solemnity of demeanour on the
part of the spectators, as befitted a people among whom religion
and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were
so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and severest acts of
public discipline were alike made venerable and awful. Meagre,
indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look
for, from such bystanders, at the scaffold. On the other hand, a
penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking
infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern
a dignity as the punishment of death itself.

It was a circumstance to be noted on the summer morning when our
story begins its course, that the women, of whom there were
several in the crowd, appeared to take a peculiar interest in
whatever penal infliction might be expected to ensue. The age
had not so much refinement, that any sense of impropriety
restrained the wearers of petticoat and farthingale from stepping
forth into the public ways, and wedging their not unsubstantial
persons, if occasion were, into the throng nearest to the
scaffold at an execution. Morally, as well as materially, there
was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of old English
birth and breeding than in their fair descendants, separated from
them by a series of six or seven generations; for, throughout
that chain of ancestry, every successive mother had transmitted
to her child a fainter bloom, a more delicate and briefer beauty,
and a slighter physical frame, if not
character of less force and solidity than her own. The women who
were now standing about the prison-door stood within less than
half a century of the period when the man-like Elizabeth had been
the not altogether unsuitable representative of the sex. They
were her countrywomen: and the beef and ale of their native land,
with a moral diet not a whit more refined, entered largely into
their composition. The bright morning sun, therefore, shone on
broad shoulders and well-developed busts, and on round and ruddy
cheeks, that had ripened in the far-off island, and had hardly
yet grown paler or thinner in the atmosphere of New England.
There was, moreover, a boldness and rotundity of speech among
these matrons, as most of them seemed to be, that would startle
us at the present day, whether in respect to its purport or its
volume of tone.

"Goodwives," said a hard-featured dame of fifty, "I'll tell ye a
piece of my mind. It would be greatly for the public behoof if
we women, being of mature age and church-members in good repute,
should have the handling of such malefactresses as this Hester
Prynne. What think ye, gossips? If the hussy stood up for
judgment before us five, that are now here in a knot together,
would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful
magistrates have awarded? Marry, I trow not"

"People say," said another, "that the Reverend Master
Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to heart
that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation. "

"The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful
overmuch--that is a truth," added a third autumnal
matron. "At the very least, they should have put the brand of a
hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead. Madame Hester would have
winced at that, I warrant me. But she--the naughty baggage--
little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown
Why, look you, she may cover it with a brooch, or such like.
heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever"

"Ah, but," interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a
child by the hand, "let her cover the mark as she will, the pang
of it will be always in her heart. "

"What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of
her gown or the flesh of her forehead?" cried another female, the
ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted
judges. "This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to
die; Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the
Scripture and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who
have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives
and daughters go astray"

"Mercy on us, goodwife" exclaimed a man in the crowd, "is there
no virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of
the gallows? That is the hardest word yet! Hush now, gossips for
the lock is turning in the prison-door, and here comes Mistress
Prynne herself. "

The door of the jail being flung open from within there
appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into
sunshine, the grim and gristly presence of the town-beadle, with
a sword by his side, and his staff of office in his hand. This personage
prefigured and
represented in his aspect the whole dismal severity of the
Puritanic code of law, which it was his business to administer in
its final and closest application to the offender. Stretching
forth the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon
the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward, until,
on the threshold of the prison-door, she repelled him, by an
action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and
stepped into the open air as if by her own free will. She bore
in her arms a child, a baby of some three months old, who winked
and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of day;
because its existence, heretofore, had brought it acquaintance
only with the grey twilight of a dungeon, or other darksome
apartment of the prison.

When the young woman--the mother of this child--stood fully
revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to
clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse
of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a
certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In
a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame
would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her
arm, and with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a
glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her
townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine
red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic
flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so
artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous
luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting
decoration to the apparel which she wore, and which was of a
splendour in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly
beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the

The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a
large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it
threw off the sunshine with a gleam; and a face which, besides
being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of
complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and
deep black eyes. She was ladylike, too, after the manner of the
feminine gentility of those days; characterised by a certain
state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and
indescribable grace which is now recognised as its indication.
And never had Hester Prynne appeared more ladylike, in the
antique interpretation of the term, than as she issued from the
prison. Those who had before known her, and had expected to
behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were
astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone
out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she
was enveloped. It may be true that, to a sensitive observer,
there was some thing exquisitely painful in it. Her attire,
which indeed, she had wrought for the occasion in prison, and had
modelled much after her own fancy, seemed to express the attitude
of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood, by its
wild and picturesque peculiarity. But the point which drew all
eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer--so that both
men and women who had been familiarly acquainted with
Hester Prynne were now impressed as if they beheld her for the
first time--was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically
embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of
a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity,
and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.

"She hath good skill at her needle, that's certain," remarked
one of her female spectators; "but did ever a woman, before this
brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it? Why, gossips,
what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates,
and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a

"It were well," muttered the most iron-visaged of the old dames,
"if we stripped Madame Hester's rich gown off her dainty
shoulders; and as for the red letter which she hath stitched so
curiously, I'll bestow a rag of mine own rheumatic flannel to
make a fitter one!"

"Oh, peace, neighbours--peace!" whispered their youngest
companion; "do not let her hear you! Not a stitch in that
embroidered letter but she has felt it in her heart. "

The grim beadle now made a gesture with his staff. "Make way,
good people--make way, in the King's name!" cried he. "Open a
passage; and I promise ye, Mistress Prynne shall be set where
man, woman, and child may have a fair sight of her brave apparel
from this time till an hour past meridian. A blessing on the
righteous colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged
out into the sunshine! Come along, Madame Hester, and show your
scarlet letter in the market-place!"

A lane was forthwith opened through the crowd of spectators.
Preceded by the beadle, and attended by an irregular procession
of stern-browed men and unkindly visaged women, Hester Prynne set
forth towards the place appointed for her punishment. A crowd
of eager and curious schoolboys, understanding little of the
matter in hand, except that it gave them a half-holiday, ran
before her progress, turning their heads continually to stare
into her face and at the winking baby in her arms, and at the
ignominious letter on her breast. It was no great distance, in
those days, from the prison door to the market-place. Measured
by the prisoner's experience, however, it might be reckoned a
journey of some length; for haughty as her demeanour was, she
perchance underwent an agony from every footstep of those that
thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the
street for them all to spurn and trample upon. In our nature,
however, there is a provision, alike marvellous and merciful,
that the sufferer should never know the intensity of what he
endures by its present torture, but chiefly by the pang that
rankles after it. With almost a serene deportment, therefore,
Hester Prynne passed through this portion of her ordeal, and came
to a sort of scaffold, at the western extremity of the
market-place. It stood nearly beneath the eaves of Boston's
earliest church, and appeared to be a fixture there.

In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine,
which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely
historical and traditionary among us, but was held, in the old
time, to be as effectual an agent, in the promotion of good
citizenship, as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of France.
It was, in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose
the framework of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as
to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up
to the public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and
made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be
no outrage, methinks, against our common nature--whatever be
the delinquencies of the individual--no outrage more flagrant
than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame; as it was
the essence of this punishment to do. In Hester Prynne's
instance, however, as not unfrequently in other cases, her
sentence bore that she should stand a certain time upon the
platform, but without undergoing that gripe about the neck and
confinement of the head, the proneness to which was the most
devilish characteristic of this ugly engine. Knowing well her
part, she ascended a flight of wooden steps, and was thus
displayed to the surrounding multitude, at about the height of a
man's shoulders above the street.

Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might
have seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire
and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind
him of the image of Divine Maternity, which so many illustrious
painters have vied with one another to represent; something which
should remind him, indeed, but only by contrast, of that sacred
image of sinless motherhood, whose infant was to redeem the
world. Here, there was the taint of deepest sin in the most
sacred quality of human life, working such effect, that the world
was only the darker for this woman's beauty, and the more lost for
the infant that she had borne.

The scene was not without a mixture of awe, such as must always
invest the spectacle of guilt and shame in a fellow-creature,
before society shall have grown corrupt enough to smile, instead
of shuddering at it. The witnesses of Hester Prynne's disgrace
had not yet passed beyond their simplicity. They were stern
enough to look upon her death, had that been the sentence,
without a murmur at its severity, but had none of the
heartlessness of another social state, which would find only a
theme for jest in an exhibition like the present. Even had there
been a disposition to turn the matter into ridicule, it must have
been repressed and overpowered by the solemn presence of men no
less dignified than the governor, and several of his counsellors,
a judge, a general, and the ministers of the town, all of whom
sat or stood in a balcony of the meeting-house, looking down upon
the platform. When such personages could constitute a part of
the spectacle, without risking the majesty, or reverence of rank
and office, it was safely to be inferred that the infliction of a
legal sentence would have an earnest and effectual meaning.
Accordingly, the crowd was sombre and grave. The unhappy culprit
sustained herself as best a woman might, under the heavy weight
of a thousand unrelenting eyes, all fastened upon her, and
concentrated at her bosom. It was almost intolerable to be
borne. Of an impulsive and passionate nature, she had fortified
herself to encounter the stings and venomous stabs of public
contumely, wreaking itself in every variety of insult; but there
was a quality so much more terrible in the solemn
mood of the popular mind, that she longed rather to behold all
those rigid countenances contorted with scornful merriment, and
herself the object. Had a roar of laughter burst from the
multitude--each man, each woman, each little shrill-voiced
child, contributing their individual parts--Hester Prynne might
have repaid them all with a bitter and disdainful smile. But,
under the leaden infliction which it was her doom to endure, she
felt, at moments, as if she must needs shriek out with the full
power of her lungs, and cast herself from the scaffold down upon
the ground, or else go mad at once.

Yet there were intervals when the whole scene, in which she was
the most conspicuous object, seemed to vanish from her eyes, or,
at least, glimmered indistinctly before them, like a mass of
imperfectly shaped and spectral images. Her mind, and especially
her memory, was preternaturally active, and kept bringing up
other scenes than this roughly hewn street of a little town, on
the edge of the western wilderness: other faces than were lowering
upon her from beneath the brims of those steeple-crowned hats.
Reminiscences, the most trifling and immaterial, passages of
infancy and school-days, sports, childish quarrels, and the
little domestic traits of her maiden years, came swarming back
upon her, intermingled with recollections of whatever was gravest
in her subsequent life; one picture precisely as vivid as
another; as if all were of similar importance, or all alike a
play. Possibly, it was an instinctive device of her spirit to
relieve itself by the exhibition of these phantasmagoric forms,
from the cruel weight and hardness of the reality.

Be that as it might, the scaffold of the pillory was
a point of view that revealed to Hester Prynne the entire track
along which she had been treading, since her happy infancy.
Standing on that miserable eminence, she saw again her native
village, in Old England, and her paternal home: a decayed house
of grey stone, with a poverty-stricken aspect, but retaining a
half obliterated shield of arms over the portal, in token of
antique gentility. She saw her father's face, with its bold
brow, and reverend white beard that flowed over the old-fashioned
Elizabethan ruff; her mother's, too, with the look of heedful and
anxious love which it always wore in her remembrance, and which,
even since her death, had so often laid the impediment of a
gentle remonstrance in her daughter's pathway. She saw her own
face, glowing with girlish beauty, and illuminating all the
interior of the dusky mirror in which she had been wont to gaze
at it. There she beheld another countenance, of a man well
stricken in years, a pale, thin, scholar-like visage, with eyes
dim and bleared by the lamp-light that had served them to pore
over many ponderous books. Yet those same bleared optics had a
strange, penetrating power, when it was their owner's purpose to
read the human soul. This figure of the study and the cloister,
as Hester Prynne's womanly fancy failed not to recall, was
slightly deformed, with the left shoulder a trifle higher than
the right. Next rose before her in memory's picture-gallery, the
intricate and narrow thoroughfares, the tall, grey houses, the


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