By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.
It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.
The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.
No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. Shall domestic manufactures be encouraged, and in what degree, by restrictions on foreign manufactures? are questions which would be differently decided by the landed and the manufacturing classes, and probably by neither with a sole regard to justice and the public good. The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets.
It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.
If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. Let me add that it is the great desideratum by which this form of government can be rescued from the opprobrium under which it has so long labored, and be recommended to the esteem and adoption of mankind.
By what means is this object attainable? Evidently by one of two only. Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression. If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together, that is, in proportion as their efficacy becomes needful.
From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.
A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.
The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose. On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people. The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal; and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter by two obvious considerations:
In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice.
In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.
It must be confessed that in this, as in most other cases, there is a mean, on both sides of which inconveniences will be found to lie. By enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representatives too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests; as by reducing it too much, you render him unduly attached to these, and too little fit to comprehend and pursue great and national objects. The federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures.
The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.
Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic, — is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it. Does the advantage consist in the substitution of representatives whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice? It will not be denied that the representation of the Union will be most likely to possess these requisite endowments. Does it consist in the greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties, against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest? In an equal degree does the increased variety of parties comprised within the Union, increase this security. Does it, in fine, consist in the greater obstacles opposed to the concert and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority? Here, again, the extent of the Union gives it the most palpable advantage.
The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.
In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government. And according to the degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans, ought to be our zeal in cherishing the spirit and supporting the character of Federalists.” James Madison, The Federalist Number 10; “The Utility of the Union As a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction Or Insurrection(continued),” published in The Daily Advertiser, November 22, 1787: http://www.constitution.org/
Numero Dos—“Much to the author’s surprise, and (if he may say so without additional offence) considerably to his amusement, he finds that his sketch of official life, introductory to The Scarlet Letter, has created an unprecedented excitement in the respectable community immediately around him. It could hardly have been more violent, indeed, had he burned down the Custom-House, and quenched its last smoking ember in the blood of a certain venerable personage, against whom he is supposed to cherish a peculiar malevolence. As the public disapprobation would weigh very heavily on him, were he conscious of deserving it, the author begs leave to say, that he has carefully read over the introductory pages, with a purpose to alter or expunge whatever might be found amiss, and to make the best reparation in his power for the atrocities of which he has been adjudged guilty. But it appears to him, that the only remarkable features of the sketch are its frank and genuine good-humor, and the general accuracy with which he has conveyed his sincere impressions of the characters therein described. As to enmity, or ill-feeling of any kind, personal or political, he utterly disclaims such motives. The sketch might, perhaps, have been wholly omitted, without loss to the public, or detriment to the book; but, having undertaken to write it, he conceives that it could not have been done in a better or a kindlier spirit, nor, so far as his abilities availed, with a livelier effect of truth.The author is constrained, therefore, to republish his introductory sketch without the change of a word. …
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 favored 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 recognized 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 harbor, 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 thunderbolts 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 eider-down 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 shipmaster, just in port, with his vessel’s papers under his arm, in a tarnished tin box. Here, too, comes his owner, cheerful or 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, care-worn 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 trade.
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 weather—a 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, in voices between speech and a snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of almshouses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labor, or anything else, but their own independent exertions. These old gentlemen—seated, like Matthew, at the receipt of customs, 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 gray 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 the edifice. And here, some six months ago,—pacing from corner to corner, or lounging on the long-legged stool, with his elbow on the desk, and his eyes wandering up and down the columns of the morning newspaper,—you might have recognized, honored 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 has 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 affections, 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 almshouse 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 struck 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 earthy 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 old dry 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 removed.
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 recognize 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 gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. “A writer of story-books! What kind of a 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 gray-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 connection 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 imbedded. 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 his grave, another assuming, as it were, his sentry-march along the main street,—might still in my little day be seen and recognized in the old town. Nevertheless, this very sentiment is an evidence that the connection, which has become an unhealthy one, should at last be severed. Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed 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 half-penny; 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 Custom-House.
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 tost on every sea, and standing up sturdily against life’s tempestuous blasts, 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 bedridden, 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 labors, 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 wall; awaking, however, once or twice in a 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 them.
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 wagon-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 recognize 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 favorable 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 humor, 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 gray, 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 memories with the husks. They spoke with far more interest and unction of their morning’s breakfast, or yesterday’s, to-day’s, or to-morrow’s dinner, than of the shipwreck of forty or fifty years ago, and all the world’s wonders which they had witnessed with their youthful eyes.
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 that grew inevitably out of his physical well-being, did duty very respectably, and to general acceptance, in lieu of a heart. He had been the husband of three wives, all long since dead; the father of twenty children, most of whom, at every age of childhood or maturity, had likewise returned to dust. Here, one would suppose, might have been sorrow enough to imbue the sunniest disposition, through and through, with a sable tinge. Not so with our old Inspector! One brief sigh sufficed to carry off the entire burden of these dismal reminiscences. The next moment, he was as ready for sport as any unbreeched infant; far readier than the Collector’s junior clerk, who, at nineteen years, was much the elder and graver man of the two.
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 savor of pig or turkey under one’s very nostrils. There were flavors on his palate that had lingered there not less than sixty or seventy years, and were still apparently as fresh as that of the mutton-chop which he had just devoured for his breakfast. I have heard him smack his lips over dinners, every guest at which, except himself, had long been food for worms. It was marvellous to observe how the ghosts of bygone meals were continually rising up before him; not in anger or retribution, but as if grateful for his former appreciation and seeking to resuscitate 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 carcass, 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 the 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 honorable life. The brave soldier had already numbered, nearly or quite, his threescore years and ten, and was pursuing the remainder of his earthly march, burdened with infirmities which even the martial music of his own spirit-stirring recollections could do little towards lightening. The step was palsied now that had been foremost in the charge. It was only with the assistance of a servant, and by leaning his hand heavily on the iron balustrade, that he could slowly and painfully ascend the Custom-House steps, and, with a toilsome progress across the floor, attain his customary chair beside the fireplace. There he used to sit, gazing with a somewhat dim serenity of aspect at the figures that came and went; amid the rustle of papers, the administering of oaths, the discussion of business, and the casual talk of the office; all which sounds and circumstances seemed but indistinctly to impress his senses, and hardly to make their way into his inner sphere of contemplation. His countenance, in this repose, was mild and kindly. If his notice was sought, an expression of courtesy and interest gleamed out upon his features; proving that there was light within him, and that it was only the outward medium of the intellectual lamp that obstructed the rays in their passage. The closer you penetrated to the substance of his mind, the sounder it appeared. When no longer called upon to speak, or listen, either of which operations cost him an evident effort, his face would briefly subside into its former not uncheerful quietude. It was not painful to behold this look; for, though dim, it had not the imbecility of decaying age. The framework of his nature, originally strong and massive, was not yet crumbled into ruin.
To observe and define his character, however, under such disadvantages, was as difficult a task as to trace out and build up anew, in imagination, an old fortress, like Ticonderoga, from a view of its gray and broken ruins. Here and there, perchance, the walls may remain almost complete, but elsewhere may be only a shapeless mound, cumbrous with its very strength, and overgrown, through long years of peace and neglect, with grass and alien weeds.
Nevertheless, looking at the old warrior with affection,—for, slight as was the communication between us, my feeling towards him, like that of all bipeds and quadrupeds who knew him, might not improperly be termed so,—I could discern the main points of his portrait. It was marked with the noble and heroic qualities which showed it to be not by a mere accident, but of good right, that he had won a distinguished name. His spirit could never, I conceive, have been characterized by an uneasy activity; it must, at any period of his life, have required an impulse to set him in motion; but, once stirred up, with obstacles to overcome, and an adequate object to be attained, it was not in the man to give out or fail. The heat that had formerly pervaded his nature, and which was not yet extinct, was never of the kind that flashes and flickers in a blaze; but, rather, a deep, red glow, as of iron in a furnace. Weight, solidity, firmness; this was the expression of his repose, even in such decay as had crept untimely over him, at the period of which I speak. But I could imagine, even then, that, under some excitement which should go deeply into his consciousness,—roused by a trumpet-peal, loud enough to awaken all 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 demeanor would have still been calm. Such an exhibition, however, was but to be pictured in fancy; not to be anticipated, nor desired. What I saw in him—as evidently as the indestructible ramparts of Old Ticonderoga already cited as the most appropriate simile—were the features of stubborn and ponderous endurance, which might well have amounted to obstinacy in his earlier days; of integrity, that, like most of his other endowments, lay in a somewhat heavy mass, and was just as unmalleable and unmanageable as a ton of iron ore; and of benevolence, which, fiercely as he led the bayonets on at Chippewa or Fort Erie, I take to be of quite as genuine a stamp as what actuates any or all the polemical philanthropists of the age. He had slain men with his own hand, for aught I know,—certainly, they had fallen, like blades of grass at the sweep of the scythe, before the charge to which his spirit imparted its triumphant energy;—but, be that as it might, there was never in his heart so much cruelty as would have brushed the down off a butterfly’s wing. I have not known the man to whose innate kindliness I would more confidently make an appeal.
Many characteristics—and those, too, which contribute not the least forcibly to impart resemblance in a sketch—must have vanished, or been obscured, before I met the General. All merely graceful attributes are usually the most evanescent; nor does Nature adorn the human ruin with blossoms of new beauty, that have their roots and proper nutriment only in the chinks and crevices of decay, as she sows wall-flowers over the ruined fortress of Ticonderoga. Still, even in respect of grace and beauty, there were points well worth noting. A ray of humor, now and then, would make its way through the veil of dim obstruction, and glimmer pleasantly upon our faces. A trait of native elegance, seldom seen in the masculine character after childhood or early youth, was shown in the General’s fondness for the sight and fragrance of flowers. An old soldier might be supposed to prize only the bloody laurel on his brow; but here was one who seemed to have a young girl’s appreciation of the floral tribe.
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 shipmasters, the spruce clerks and uncouth sailors, entered and departed; the bustle of this commercial and custom-house life kept up its little murmur round about him; and neither with the men nor their affairs did the General appear to sustain the most distant relation. He was as much out of place as an old sword—now rusty, but which had flashed once in the battle’s front, and showed still a bright gleam along its blade—would have been, among the inkstands, paper-folders, and mahogany rulers, on the Deputy Collector’s desk.
There 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, valor were rewarded by heraldic honor, 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 main-spring 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 forthwith, 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, that 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 subtile 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 look 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 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 have made 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, a 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 office with me and went out only a little later—would often engage me in a discussion about one or the other of his favorite 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 nor caring that my name should be blazoned 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.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter; “Preface to the Second Edition,” “The Custom House. Introductory to The Scarlet Letter,” 1850
Numero Tres—Readers of Miss Lagerlöf will observe that in this, her latest book, The Girl from the Marsh Croft, the Swedish author has abandoned her former world of Romanticism and has entered the field of Naturalism and Realism.This writer’s romantic style is most marked, perhaps, in her first successful work, Gösta Berling.
How The Story of Gösta Berling grew, and the years required to perfect it, is told in the author’s unique literary autobiography, The Story of a Story, which is embodied in the present volume.
In The Girl from the Marsh Croft Miss Lagerlöf has courageously chosen a girl who had gone astray as the heroine of her love story, making her innate honesty and goodness the redemptive qualities which win for her the love of an honest man and the respect and esteem of all.
To the kindness of the publishers of Good Housekeeping, I am indebted for permission to include “The Legend of the Christmas Rose” in this volume.
This book is translated and published with the sanction of the author, Selma Lagerlöf. …
It took place in the court room of a rural district. At the head of the Judges’ table sits an old Judge—a tall and massively built man, with a broad, rough-hewn visage. For several hours he has been engaged in deciding one case after another, and finally something like disgust and melancholy has taken hold of him. It is difficult to know if it is the heat and closeness of the court room that are torturing him or if he has become low-spirited from handling all these petty wrangles, which seem to spring from no other cause than to bear witness to people’s quarrel-mania, uncharitableness, and greed.
He has just begun on one of the last cases to be tried during the day. It concerns a plea for help in the rearing of a child.
This case had already been tried at the last Court Session, and the protocols of the former suit are being read; therefore one learns that the plaintiff is a poor farmer’s daughter and the defendant is a married man.
Moreover, it says in the protocol, the defendant maintains that the plaintiff has wrongfully, unjustly, and only with the desire of profiting thereby, sued the defendant. He admits that at one time the plaintiff had been employed in his household, but that during her stay in his home he had not carried on any intrigue with her, and she has no right to demand assistance from him. The plaintiff still holds firmly to her claim, and after a few witnesses have been heard, the defendant is called to take the oath and show cause why he should not be sentenced by the Court to assist the plaintiff.
Both parties have come up and are standing, side by side, before the Judges’ table. The plaintiff is very young and looks frightened to death. She is weeping from shyness and with difficulty wipes away the tears with a crumpled handkerchief, which she doesn’t seem to know how to open out. She wears black clothes, which are quite new and whole, but they fit so badly that one is tempted to think she has borrowed them in order to appear before the Court of Justice in a befitting manner.
As regards the defendant, one sees at a glance that he is a prosperous man. He is about forty and has a bold and dashing appearance. As he stands before the Court, he has a very good bearing. One can see that he does not think it a pleasure to stand there, but he doesn’t appear to be the least concerned about it.
As soon as the protocols have been read, the Judge turns to the defendant and asks him if he holds fast to his denials and if he is prepared to take the oath.
To these questions the defendant promptly answers a curt yes. He digs down in his vest pocket and takes out a statement from the clergyman who attests that he understands the meaning and import of the oath and is qualified to take it.
All through this the plaintiff has been weeping. She appears to be unconquerably bashful, and doggedly keeps her eyes fixed upon the floor. Thus far she has not raised her eyes sufficiently to look the defendant in the face.
As he utters his ‘yes,’ she starts back. She moves a step or two nearer the Court, as if she had something to say to the contrary, and then she stands there perplexed. It is hardly possible, she seems to say to herself; he cannot have answered yes. I have heard wrongly.
Meanwhile the Judge takes the clergyman’s paper and motions to the court officer. The latter goes up to the table to find the Bible, which lies hidden under a pile of records, and lays it down in front of the defendant.
The plaintiff hears that some one is walking past her and becomes restless. She forces herself to raise her eyes just enough to cast a glance over the table, and she sees then how the court officer moves the Bible.
Again it appears as though she wished to raise some objection, and again she controls herself. It isn’t possible that he will be allowed to take the oath. Surely the Judge must prevent him!
The Judge is a wise man and knows how people in her home district think and feel. He knew, very likely, how severe all people were as soon as there was anything which affected the marriage relation. They knew of no worse sin than the one she had committed. Would she ever have confessed anything like this about herself if it were not true? The Judge must understand the awful contempt that she had brought down upon herself, and not contempt only, but all sorts of misery. No one wanted her in service—no one wanted her work. Her own parents could scarcely tolerate her presence in their cabin and talked all the while of casting her out. Oh, the Judge must know that she would never have asked for help from a married man had she no right to it.
Surely the Judge could not believe that she lied in a case like this; that she would have called down upon herself such a terrible misfortune if she had had any one else to accuse than a married man. And if he knows this, he must stop the oath-taking.
She sees that the Judge reads through the clergyman’s statements a couple of times and she begins to think he intends to interfere.
True, the Judge has a wary look. Now he shifts his glance to the plaintiff, and with that his weariness and disgust become even more marked. It appears as though he were unfavorably disposed toward her. Even if the plaintiff is telling the truth, she is nevertheless a bad woman and the Judge cannot feel any sympathy for her.
Sometimes the Judge interposes in a case, like a good and wise counsellor, and keeps the parties from ruining themselves entirely. But to-day he is tired and cross and thinks only of letting the legal process have its course.
He lays down the clergyman’s recommendation and says a few words to the defendant to the effect that he hopes he has carefully considered the consequences of a perjured oath. The defendant listens to him with the calm air which he has shown all the while, and he answers respectfully and not without dignity.
The plaintiff listens to this in extreme terror. She makes a few vehement protests and wrings her hands. Now she wants to speak to the Court. She struggles frightfully with her shyness and with the sobs which prevent her speaking. The result is that she cannot get out an audible word.
Then the oath will be taken! She must give it up. No one will prevent him from swearing away his soul.
Until now, she could not believe this possible. But now she is seized with the certainty that it is close at hand—that it will occur the next second. A fear more overpowering than any she has hitherto felt takes possession of her. She is absolutely paralyzed. She does not even weep more. Her eyes are glazed. It is his intention, then, to bring down upon himself eternal punishment.
She comprehends that he wants to swear himself free for the sake of his wife. But even if the truth were to make trouble in his home, he should not for that reason throw away his soul’s salvation.
There is nothing so terrible as perjury. There is something uncanny and awful about that sin. There is no mercy or condonation for it. The gates of the infernal regions open of their own accord when the perjurer’s name is mentioned.
If she had then raised her eyes to his face, she would have been afraid of seeing it stamped with damnation’s mark, branded by the wrath of God.
As she stands there and works herself into greater and greater terror, the Judge instructs the defendant as to how he must place his fingers on the Bible. Then the Judge opens the law book to find the form of the oath.
As she sees him place his fingers on the book, she comes a step nearer, and it appears as though she wished to reach across the table and push his hand away.
But as yet she is restrained by a faint hope. She thinks he will relent now—at the last moment.
The Judge has found the place in the law book, and now he begins to administer the oath loudly and distinctly. Then he makes a pause for the defendant to repeat his words. The defendant actually starts to repeat, but he stumbles over the words, and the Judge must begin again from the beginning.
Now she can no longer entertain a trace of hope. She knows now that he means to swear falsely—that he means to bring down upon himself the wrath of God, both for this life and for the life to come.
She stands wringing her hands in her helplessness. And it is all her fault because she has accused him! But she was without work; she was starving and freezing; the child came near dying. To whom else should she turn for help? Never had she thought that he would be willing to commit such an execrable sin.
The Judge has again administered the oath. In a few seconds the thing will have been done: the kind of thing from which there is no turning back—which can never be retrieved, never blotted out.
Just as the defendant begins to repeat the oath, she rushes forward, sweeps away his outstretched hand, and seizes the Bible.
It is her terrible dread which has finally given her courage. He must not swear away his soul; he must not!
The court officer hastens forward instantly to take the Bible from her and to bring her to order. She has a boundless fear of all that pertains to a Court of Justice and actually believes that what she has just done will bring her to prison; but she does not let go her hold on the Bible. Cost what it may, he cannot take the oath. He who would swear also runs up to take the Bible, but she resists him too.
“You shall not take the oath!” she cries, “you shall not!”
That which is happening naturally awakens the greatest surprise. The court attendants elbow their way up to the bar, the jurymen start to rise, the recording clerk jumps up with the ink bottle in his hand to prevent its being upset.
Then the Judge shouts in a loud and angry tone, “Silence!” and everybody stands perfectly still.
“What is the matter with you? What business have you with the Bible?” the Judge asks the plaintiff in the same hard and severe tone.
Since, with the courage of despair, she has been able to give utterance to her distress, her anxiety has decreased so that she can answer, “He must not take the oath!”
“Be silent, and put back the book!” demands the Judge.
She does not obey, but holds the book tightly with both hands. “He cannot take the oath!” she cries fiercely.
“Are you so determined to win your suit?” asks the Judge sharply.
“I want to withdraw the suit,” she shrieks in a high, shrill voice. “I don’t want to force him to swear.”
“What are you shrieking about?” demands the Judge. “Have you lost your senses?”
She catches her breath suddenly and tries to control herself. She hears herself how she is shrieking. The Judge will think she has gone mad if she cannot say what she would say calmly. She struggles with herself again to get control of her voice, and this time she succeeds. She says slowly, earnestly, and clearly, as she looks the Judge in the face: “I wish to withdraw the suit. He is the father of the child. I am still fond of him. I don’t wish him to swear falsely.”
She stands erect and resolute, facing the Judges’ table, all the while looking the Judge square in the face. He sits with both hands resting on the table and for a long while does not take his eyes off from her. While the Judge is looking at her, a great change comes over him. All the ennui and displeasure in his face vanishes, and the large, rough-hewn visage becomes beautiful with the most beautiful emotion. “Ah, see!” he thinks—”Ah, see! such is the mettle of my people. I shall not be vexed at them when there is so much love and godliness even in one of the humblest.”
Suddenly the Judge feels his eyes fill up with tears; then he pulls himself together, almost ashamed, and casts a hasty glance about him. He sees that the clerks and bailiffs and the whole long row of jurymen are leaning forward and looking at the girl who stands before the Judges’ table with the Bible hugged close to her. And he sees a light in their faces, as though they had seen something very beautiful, which had made them happy all the way into their souls.
Then the Judge casts a glance over the spectators, and he sees that they all breathe a quick sigh of relief, as if they had just heard what they had longed above everything to hear.
Finally, the Judge looks at the defendant. Now it is he who stands with lowered head and looks at the floor.
The Judge turns once more to the poor girl. “It shall be as you wish,” he says. “The case shall be stricken from the Calendar,”—this to the recording clerk.
The defendant makes a move, as though he wished to interpose an objection. “Well, what now?” the Judge bellows at him. “Have you anything against it?”
The defendant’s head hangs lower and lower, and he says, almost inaudibly, “Oh, no, I dare say it is best to let it go that way.”
The Judge sits still a moment more, and then he pushes the heavy chair back, rises, and walks around the table and up to the plaintiff.
“Thank you!” he says and gives her his hand.
She has laid down the Bible and stands wiping away the tears with the crumpled up handkerchief.
“Thank you!” says the Judge once more, taking her hand and shaking it as if it belonged to a real man’s man.
Let no one imagine that the girl who had passed through such a trying ordeal at the bar of justice thought that she had done anything praiseworthy! On the contrary, she considered herself disgraced before the whole court room. She did not understand that there was something honorable in the fact that the Judge had gone over and shaken hands with her. She thought it simply meant that the trial was over and that she might go her way.
Nor did she observe that people gave her kindly glances and that there were several who wanted to press her hand. She stole by and wanted only to go. There was a crush at the door. The court was over and many in their hurry to get out made a rush for the door. She drew aside and was about the last person to leave the court room because she felt that every one else ought to go before her.
When she finally came out, Gudmund Erlandsson’s cart stood in waiting at the door. Gudmund was seated in the cart, holding the reins, and was apparently waiting for some one. As soon as he saw her among all the people who poured out of the court room, he called to her: “Come here, Helga! You can ride with me since we are going in the same direction.”
Although she heard her name, she could not believe that it was she whom he was calling. It was not possible that Gudmund Erlandsson wanted to ride with her. He was the most attractive man in the whole parish, young and handsome and of good family connections and popular with every one. She could not imagine that he wished to associate with her.
She was walking with the head shawl drawn far down on her forehead, and was hastening past him without either glancing up or answering.
“Don’t you hear, Helga, that you can ride with me?” said Gudmund, and there was a friendly note in his voice. But she couldn’t grasp that Gudmund meant well by her. She thought that, in one way or another, he wished to make sport of her and was only waiting for those who stood near by to begin tittering and laughing. She cast a frightened and indignant glance at him, and almost ran from the Court House grounds to be out of earshot when the laughter should start in.
Gudmund was unmarried at that time and lived at home with his parents. His father was a farm-owner. His was not a large farm and he was not rich, but he made a good living. The son had gone to the Court House to fetch some deeds for his father, but as there was also another purpose in the trip, he had groomed himself carefully. He had taken the brand-new trap with not a crack in the lacquering, had rubbed up the harness and curried the horse until he shone like satin. He had placed a bright red blanket on the seat beside him, and himself he had adorned with a short hunting-jacket, a small gray felt hat, and top boots, into which the trousers were tucked. This was no holiday attire, but he probably knew that he looked handsome and manly.
Gudmund was seated alone in the cart when he drove from home in the morning, but he had agreeable things to think of and the time had not seemed long to him. When he had arrived about half-way, he came across a poor young girl who was walking very slowly and looked as though she were scarcely able to move her feet because of exhaustion. It was autumn and the road was rain-soaked, and Gudmund saw how, with every step, she sank deeper into the mud. He stopped and asked where she was going. When he learned that she was on her way to the Court House, he invited her to ride. She thanked him and stepped up on the back of the cart to the narrow board where the hay sack was tied, as though she dared not touch the red blanket beside Gudmund. Nor was it his meaning that she should sit beside him. He didn’t know who she was, but he supposed her to be the daughter of some poor backwoodsman and thought the rear of the cart was quite good enough for her.
When they came to a steep hill and the horse began to slow up, Gudmund started talking. He wanted to know her name and where she was from. When he learned that her name was Helga, and that she came from a backwoods farm called Big Marsh, he began to feel uneasy. “Have you always lived at home on the farm or have you been out to service?” he asked.
The past year she had been at home, but before this she had been working out.
“Where?” asked Gudmund hastily.
He thought it was a long while before the answer was forthcoming. “At the West Farm, with Per Mårtensson,” she said finally, sinking her voice as if she would rather not have been heard.
But Gudmund heard her. “Indeed! Then it is you who—” said he, but did not conclude his meaning. He turned from her, and sat up straight in his seat and said not another word to her.
Gudmund gave the horse rap upon rap and talked loudly to himself about the wretched condition of the road and was in a very bad humor.
The girl sat still for a moment; presently Gudmund felt her hand upon his arm. “What do you wish?” he asked without turning his head.
Oh, he was to stop, so she could jump out.
“Why so?” sneered Gudmund. “Aren’t you riding comfortably?”
“Yes, thank you, but I prefer to walk.”
Gudmund struggled a little with himself. It was provoking that he should have bidden a person of Helga’s sort to ride with him to-day of all days! But he thought also that since he had taken her into the wagon, he could not drive her out.
“Stop, Gudmund!” said the girl once again. She spoke in a very decided tone, and Gudmund drew in the reins.
“It is she, of course, who wishes to step down,” thought he. “I don’t have to force her to ride against her will.”
She was down on the road before the horse had time to stop. “I thought you knew who I was when you asked me to ride,” she said, “or I should not have stepped into the cart.”
Gudmund muttered a short good-bye and drove on. She was doubtless right in thinking that he knew her. He had seen the girl from the marsh croft many times as a child, but she had changed since she was grown up. At first he was very glad to be rid of the travelling companion, but gradually he began to feel displeased with himself. He could hardly have acted differently, yet he did not like being cruel to any one.
Shortly after Gudmund had parted from Helga, he turned out of the road and up a narrow street, and came to a large and fine estate. As Gudmund drew up before the gate, the house door opened and one of the daughters appeared.
Gudmund raised his hat; at the same time a faint flush covered his face. “Wonder if the Juryman is at home?” said he.
“No, father has gone down to the Court House,” replied the daughter.
“Oh, then he has already gone,” said Gudmund. “I drove over to ask if the Juryman would ride with me. I’m going to the Court House.”
“Father is always so punctual!” bewailed the daughter.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Gudmund.
“Father would have been pleased, I dare say, to ride behind such a fine horse and in such a pretty cart as you have,” remarked the girl pleasantly.
Gudmund smiled a little when he heard this commendation.
“Well, then, I must be off again,” said he.
“Won’t you step in, Gudmund?”
“Thank you, Hildur, but I’m going to the Court House, you know. It won’t do for me to be late.”
Now Gudmund takes the direct road to the Court House. He was very well pleased with himself and thought no more of his meeting with Helga. It was fortunate that only Hildur had come out on the porch and that she had seen the cart and blanket, the horse and harness. She had probably taken note of everything.
This was the first time Gudmund had attended a Court. He thought that there was much to see and learn, and remained the whole day. He was sitting in the court room when Helga’s case came up; saw how she snatched the Bible and hugged it close, and saw how she defied both court attendants and Judge. When it was all over and the Judge had shaken hands with Helga, Gudmund rose quickly and went out. He hurriedly hitched the horse to the cart and drove up to the steps. He thought Helga had been brave, and now he wished to honor her. But she was so frightened that she did not understand his purpose, and stole away from his intended honor.
The same day Gudmund came to the marsh croft late in the evening. It was a little croft, which lay at the base of the forest ridge that enclosed the parish. The road leading thither was passable for a horse only in winter, and Gudmund had to go there on foot. It was difficult for him to find his way. He came near breaking his legs on stumps and stones, and he had to wade through brooks which crossed the path in several places. Had it not been for the bright moonlight, he could not have found his way to the croft. He thought it was a very hard road that Helga had to tramp this day.
Big Marsh croft lay on the clearing about half-way up the ridge. Gudmund had never been there before, but he had often seen the place from the valley and was sufficiently familiar with it to know that he had gone aright.
All around the clearing lay a hedge of brushwood, which was very thick and difficult to get through. It was probably meant to be a kind of defence and protection against the whole wilderness that surrounded the croft. The cabin stood at the upper edge of the enclosure. Before it stretched a sloping house-yard covered with short, thick grass; and below the yard lay a couple of gray outhouses and a larder with a moss-covered roof. It was a poor and humble place, but one couldn’t deny that it was picturesque up there. The marsh, from which the croft had derived its name, lay somewhere near and sent forth mists which rose, beautiful, splendid, and silvery, in the moonlight, forming a halo around the marsh. The highest peak of the mountain loomed above the mist, and the ridge, prickly with pines, was sharply outlined against the horizon. Over the valley shone the moon. It was so light that one could distinguish fields and orchards and a winding brook, over which the mists curled, like the faintest smoke. It was not very far down there, but the peculiar thing was that the valley lay like a world apart, with which the forest and all that belonged to it seemed to have nothing in common. It was as if the people who lived here in the forest must ever remain under the shadow of these trees. They might find it quite as hard to feel contented down in the valley as woodcock and eagle-owl and lynx and star-flowers.
Gudmund tramped across the open grass-plot and up to the cabin. There a gleam of firelight streamed through the window. As there were no shades at the windows, he peeped into the cabin to see if Helga was there. A small lamp burned on the table near the window, and there sat the master of the house, mending old shoes. The mistress was seated farther back in the room, close to the fireplace, where a slow fire burned. The spinning-wheel was before her, but she had paused in her work to play with a little child. She had taken it up from the cradle, and Gudmund heard how she prattled to it. Her face was lined and wrinkled and she looked severe. But, as she bent over the child, she had a mild expression and she smiled as tenderly at the little one as his own mother might have done.
Gudmund peered in, but could not see Helga in any corner of the cabin. Then he thought it was best to remain outside until she came. He was surprised that she had not reached home. Perhaps she had stopped on the way somewhere to see an acquaintance and to get some food and rest? At all events, she would have to come back soon if she wished to be indoors before it was very late at night.
Gudmund stood still a moment and listened for footsteps. He thought that never before had he sensed such stillness. It was as though the whole forest held its breath and stood waiting for something extraordinary to happen.
No one tramped in the forest, no branch was broken, and no stone rolled down.
“Surely, Helga won’t be long in coming! I wonder what she will say when she sees that I’m here?” thought Gudmund. “Perhaps she will scream and rush into the forest and will not dare come home the whole night!”
At the same time it struck him as rather strange that now, all of a sudden, he had so much business with that marsh croft girl!
On his return from the Court House to his home, he had, as usual, gone to his mother to relate his experiences of the day. Gudmund’s mother was a sensible and broad-minded woman who had always understood how to treat her son, and he had as much confidence in her now as when he was a child. She had been an invalid for several years and could not walk, but sat all day in her chair. It was always a good hour for her when Gudmund came home from an outing and brought her the news.
When Gudmund had told his mother about Helga from Big Marsh, he observed that she became thoughtful. For a long while she sat quietly and looked straight ahead. “There seems to be something good in that girl still,” she remarked. “It will never do to condemn a person because she has once met with misfortune. She might be very grateful to any one who helped her now.”
Gudmund apprehended at once what his mother was thinking of. She could no longer help herself, but must have some one near her continually, and it was always difficult to find anybody who cared to remain in that capacity. His mother was exacting and not easy to get on with, and, moreover, all young folk preferred other work where they could have more freedom. Now, it must have occurred to his mother that she ought to take Helga from Big Marsh into her service, and Gudmund thought this a capital idea. Helga would certainly be very devoted to his mother.
“It will be hard for the child,” remarked the mother after a little, and Gudmund understood that she was thinking seriously of the matter.
“Surely the parents would let it stay with them?” said Gudmund.
“It does not follow that she wants to part with it.”
“She will have to give up thinking of what she wants or doesn’t want. I thought that she looked starved out. They can’t have much to eat at the croft,” said the son.
To this his mother made no reply, but began to talk of something else. It was evident that some new misgivings had come to her, which hindered her from coming to a decision.
Then Gudmund told her of how he had found a pretext for calling at the Juryman’s at Älvåkra and had met Hildur. He mentioned what she had said of the horse and wagon, and it was easily seen that he was pleased with the meeting. His mother was also very much pleased. Where she sat in the cottage, unable to move from her chair, it was her constant occupation to spin plans for her son’s future, and it was she who had first hit upon the idea that he should try and set his cap for the pretty daughter of the Juryman. It was the finest match he could make.
The Juryman was a yeoman farmer. He owned the largest farm in the parish and had much money and power. It was really absurd to hope that he would be satisfied with a son-in-law with no more wealth than Gudmund, but it was also possible that he would conform to his daughter’s wishes. That Gudmund could win Hildur if he so wished, his mother was certain.
This was the first time Gudmund had betrayed to his mother that her thought had taken root in him, and they talked long of Hildur and of all the riches and advantages that would come to the chosen one. Soon there was another lull in the conversation, for his mother was again absorbed in her thoughts. “Couldn’t you send for this Helga? I should like to see her before taking her into my service,” said the mother finally.
“It is well, mother, that you wish to take her under your wing,” remarked Gudmund, thinking to himself that if his mother had a nurse with whom she was satisfied, his wife would have a pleasanter life here. “You’ll see that you will be pleased with the girl,” he continued.
“Then, too, it would be a good deed to take her in hand,” added the mother.
As it grew dusk, the invalid retired, and Gudmund went out to the stable to tend the horses. It was beautiful weather, with a clear atmosphere, and the whole tract lay bathed in moonlight. It occurred to him that he ought to go to Big Marsh to-night and convey his mother’s greeting. If the weather should continue clear on the morrow, he would be so busy taking in oats that neither he nor any one else would find time to go there.
Now that Gudmund was standing outside the cabin at Big Marsh croft listening, he certainly heard no footsteps. But there were other sounds which at short intervals pierced through the stillness. He heard a soft weeping, a very low and smothered moaning, with now and then a sob. Gudmund thought that the sounds came from the outhouse lane, and he walked toward it. As he was nearing, the sobs ceased; but it was evident that some one moved in the woodshed. Gudmund seemed to comprehend instantly who was there. “Is it you, Helga, who sit here and weep?” asked Gudmund, placing himself in the doorway so that the girl could not rush away before he had spoken with her.
Again it was perfectly still. Gudmund had guessed rightly that it was Helga who sat there and wept; but she tried to smother the sobs, so that Gudmund would think he had heard wrongly and go away. It was pitch dark in the woodshed, and she knew that he could not see her.
But Helga was in such despair that evening it was not easy for her to keep back the sobs. She had not as yet gone into the cabin to see her parents. She hadn’t had the courage to go in. When she trudged up the steep hill in the twilight and thought of how she must tell her parents that she was not to receive any assistance from Per Mårtensson in the rearing of her child, she began to fear all the harsh and cruel things she felt they would say to her and thought of burying herself in the swamp. And in her terror she jumped up and tried to rush past Gudmund; but he was too alert for her. “Oh, no! You sha’n’t get by before I have spoken with you.”
“Only let me go!” she said, looking wildly at him.
“You look as though you wanted to jump into the river,” said he; for now she was out in the moonlight and he could see her face.
“Well, what matters it if I did?” said Helga, throwing her head back and looking him straight in the eye. “This morning you didn’t even care to have me ride on the back of your cart. No one wants to have anything to do with me! You must surely understand that it is best for a miserable creature like me to put an end to herself.”
Gudmund did not know what to do next. He wished himself far away, but he thought, also, that he could not desert a person who was in such distress. “Listen to me! Only promise that you will listen to what I have to say to you; afterwards you may go wherever you wish.”
“Is there anything here to sit on?”
“The chopping-block is over yonder.”
“Then go over there and sit down and be quiet!”
She went very obediently and seated herself.
“And don’t cry any more!” said he, for he thought he was beginning to get control over her. But he should not have said this, for immediately she buried her face in her hands and cried harder than ever.
“Stop crying!” he said, ready to stamp his foot at her. “There are those, I dare say, who are worse off than you are.”
“No, no one can be worse off!”
“You are young and strong. You should see how my mother fares! She is so wasted from suffering that she cannot move, but she never complains.”
“She is not abandoned by everybody, as I am.”
“You are not abandoned, either. I have spoken with my mother about you.”
There was a pause in the sobs. One heard, as it were, the great stillness of the forest, which always held its breath and waited for something wonderful. “I was to say to you that you should come down to my mother to-morrow that she might see you. Mother thinks of asking if you would care to take service with us.”
“Did she think of asking me?”
“Yes; but she wants to see you first.”
“Does she know that—”
“She knows as much about you as all the rest do.”
The girl leaped up with a cry of joy and wonderment, and the next moment Gudmund felt a pair of arms around his neck. He was thoroughly frightened, and his first impulse was to break loose and run; but he calmed himself and stood still. He understood that the girl was so beside herself with joy that she didn’t know what she was doing. At that moment she could have hugged the worst ruffian, only to find a little sympathy in the great happiness that had come to her.
“If she will take me into her service, I can live!” said she, burying her head on Gudmund’s breast and weeping again. “You may know that I was in earnest when I wished to go down into the swamp,” she said. “You deserve thanks for coming. You have saved my life.” Until then Gudmund had been standing motionless, but now he felt that something tender and warm was beginning to stir within him. He raised his hand and stroked her hair. Then she started, as if awakened from a dream, and stood up straight as a rod before him. “You deserve thanks for coming,” she repeated. She had become flame-red in the face, and he too reddened.
“Well, then, you will come home to-morrow,” he said, putting out his hand to say good-bye.
“I shall never forget that you came to me to-night!” said Helga, and her great gratitude got the mastery over her shyness.
“Oh, yes, it was well perhaps that I came,” he said quite calmly, and he felt rather pleased with himself. “You will go in now, of course?”
“Yes, now I shall go in.”
Gudmund suddenly felt himself rather pleased with Helga too—as one usually is with a person whom one has succeeded in helping. She lingered and did not want to go. “I would like to see you safely under shelter before I leave.”
“I thought they might retire before I went in.”
“No, you must go in at once, so that you can have your supper and rest yourself,” said he, thinking it was agreeable to take her in hand.
She went at once to the cabin, and he accompanied her, pleased and proud because she obeyed him.
When she stood on the threshold, they said good-bye to each other again; but before he had gone two paces, she came after him. “Remain just outside the door until I am in. It will be easier for me if I know that you are standing without.”
“Yes,” said he, “I shall stand here until you have come over the worst of it.”
Then Helga opened the cabin door, and Gudmund noticed that she left it slightly ajar. It was as if she did not wish to feel herself separated from her helper who stood without. Nor did he feel any compunction about hearing all that happened within the cabin.
The old folks nodded pleasantly to Helga as she came in. Her mother promptly laid the child in the crib, and then went over to the cupboard and brought out a bowl of milk and a bread cake and placed them on the table.
“There! Now sit down and eat,” said she. Then she went up to the fireplace and freshened the fire. “I have kept the fire alive, so you could dry your feet and warm yourself when you came home. But eat something first! It is food that you need most.”
All the while Helga had been standing at the door. “You mustn’t receive me so well, mother,” she said in a low tone. “I will get no money from Per. I have renounced his help.”
“There was some one here from the Court House this evening who had been there and heard how it turned out for you,” said the mother. “We know all.”
Helga was still standing by the door, looking out, as if she knew not which was in or out.
Then the farmer put down his work, pushed his spectacles up on his forehead, and cleared his throat for a speech of which he had been thinking the whole evening. “It is a fact, Helga,” said he, “that mother and I have always wanted to be decent and honorable folk, but we have thought that we had been disgraced on your account. It was as though we had not taught you to distinguish between good and evil. But when we learned what you did to-day, we said to each other—mother and I—that now folks could see anyway that you have had a proper bringing up and right teaching, and we thought that perhaps we might yet be happy in you. And mother did not want that we should go to bed before you came that you might have a hearty welcome home.”
Helga from the marsh croft came to Närlunda, and there all went well. She was willing and teachable and grateful for every kind word said to her. She always felt herself to be the humblest of mortals and never wanted to push herself ahead. It was not long until the household and the servants were satisfied with her.
The first days it appeared as if Gudmund was afraid to speak to Helga. He feared that this croft girl would get notions into her head because he had come to her assistance. But these were needless worries. Helga regarded him as altogether too fine and noble for her even to raise her eyes to. Gudmund soon perceived that he did not have to keep her at a distance. She was more shy of him than of any one else.
The autumn that Helga came to Närlunda, Gudmund paid many visits to Älvåkra, and there was much talk about the good chance he stood of being the prospective son-in-law of this estate. That the courtship had been successful all were assured at Christmas. Then the Juryman, with his wife and daughter, came over to Närlunda, and it was evident that they had come there to see how Hildur would fare if she married Gudmund.
This was the first time that Helga saw, at close range, her whom Gudmund was to marry. Hildur Ericsdotter was not yet twenty, but the marked thing about her was that no one could look at her without thinking what a handsome and dignified mistress she would be some day. She was tall and well built, fair and pretty, and apparently liked to have many about her to look after. She was never timid; she talked much and seemed to know everything better than the one with whom she was talking. She had attended school in the city for a couple of years and wore the prettiest frocks Helga had ever seen, but yet she didn’t impress one as being showy or vain. Rich and beautiful as she was, she might have married a gentleman at any time, but she always declared that she did not wish to be a fine lady and sit with folded hands. She wanted to marry a farmer and look after her own house, like a real farmer’s wife.
Helga thought Hildur a perfect wonder. Never had she seen any one who made such a superb appearance. Nor had she ever dreamed that a person could be so nearly perfect in every particular. To her it seemed a great joy that in the near future she was to serve such a mistress.
Everything had gone off well during the Juryman’s visit. But whenever Helga looked back upon that day, she experienced a certain unrest. It seems that when the visitors had arrived, she had gone around and served coffee. When she came in with the tray, the Juryman’s wife leaned forward and asked her mistress if she was not the girl from the marsh croft. She did not lower her voice much, and Helga had distinctly heard the question.
Mother Ingeborg answered yes, and then the other had said something which Helga couldn’t hear. But it was to the effect that she thought it singular they wanted a person of that sort in the house. This caused Helga many anxious moments. She tried to console herself with the thought that it was not Hildur, but her mother, who had said this.
One Sunday in the early spring Helga and Gudmund walked home together from church. As they came down the slope, they were with the other church people; but soon one after another dropped off until, finally, Helga and Gudmund were alone.
Then Gudmund happened to think that he had not been alone with Helga since that night at the croft, and the memory of that night came forcibly back to him. He had thought of their first meeting often enough during the winter, and with it he had always felt something sweet and pleasant thrill through his senses. As he went about his work, he would call forth in thought that whole beautiful evening: the white mist, the bright moonlight, the dark forest heights, the light valley, and the girl who had thrown her arms round his neck and wept for joy. The whole incident became more beautiful each time that it recurred to his memory. But when Gudmund saw Helga going about among the others at home, toiling and slaving, it was hard for him to think that it was she who had shared in this. Now that he was walking alone with her on the church slope, he couldn’t help wishing for a moment that she would be the same girl she was on that evening.
Helga began immediately to speak of Hildur. She praised her much: said she was the prettiest and most sensible girl in the whole parish, and congratulated Gudmund because he would have such an excellent wife. “You must tell her to let me remain always at Närlunda,” she said. “It will be a pleasure to work for a mistress like her.”
Gudmund smiled at her enthusiasm, but answered only in monosyllables, as though he did not exactly follow her. It was well, of course, that she was so fond of Hildur, and so happy because he was going to be married.
“You have been content to be with us this winter?” he asked.
“Indeed I have! I cannot begin to tell you how kind mother Ingeborg and all of you have been to me!”
“Have you not been homesick for the forest?”
“Oh, yes, in the beginning, but not now any more.”
“I thought that one who belonged to the forest could not help yearning for it.”
Helga turned half round and looked at him, who walked on the other side of the road. Gudmund had become almost a stranger to her; but now there was something in his voice, his smile, that was familiar. Yes, he was the same man who had come to her and saved her in her greatest distress. Although he was to marry another, she was certain that he wanted to be a good friend to her, and a faithful helper.
She was very happy to feel that she could confide in him, as in none other, and thought that she must tell him of all that had happened to her since they last talked together. “I must tell you that it was rather hard for me the first weeks at Närlunda,” she began. “But you mustn’t speak of this to your mother.”
“If you want me to be silent, I’ll be silent.”
“Fancy! I was so homesick in the beginning that I was about to go back to the forest.”
“Were you homesick? I thought you were glad to be with us.”
“I simply could not help it,” she said apologetically. “I understood, of course, how well it was for me to be here; you were all so good to me, and the work was not so hard but that I could manage with it, but I was homesick nevertheless. There was something that took hold of me and wanted to draw me back to the forest. I thought that I was deserting and betraying some one who had a right to me, when I wanted to stay here in the village.”
“It was perhaps—” began Gudmund, but checked himself.
“No, it was not the boy I longed for. I knew that he was well cared for and that mother was kind to him. It was nothing in particular. I felt as though I were a wild bird that had been caged, and I thought I should die if I were not let out.”
“To think that you had such a hard time of it!” said Gudmund smiling, for now, all at once, he recognized her. Now it was as if nothing had come between them, but that they had parted at the forest farm the evening before.
Helga smiled again, but continued to speak of her torments. “I didn’t sleep a single night,” said she, “and as soon as I went to bed, the tears started to flow, and when I got up of a morning, the pillow was wet through. In the daytime, when I went about among all of you, I could keep back the tears, but as soon as I was alone my eyes would fill up.”
“You have wept much in your time,” said Gudmund without looking the least bit sympathetic as he pronounced the words.
Helga thought that he was laughing to himself all the while. “You surely don’t comprehend how hard it was for me!” she said, speaking faster and faster in her effort to make him understand her. “A great longing took possession of me and carried me out of myself. Not for a moment could I feel happy! Nothing was beautiful, nothing was a pleasure; not a human being could I become attached to. You all remained just as strange to me as you were the first time I entered the house.”
“But didn’t you say a moment ago that you wished to remain with us?” said Gudmund wonderingly.
“Of course I did!”
“Then, surely, you are not homesick now?”
“No, it has passed over. I have been cured. Wait, and you shall hear!”
As she said this, Gudmund crossed to the other side of the road and walked beside her, laughing to himself all the while. He seemed glad to hear her speak, but probably he didn’t attach much importance to what she was relating. Gradually Helga took on his mood, and she thought everything was becoming easy and light. The church road was long and difficult to walk, but to-day she was not tired. There was something that carried her. She continued with her story because she had begun it, but it was no longer of much importance to her to speak. It would have been quite as agreeable to her if she might have walked silently beside him.
“When I was the most unhappy,” she said, “I asked mother Ingeborg one Saturday evening to let me go home and remain over Sunday. And that evening, as I tramped over the hills to the marsh, I believed positively that I should never again go back to Närlunda. But at home father and mother were so happy because I had found service with good and respectable people, that I didn’t dare tell them I could not endure remaining with you. Then, too, as soon as I came up into the forest all the anguish and pain vanished entirely. I thought the whole thing had been only a fancy. And then it was so difficult about the child. Mother had become attached to the boy and had made him her own. He wasn’t mine any more. And it was well thus, but it was hard to get used to.”
“Perhaps you began to be homesick for us?” blurted Gudmund.
“Oh, no! On Monday morning, as I awoke and thought of having to return to you, the longing came over me again. I lay crying and fretting because the only right and proper thing for me to do was to go back to Närlunda. But I felt all the same as though I were going to be ill or lose my senses if I went back. Suddenly I remembered having once heard some one say that if one took some ashes from the hearth in one’s own home and strewed them on the fire in the strange place, one would be rid of homesickness.”
“Then it was a remedy that was easy to take,” said Gudmund.
“Yes, but it was supposed to have this effect also: afterwards one could never be content in any other place. If one were to move from the homestead to which one had borne the ashes, one must long to get back there again just as much as one had longed before to get away from there.”
“Couldn’t one carry ashes along wherever one moved to?”
“No, it can’t be done more than once. Afterwards there is no turning back, so it was a great risk to try anything like that.”
“I shouldn’t have taken chances on a thing of that kind,” said Gudmund, and she could hear that he was laughing at her.
“But I dared, all the same,” retorted Helga. “It was better than having to appear as an ingrate in your mother’s eyes and in yours, when you had tried to help me. I brought a little ashes from home, and when I got back to Närlunda I watched my opportunity, when no one was in, and scattered the ashes over the hearth.”
“And now you believe it is ashes that have helped you?”
“Wait, and you shall hear how it turned out! Immediately I became absorbed in my work and thought no more about the ashes all that day. I grieved exactly as before and was just as weary of everything as I had been. There was much to be done that day, both in the house and out of it, and when I finished with the evening’s milking and was going in, the fire on the hearth was already lighted.”
“Now I’m very curious to hear what happened,” said Gudmund.
“Think! Already, as I was crossing the house yard, I thought there was something familiar in the gleam from the fire, and when I opened the door, it flashed across my mind that I was going into our own cabin and that father and mother would be sitting by the hearth. This flew past like a dream, but when I came in, I was surprised that it looked so pretty and homelike in the cottage. To me your mother and the rest of you had never appeared as pleasant as you did in the firelight. It seemed really good to come in, and this was not so before. I was so astonished that I could hardly keep from clapping my hands and shouting. I thought you were all so changed. You were no longer strangers to me and I could talk to you about all sorts of things. You can understand, of course, that I was happy, but I couldn’t help being astonished. I wondered if I had been bewitched, and then I remembered the ashes I had strewn over the hearth.”
“Yes, it was marvellous,” said Gudmund. He did not believe the least little bit in witchcraft and was not at all superstitious; but he didn’t dislike hearing Helga talk of such things. “Now the wild forest girl has returned,” thought he. “Can anybody comprehend how one who has passed through all that she has can still be so childish?”
“Of course it was wonderful!” said Helga. “And the same thing has been coming back all winter. As soon as the fire on the hearth was burning, I felt the same confidence and security as if I had been at home. But there must be something extraordinary about this fire—not with any other kind of fire, perhaps—only that which burns on a hearth, with all the household gathered around it, night after night. It gets sort of acquainted with one. It plays and dances for one and talks to one, and sometimes it is ill-humored. It is as if it had the power to create comfort and discomfort. I thought now that the fire from home had come to me and that it gave the same glow of pleasure to every one here that it had done back home.”
“What if you had to leave Närlunda?” said Gudmund.
“Then I must long to come back again all my life,” said she. And the quiver in her voice betrayed that this was spoken in profound seriousness.
“Well, I shall not be the one to drive you away!” said Gudmund. Although he was laughing, there was something warm in his tone.
They started no new subject of conversation, but walked on in silence until they came to the homestead. Now and then Gudmund turned his head to look at her who was walking at his side. She had gathered strength after her hard time of the year before. Her features were delicate and refined; her hair was like an aureole around her head, and her eyes were not easy to read. Her step was light and elastic, and when she spoke, the words came readily, yet modestly. She was afraid of being laughed at, still she had to speak out what was in her heart.
Gudmund wondered if he wished Hildur to be like this, but he probably didn’t. This Helga would be nothing special to marry.
A fortnight later Helga heard that she must leave Närlunda in April because Hildur Ericsdotter would not live under the same roof with her. The master and mistress of the house did not say this in so many words, but the mistress hinted that when the new daughter-in-law came, they would in all probability get so much help from her they would not require so many servants. On another occasion she said she had heard of a good place where Helga would fare better than with them.
It was not necessary for Helga to hear anything further to understand that she must leave, and she immediately announced that she would move, but she did not wish any other situation and would return to her home.
It was apparent that it was not of their own free will they were dismissing Helga from Närlunda.
When she was leaving, there was a spread for her. It was like a party, and mother Ingeborg gave her such heaps of dresses and shoes that she, who had come to them with only a bundle under her arm, could now barely find room enough in a chest for her possessions.
“I shall never again have such an excellent servant in my house as you have been,” said mother Ingeborg. “And do not think too hard of me for letting you go! You understand, no doubt, that it is not my will, this. I shall not forget you. So long as I have any power, you shall never have to suffer want.”
She arranged with Helga that she was to weave sheets and towels for her. She gave her employment for at least half a year.
Gudmund was in the woodshed splitting wood the day Helga was leaving. He did not come in to say good-bye, although his horse was at the door. He appeared to be so busy that he didn’t take note of what was going on. She had to go out to him to say farewell.
He laid down the axe, took Helga’s hand, and said rather hurriedly, “Thank you for all!” and began chopping again. Helga had wanted to say something about her understanding that it was impossible for them to keep her and that it was all her own fault. She had brought this upon herself. But Gudmund chopped away until the splinters flew around him, and she couldn’t make up her mind to speak.
But the strangest thing about this whole moving affair was that the master himself, old Erland Erlandsson, drove Helga up to the marsh.
Gudmund’s father was a little weazened man, with a bald pate and beautiful and knowing eyes. He was very timid, and so reticent at times that he did not speak a word the whole day. So long as everything went smoothly, one took no notice of him, but when anything went wrong, he always said and did what there was to be said and done to right matters. He was a capable accountant and enjoyed the confidence of every man in the township. He executed all kinds of public commissions and was more respected than many a man with a large estate and great riches.
Erland Erlandsson drove Helga home in his own wagon, and he wouldn’t allow her to step down and walk up any of the hills. When they arrived at the marsh croft, he sat a long while in the cabin and talked with Helga’s parents, telling them of how pleased he and mother Ingeborg had been with her. It was only because they did not need so many servants that they were sending her home. She, who was the youngest, must go. They had felt that it was wrong to dismiss any of those who were old in their service.
Erland Erlandsson’s speech had the desired effect, and the parents gave Helga a warm welcome. When they heard that she had received such large orders that she could support herself with weaving, they were satisfied, and she remained at home.” Selma Lagerlof, The Girl From Marsh Croft; Prefatory Note & Chapters I-III, 1916
Numero Cuatro—“captured a day later. Hasenfus had previously flown CIA missions in Laos and Vietnam, in the CIA’s infamous Air America program. In Nicaragua, he confessed that he was part of a clandestine network that was illegally supplying arms to the Ronald Reagan–supported Contras, flying out of Ilopango, El Salvador, and dropping weapons caches at arranged spots.Then, a few weeks later, on November 3, 1986, a Lebanese weekly newspaper, Al Shiraa, was the first to report the other side of the story: that key Reagan administration officials—including Robert McFarlane, then Reagan’s national security adviser, and Vietnam veteran and Charismatic Catholic Col. Oliver North, an NSC staffer—had visited revolutionary Iran and worked out an arms sale with representatives of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Follow-up reports initially presented the operation as a bid by the White House to open a back channel with Tehran to negotiate the release of US hostages being held in Lebanon. But then it was eventually revealed that the profits from off-the-books arms sales to Iran, which included the participation of Israel, were used to purchase the weapons that Hasenfus and others were passing along to the Contras. Congress, in 1982 and 1984, had prohibited the United States from providing military aid to the Contras, so this was a work-around.ttention is fixed elsewhere, but it is worth taking a moment from clicking 538 to consider that we are fast approaching the 30th anniversary of the Iran/Contra scandal. On October 5, 1986, a young Sandinista soldier named José Fernando Canales Alemán fired a SAM-7 surface-to-air missile and brought down a C123K CIA supply plane. Of its crew, only Eugene Hasenfus survived, parachuting into the jungle. ‘What now, Rambo?’ a Sandinista asked him after he was
The operation was, a government source told Time, ‘run out of the West Wing’ of the White House by a group of ideologically committed staffers—nearly all, like North, ultramontane right-wing Christians—who called themselves ‘the Cowboys.’ ‘It was a vest-pocket, high-risk business,’ said the source. It soon became clear that the doings of the Cowboys could no longer be kept secret, so Oliver North and his boss, John Poindexter (who had replaced McFarlane as national security adviser), spent a weekend in the bowels of the White House shredding documents and deleting e-mails en masse. When North’s shredder overloaded from the volume, his secretary, Fawn Hall, smuggled documents in her boots to another machine.
Over the course of the next few years, a presidential commission headed by John Tower, independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, and multiple House and Senate committees, including one headed by then-Senator John Kerry, revealed various aspects of the conspiracy. Heroic front-line investigative journalists, among them Robert Parry, Peter Kornbluh, Alfonso Chardy, and, later, Gary Webb, uncovered even more details.
The amount of information and the dense nexus of political and economic relationships uncovered was staggering, revealing the conspiracy—though the word “conspiracy” doesn’t do justice to what became known as Iran/Contra—to be about much more than an illegal arms sale and transfer of funds to bypass Congress and arm anticommunist insurgents. Today, all the many angles and players involved are hazy: La Penca, cocaine, William Casey and the Knights of Malta, Ross Perot, the World Anti-Communist League, Mena, the Office of Public Diplomacy, the Sultan of Brunei, Colombia, Manuel Noriega, Dick Cheney, Robert Kagan, Manucher Ghorbanifar, Otto Reich, Michael Ledeen… it’s as hard to keep in order as the plot of a Dan Brown novel.
The mainstream media and the Democrat-controlled Congress tried hard to Watergate-ize the revelations: That is, they tried, through reports and public hearings, to frame the Reagan administration’s activities as the transgressions of a few rotten apples, as a violation of procedure carried out by an NSC gone rogue. In the early 1970s, Watergate was about much more than the break-in of the Democratic Party’s campaign headquarters by Nixon-administration “plumbers”: The larger context of that crime was all bound up in America’s imperial war of aggression in Southeast Asia, particularly Nixon’s and Kissinger’s secret bombing of Cambodia. But by the time Nixon resigned in 1974, the break-in had been reduced to domestic politics and personal psychology, to Nixon’s paranoia. The insipid, oft-repeated cliché used to describe Watergate, “it’s not the crime, but the cover-up,” is itself part of the cover-up, deflecting from the interventionist and militarist assumptions that motivated the crime in the first place.
There were efforts to do the same with Iran/Contra, to pin it on Reagan or the colorful North (who tried in congressional testimony to fall on his sword to save Reagan), and to recommend, as a correction, greater oversight of the NSC. But unlike with Watergate, there were just too many moving parts to the Iran/Contra conspiracy, too many plot threads, too many tales told, to make stick a Shakespearean narrative—of hubris, of a great man being brought low for reaching too high. At the end of the day, 11 mid-level officials were convicted, mostly of crimes such as destruction of evidence, but all were pardoned, most by George H.W. Bush on Christmas Eve 1992, just after he’d lost the White House to Bill Clinton. Even before that pardon, however, the public had lost the thread. Democrats, in all the many, many hours of hearings broadcast on PBS, never once questioned the underlying objectives Iran/Contra was designed to carry out, never once critiqued the assumptions of Washington’s bipartisan policy in the Middle East or its brutal, inhumane war on the Sandinistas. My favorite bit of Iran/Contra theater is found in this video clip from 1987, available on YouTube, of Maine Senator George Mitchell, a Democrat, lecturing North, who had just essentially confessed. For nearly eight minutes, Mitchell dilates on the procedural virtues of America, its “rule of law,” its constitutional system, its “openness,” which allows all immigrants to have an “equal chance” and the right to criticize the government. North had earlier testified that he had been doing God’s work, which earned this rebuke from Mitchell: “God does not take sides in American politics, and in America disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of lack of patriotism.”
But Mitchell had already lost the argument: He had started his sermon admitting the legitimacy of intervening in Nicaragua and “containing” the Sandinistas. “There’s no disagreement on that,” the senator said. OK, then, North might have responded, why are we here? But he didn’t say anything. He didn’t make a sound. He sat there listening in absolute silence. Mitchell, on the other hand, kept talking. And talking. And talking, afflicted by a logorrhea born out of the political exhaustion of the New Deal. But having accepted the premise of North’s anticommunism, he really had nothing to say other than quibble about the means. The Teutonic North, with his chin high and a chest full of medals on his starched uniform, knew that he, and the New Right coalition he stands for, had won the political debate without saying a word.
A year after Mitchell’s lecture, during the campaign to succeed Ronald Reagan, Michael Dukakis, Democratic nominee for the presidency, tried to make something out of Iran/Contra. He couldn’t. After raising the issue in one of his debates with George H.W. Bush, Bush responded as if he were brushing away a fly: “I will take all the blame” for Iran/Contra, Bush said, “if you give me half the credit for all of the good things that have happened in world peace since Ronald Reagan and I took over from the Carter administration.” Dukakis didn’t raise the issue again.
In Empire’s Workshop, which came out a decade ago, I tried to step back from the rabbit hole and look at Iran/Contra not as crime or conspiracy but as a consequential historical moment that both helped unite the various political constituencies that made up the Reaganite New Right, including first-generation neoconservatives, theocons, law-and-order anticommunists, economic free-traders, and disgruntled Vietnam vets, mercenaries, and covert operators. The immediate motivation for that book was to try to figure out why so many of the key players involved, either in executing or justifying Iran/Contra, had returned to take influential positions in the administration of George W. Bush. Among them were Dick Cheney, John Negroponte, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, John Poindexter, and Otto Reich. Others, such as Robert Kagan, became prominent opinion makers.
Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s ambassador to the UN, called Central America “the most important place in the world for the United States.” There was a lot going on in the world in the 1980s, so commentators were hard-pressed to account for such an opinion. But the importance of Central America—Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—rested in its unimportance: There was no arms race, no critical resources, and the region was squarely in Washington’s sphere of influence. In other words, unlike Lebanon and Syria, where Reagan refused to commit, Central America could be given to movement conservatives without fear of major blowback.
What, then was Iran/Contra? Many things.
First, it was a vast covert fundraising network, one that went well beyond Iran and well beyond the goal of arming the Contras. Funding came from four main sources: third-party allied countries, such as Saudi Arabia; the conservative grassroots, which, through various right-wing activists coordinated by North, contributed to the anti-Sandinistas cause; wealthy US businessmen, many of them tied to the extractive industry, such as Ross Perot; and Latin American drug cartels (much of the money was routed through Manuel Noriega’s Panama; the cartels’ transport infrastructure was used to get weapons to the Contras and, in turn, drugs into the United States—as North wrote in his personal diary: “Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S.”).
Second, this dense, transnational fundraising-and-supply network, which included Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Freedom Council, was more than logistical. It helped bind diverse, often fringe groups into a unified campaign. It was, for example, the first time neoconservatives and the religious right worked together on an extensive project. Well before those two groups joined after 9/11 to fight radical Islam, the logistical network that undergirded Iran/Contra allowed them to warm up against another “political religion”: Liberation Theology, Latin America’s Christian socialism, which fought against US-backed military juntas and sought to achieve social justice through a redistribution of wealth. In order to bypass public and congressional opposition, the White House outsourced the “hearts and minds” component of its Central American wars to evangelicals. This gave the religious right its first real taste of power within the Republican Party and drew it closer to other groups within the Reagan Revolution. Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum sent down “Freedom Fighter Friendship Kits” to the Contras, complete with toothpaste, insect repellent, and Bibles. Gospel Crusades Inc., Friends of the Americas, Operation Blessing, World Vision, the Wycliffe Bible Translators, and World Medical Relief likewise shipped hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid to the anti-Sandinista rebels and Honduran refugee camps, where they established schools, health clinics, and religious missions. Similar operations took place in El Salvador and Guatemala, where Pat Robertson used his Christian Broadcasting Network to raise money for Efraín Ríos Montt, the evangelical Christian who presided over Guatemala’s 1982 genocide, which killed over 100,000 Mayan Indians.
Third, the money raised by Iran/Contra’s vast fundraising operation was used not just to wage a war on Nicaragua but to fight psy-ops here, on domestic US soil, to neutralize political opposition in Congress and deflect critical public opinion. The Office of Public Diplomacy, headed first by Otto Reich and then Robert Kagan, targeted journalists and public opinion, while the White House worked closely with “independent” grassroots conservative organizations to defeat congressional opponents and keep tabs on, and harass, anti-interventionist activists in organizations such as the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. The details are too thick to relate here, but a draft chapter in the Senate’s Iran/Contra report called these activities “what a covert CIA operation in a foreign country might do”; they “attempted to manipulate the media, the Congress and public opinion to support the Reagan administration’s policies.”
Finally, Iran/Contra was at its heart an ideological project. It wasn’t enough for militarists and neocons to figure out ways to secretly wage an illegal war. Congressional oversight was only part of the problem, and easily overcome. What had to be defeated was the widespread, diffuse anti-militarism and cynicism regarding the use of American power that had overtaken the American public since the 1960s, with the loss of the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal.
To this end, the illegal war against the Sandinistas provided a chance: Reagan defended support of the Contras in highly idealistic terms, describing the counterinsurgencies as the “moral equivalents” of the founding fathers, as carrying Tom Paine’s and Abraham Lincoln’s torch. This is the first time that the modern Republican Party used such grandiose language to describe a foreign intervention; before this, from Wilson to JFK, similar lofty rhetoric had been the property of Democrats. Similarly, intellectuals on the religious right, along with mainline conservative Protestants, used the war against Liberation Theology—identified by one as “the single most critical problem that Christianity has faced in all of its 2000 year history”—to offer a proactive ethical defense of markets and militarism, to insist that wealth and power were a sign of God’s grace. And neocons got to test arguments—which they would ultimately win after 9/11—concerning the power of the executive branch to wage unaccountable war. Wyoming Representative Dick Cheney’s office wrote the dissenting report to the damning congressional investigation, which made “the case for presidential primacy over foreign relations.” Asked years later, in 2005, as his war in Iraq was collapsing into catastrophe, where his views concerning war and the presidency come from, Vice President Cheney responded: “If you want reference to an obscure text, go look at the minority views that were filed with the Iran/Contra committee.”
So Iran/Contra was, in its sum, a vast logistical and ideological work-around, a way both to bypass specific restrictions in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate that Congress placed on the executive branch to wage war and conduct covert activities and to neutralize a more diffuse antiwar and anti-interventionist sentiment that had overcome the American public. Support for the Contras allowed the diverse secular and religious strains of the New Right to once again assert the moral righteousness of militarism and markets. It shouldn’t, then, be thought of as a conspiracy, but as the conspiracy, a conspiracy of conspiracies—a crime of state that makes all other crimes of state possible, less Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (a conspiracy of a small cabal) and more James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand (the totality of American ideology).
Watergate, in our political imaginary, returns again and again as the “good” scandal, a recursive metaphor that can be applied as needed to make sense of the inevitable abuses of power that afflict all political systems. As mentioned above, Watergate, bound up in the politics of covert imperial war in Southeast Asia, was about much more than the dark heart of a fallen president. But its metaphorical power is that it can be reduced to this obvious equation: Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Yet even as the political moral of Watergate was being contained, the art the crime inspired was free-wheeling and inquisitive. Nixon’s paranoia and machinations inspired, directly or indirectly, some of new cinema’s greatest conspiracy films, including The Conversation, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, and Marathon Man, among other movies.
But Iran/Contra? Nothing, really. Kevin Costner’s No Way Out was playing in theaters during North’s testimony, but it was saccharine, deflective, and contained. After this, the conspiracy was just as likely to be blamed on aliens as it was on the politics of empire and capital. It made all of us—especially investigative journalists like Gary Webb, who wouldn’t let go of the story—a little bit like Gene Hackman, who at the end of The Conversation puts down his saxophone and begins pulling up the floorboards and peeling off the plaster down to the laths to find the bugs, which, whether they are there or not, can never be traced back to their source. Iran/Contra destroyed the genre of the conspiracy film, as if Hollywood somehow internalized the fact that the nature of social relations revealed in all the many thousands of pages of official reports couldn’t be represented, or even invoked, and gave up trying. Its legacy is The X-Files, a show that collapsed into its own baroque—a quality all too common today.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the shooting down of Hasenfus, I showed my undergraduate class on US-Latin American relations a few scenes from the great Alex Cox movie, Walker, starring Ed Harris and Marlee Matlin, with small parts by the late Joe Strummer and the Sandinista leader, Tomás Borge, who is also deceased. The sprawling production, led by the British director Cox and his screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, arrived in Nicaragua just a few months after Iran/Contra broke, with the war raging. The film is nominally about the filibuster William Walker, played by Harris, who in the 1850s invaded Nicaragua, declared himself president, and restored slavery, which Nicaragua had abolished decades earlier. But it’s really about the Contra War, and how chronic military intervention in the name of Christ and individual freedom has destroyed the idea of time as a linear phenomenon. Imperial war and covert ops create, especially in Latin America, an eternal present, an untranscendable now, in which the justifications are always the same. To wage war under the banner of progress for over a century has the unfortunate consequence of destroying the notion of progress.
I also screened bits of Dispatches from Nicaragua, a documentary about the ‘making of’ of the film. My heart always flutters a bit when I see Ed Harris and Marlee Matlin tossing a baseball back and forth, with Matlin dressed in a red-and-black Sandinista T-shirt, and Joe Strummer hamming it up, imitating the techniques different actors use to keep the camera on them in scenes where they have no dialogue. Or when members of the film crew attend a demonstration outside the US embassy to protest the Contra murder of Ben Linder, an engineer from Portland who was helping a rural community in northern Nicaragua build a small hydroelectric dam. And there’s director Alex Cox, emaciated, standing on a beach dressed in nothing but yellow gym shorts railing, justifiably, against US aggression. Both Walker and Dispatches capture a more innocent, morally certain time to be an anti-imperialist (especially considering the corruptions of the current version of the Sandinistas), a point that I think wasn’t lost on the students.
Anti-imperialism can only be as coherent and rational a project as the imperialism it seeks to contest, and since 9/11—that is, since the triumph of the coalition that first came together during Iran/Contra and the insanity of our response in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—there’s been nothing rational or coherent about American foreign policy and militarism.” Greg Grandin, “Iran-Contra Was the Prototype for Post-Vietnam Imperial Adventure;” Nation Magazine, October 2016