The Intelligence Office

The Intelligence Office

THE INTELLIGENCE OFFICE NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE THE INTELLIGENCE OFFICE Grave figure with a pair of mysterious spectacles on his nose and a pen behind his ear was seated at a desk in the corner of a metropolitan office. The apartment was fitted up with a counter and furnished with an oaken cabinet and a Chair or two in simple and business-like style. Around the walls were stuck advertisements of articles lost or articles wanted or articles to be disposed of; in one or another of which classes were comprehended nearly all the Conveniences or otherwise that the imagination of man has contrived. The interior of the room was thrown into shadow partly by the tall edifices that rose on the opposite side of the street and partly by the immense show-bills of blue and crimson paper that were expanded over each of the three windows. Undisturbed by the tramp of feet the rattle of wheels the hump of voices the shout of the city crier the scream of the newsboys and other tokens of the multitudinous life that surged along in front of the office the figure at the desk pored diligently over a folio volume of ledger- like size and aspect He looked like the spirit of a record--the soul of his own great volume made visible in mortal shape. But scarcely an instant elapsed without the appearance at the door of some individual from the busy population whose vicinity was manifested by so much buzz and clatter and outcry. Now it was a thriving mechanic in quest of a tenement that should come within his moderate means of rent; now a ruddy Irish girl from the banks of Killarney wandering from kitchen to kitchen of our land while her heart still hung in the peat-smoke of her native cottage; now a single gentleman looking out for economical board; and now--for this establishment offered an epitome of worldly pursuits--it was a faded beauty inquiring for her lost bloom; or Peter Schlemihl for his lost shadow; or an author of ten years' standing for his vanished reputation; or a moody man for yesterday's sunshine. At the next lifting of the latch there entered a person with his hat awry upon his head his clothes perversely ill-suited to his form his eyes staring in directions opposite to their intelligence and a certain odd unsuitableness pervading his whole figure. Wherever he might chance to be whether in palace or cottage church or market on land or sea or even at his own fireside he must have worn the characteristic expression of a man out of his right place. "This" inquired he putting his question in the form of an assertion--"this is the Central Intelligence Office?" "Even so" answered the figure at the desk turning another leaf of his volume; he then looked the applicant in the face and said briefly "Your business?" "I want" said the latter with tremulous earnestness "a place!" "A place! and of what nature?" asked the Intelligencer. "There are many vacant or soon to be so some of which will probably suit since they range from that of a footman up to a seat at the council- board or in the cabinet or a throne or a presidential chair." The stranger stood pondering before the desk with an unquiet dissatisfied air--a dull vague pain of heart expressed by a slight contortion of the brow--an earnestness of glance that asked and expected yet continually wavered as if distrusting. In short he evidently wanted not in a physical or intellectual sense but with an urgent moral necessity that is the hardest of all things to satisfy since it knows not its own object. "Ah you mistake me!" said he at length with a gesture of nervous impatience." Either of the places you mention indeed might answer my purpose; or more probably none of them. I want my place! my own place! my true place in the world! my proper sphere! my thing to do which Nature intended me to perform when she fashioned me thus awry and which I have vainly sought all my lifetime! Whether it be a footman's duty or a king's is of little consequence so it be naturally mine. Can you help me here?" "I will enter your application" answered the Intelligencer at the same time writing a few lines in his volume. "But to undertake such a business I tell you frankly is quite apart from the ground covered by my official duties. Ask for something specific and it may doubtless be negotiated for you on your compliance with the conditions. But were I to go further I should have the whole population of the city upon my shoulders; since far the greater proportion of them are more or less in your predicament." The applicant sank into a fit of despondency and passed out of the door without again lifting his eyes; and if he died of the disappointment he was probably buried in the wrong tomb inasmuch as the fatality of such people never deserts them and whether alive or dead they are invariably out of place. Almost immediately another foot was heard on the threshold. A youth entered hastily and threw a glance around the office to ascertain whether the man of intelligence was alone. He then approached close to the desk blushed like a maiden and seemed at a loss how to broach his business. "You come upon an affair of the heart" said the official personage looking into him through his mysterious spectacles. "State it in as few words as may be." "You are right" replied the youth. "I have a heart to dispose of." "You seek an exchange?" said the Intelligencer. "Foolish youth why not be contented with your own?" "Because" exclaimed the young man losing his embarrassment in a passionate glow--"because my heart burns me with an intolerable fire; it tortures me all day long with yearnings for I know not what and feverish throbbings and the pangs of a vague sorrow; and it awakens me in the night-time with a quake when there is nothing to be feared. I cannot endure it any longer. It were wiser to throw away such a heart even if it brings me nothing in return." "O very well" said the man of office making an entry in his volume. "Your affair will be easily transacted. This species of brokerage makes no inconsiderable part of my business; and there is always a large assortment of the article to select from. Here if I mistake not comes a pretty fair sample." Even as he spoke the door was gently and slowly thrust ajar affording a glimpse of the slender figure of a young girl who as she timidly entered seemed to bring the light and cheerfulness of the outer atmosphere into the somewhat gloomy apartment. We know not her errand there nor can we reveal whether the young man gave up his heart into her custody. If so the arrangement was neither better nor worse than in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred where the parallel sensibilities of a similar age importunate affections and the easy satisfaction of characters not deeply conscious of themselves supply the place of any profounder sympathy. Not always however was the agency of the passions and affections an office of so little trouble. It happened rarely indeed in proportion to the cases that came under an ordinary rule but still it did happen that a heart was occasionally brought hither of such exquisite material so delicately attempered and so curiously wrought that no other heart could be found to match it. It might almost be considered a misfortune in a worldly point of view to be the possessor of such a diamond of the purest water; since in any reasonable probability it could only be exchanged for an ordinary pebble or a bit of cunningly manufactured glass or at least for a jewel of native richness but ill-set or with some fatal flaw or an earthy vein running through its central lustre. To choose another figure it is sad that hearts which have their wellspring in the infinite and contain inexhaustible sympathies should ever be doomed to pour themselves into shallow vessels and thus lavish their rich affections on the ground. Strange that the finer and deeper nature whether in man or woman while possessed of every other delicate instinct should so often lack that most invaluable one of preserving itself front contamination with what is of a baser kind! Sometimes it is true the spiritual fountain is kept pure by a wisdom within itself and sparkles into the light of heaven without a stain from the earthy strata through which it had gushed upward. And sometimes even here on earth the pure mingles with the pure and the inexhaustible is recompensed with the infinite. But these miracles though he should claim the credit of them are far beyond the scope of such a superficial agent in human affairs as the figure in the mysterious spectacles. Again the door was opened admitting the bustle of the city with a fresher reverberation into the Intelligence Office. Now entered a man of woe-begone and downcast look; it was such an aspect as if he had lost the very soul out of his body and had traversed all the world over searching in the dust of the highways and along the shady footpaths and beneath the leaves of the forest and among the sands of the sea-shore in hopes to recover it again. He had bent an anxious glance along the pavement of the street as he came hitherward; he looked also in the angle of the doorstep and upon the floor of the room; and finally coming up to the Man of Intelligence he gazed through the inscrutable spectacles which the latter wore as if the lost treasure might be hidden within his eyes. "I have lost--" he began; and then he paused. "Yes" said the Intelligencer "I see that you have lost--but what?" "I have lost a precious jewel!" replied the unfortunate person "the like of which is not to be found among any prince's treasures. While I possessed it the contemplation of it was my sole and sufficient happiness. No price should have purchased it of me; but it has fallen from my bosom where I wore it in my careless wanderings about the city." After causing the stranger to describe the marks of his lost jewel the Intelligencer opened a drawer of the oaken cabinet which has been mentioned as forming a part of the furniture of the room. Here were deposited whatever articles had been picked up in the streets until the right owners should claim them. It was a strange and heterogeneous collection. Not the least remarkable part of it was a great number of wedding-rings each one of which had been riveted upon the finger with holy vows and all the mystic potency that the most solemn rites could attain but had nevertheless proved too slippery for the wearer's vigilance. The gold of some was worn thin betokening the attrition of years of wedlock; others glittering from the jeweller's shop must have been lost within the honeymoon. There were ivory tablets the leaves scribbled over with sentiments that had been the deepest truths of the writer's earlier years but which were now quite obliterated from his memory. So scrupulously were articles preserved in this depository that not even withered flowers were rejected; white roses and blush-roses and moss-roses fit emblems of virgin purity and shamefacedness which bad been lost or flung away and trampled into the pollution of the streets; locks of hair--the golden and the glossy dark--the long tresses of woman and the crisp curls of man signified that lovers were now and then so heedless of the faith intrusted to them as to drop its symbol from the treasure-place of the bosom. Many of these things were imbued with perfumes and perhaps a sweet scent had departed from the lives of their former possessors ever since they had so wilfully or negligently lost them. Here were gold pencil-cases little ruby hearts with golden arrows through them bosom-pins pieces of coin and small articles of every description comprising nearly all that have been lost since a long time ago. Most of them doubtless had a history and a meaning if there were time to search it out and room to tell it. Whoever has missed anything valuable whether out of his heart mind or pocket would do well to make inquiry at the Central Intelligence Office. And in the corner of one of the drawers of the oaken cabinet after considerable research was found a great pearl looking like the soul of celestial purity congealed and polished. "There is my jewel! my very pearl!" cried the stranger almost beside himself with rapture. "It is mine! Give it me this moment! or I shall perish!" "I perceive" said the Man of Intelligence examining it more closely "that this is the Pearl of Great Price!" "The very same" answered the stranger. "Judge then of my misery at losing it out of my bosom! Restore it to me! I must not live without it an instant to longer." "Pardon me" rejoined the Intelligencer calmly "you ask what is beyond my duty. This pearl as you well know is held upon a peculiar tenure; and having once let it escape from your keeping you have no greater claim to it--nay not so great--as any other person. I cannot give it back." Nor could the entreaties of the miserable man--who saw before his eyes the jewel of his life without the power to reclaim it--soften the heart of this stern being impassive to human sympathy though exercising such an apparent influence over human fortunes. Finally the loser of the inestimable pearl clutched his hands among his hair and ran madly forth into the world which was affrighted at his desperate looks. There passed him on the doorstep a fashionable young gentleman whose business was to inquire for a damask rosebud the gift of his lady-love which he had lost out of his buttonhole within a hour after receiving it. So various were the errands of those who visited this Central Office where all human wishes seemed to be made known and so far as destiny would allow negotiated to their fulfilment. The next that entered was a man beyond the middle age bearing the look of one who knew the world and his own course in it. He had just alighted from a handsome private carriage which had orders to wait in the street while its owner transacted his business. This person came up to the desk with a quick determined step and looked the Intelligencer in the face with a resolute eye; though at the same time some secret trouble gleamed from it in red and dusky light. "I have an estate to dispose of" said he with a brevity that seemed characteristic. "Describe it" said the Intelligencer. The applicant proceeded to give the boundaries of his property its nature comprising tillage pasture woodland and pleasure-grounds in ample circuit; together with a mansion-house in the construction of which it had been his object to realize a castle in the air hardening its shadowy walls into granite and rendering its visionary splendor perceptible to the awakened eye. Judging from his description it was beautiful enough to vanish like a dream yet substantial enough to endure for centuries. He spoke too of the gorgeous furniture the refinements of upholstery and all the luxurious artifices that combined to render this a residence where life might flow onward in a stream of golden days undisturbed by the ruggedness which fate loves to fling into it. "I am a man of strong will" said he in conclusion; "and at my first setting out in life as a poor unfriended youth I resolved to make myself the possessor of such a mansion and estate as this together with the abundant revenue necessary to uphold it. I have succeeded to the extent of my utmost wish. And this is the estate which I have now concluded to dispose of." "And your terms?" asked the Intelligencer after taking down the particulars with which the stranger had supplied him. "Easy abundantly easy!" answered the successful man smiling but with a stern and almost frightful contraction of the brow as if to quell an inward pang. "I have been engaged in various sorts of business--a distiller a trader to Africa an East India merchant a speculator in the stocks--and in the course of these affairs have contracted an encumbrance of a certain nature. The purchaser of the estate shall merely be required to assume this burden to himself." "I understand you" said the Man of Intelligence putting his pen behind his ear. "I fear that no bargain can be negotiated on these conditions. Very probably the next possessor may acquire the estate with a similar encumbrance but it will be of his own contracting and will not lighten your burden in the least." "And am I to live on" fiercely exclaimed the stranger "with the dirt of these accursed acres and the granite of this infernal mansion crushing down my soul? How if I should turn the edifice into an almshouse or a hospital or tear it down and build a church?" "You can at least make the experiment" said the Intelligencer; "but the whole matter is one which you must settle for yourself." The man of deplorable success withdrew and got into his coach which rattled off lightly over the wooden pavements though laden with the weight of much land a stately house and ponderous heaps of gold all compressed into an evil conscience. There now appeared many applicants for places; among the most noteworthy of whom was a small smoke-dried figure who gave himself out to be one of the bad spirits that had waited upon Dr. Faustus in his laboratory. He pretended to show a certificate of character which he averred had been given him by that famous necromancer and countersigned by several masters whom he had subsequently served. "I am afraid my good friend" observed the Intelligencer "that your chance of getting a service is but poor. Nowadays men act the evil spirit for themselves and their neighbors and play the part more effectually than ninety-nine out of a hundred of your fraternity." But just as the poor fiend was assuming a vaporous consistency being about to vanish through the floor in sad disappointment and chagrin the editor of a political newspaper chanced to enter the office in quest of a scribbler of party paragraphs. The former servant of Dr. Faustus with some misgivings as to his sufficiency of venom was allowed to try his hand in this capacity. Next appeared likewise seeking a service the mysterious man in Red who had aided Bonaparte in his ascent to imperial power. He was examined as to his qualifications by an aspiring politician but finally rejected as lacking familiarity with the cunning tactics of the present day. People continued to succeed each other with as much briskness as if everybody turned aside out of the roar and tumult of the city to record here some want or superfluity or desire. Some had goods or possessions of which they wished to negotiate the sale. A China merchant had lost his health by a long residence in that wasting climate. He very liberally offered his disease and his wealth along with it to any physician who would rid him of both together. A soldier offered his wreath of laurels for as good a leg as that which it had cost him on the battle-field. One poor weary wretch desired nothing but to be accommodated with any creditable method of laying down his life; for misfortune and pecuniary troubles had so subdued his spirits that he could no longer conceive the possibility of happiness nor had the heart to try for it. Nevertheless happening to overhear some conversation in the Intelligence Office respecting wealth to be rapidly accumulated by a certain mode of speculation he resolved to live out this one other experiment of better fortune. Many persons desired to exchange their youthful vices for others better suited to the gravity of advancing age; a few we are glad to say made earnest efforts to exchange vice for virtue and hard as the bargain was succeeded in effecting it. But it was remarkable that what all were the least willing to give up even on the most advantageous terms were the habits the oddities the characteristic traits the little ridiculous indulgences somewhere between faults and follies of which nobody but themselves could understand the fascination. The great folio in which the Man of Intelligence recorded all these freaks of idle hearts and aspirations of deep hearts and desperate longings of miserable hearts and evil prayers of perverted hearts would be curious reading were it possible to obtain it for publication. Human character in its individual developments-human nature in the mass--may best be studied in its wishes; and this was the record of them all. There was an endless diversity of mode and circumstance yet withal such a similarity in the real groundwork that any one page of the volume-whether written in the days before the Flood or the yesterday that is just gone by or to be written on the morrow that is close at hand or a thousand ages hence--might serve as a specimen of the whole. Not but that there were wild sallies of fantasy that could scarcely occur to more than one man's brain whether reasonable or lunatic. The strangest wishes--yet most incident to men who had gone deep into scientific pursuits and attained a high intellectual stage though not the loftiest--were to contend with Nature and wrest from her some secret or some power which she had seen fit to withhold from mortal grasp. She loves to delude her aspiring students and mock them with mysteries that seem but just beyond their utmost reach. To concoct new minerals to produce new forms of vegetable life to create an insect if nothing higher in the living scale is a sort of wish that has often revelled in the breast of a man of science. An astronomer who lived far more among the distant worlds of space than in this lower sphere recorded a wish to behold the opposite side of the moon which unless the system of the firmament be reversed she can never turn towards the earth. On the same page of the volume was written the wish of a little child to have the stars for playthings. The most ordinary wish that was written down with wearisome recurrence was of course for wealth wealth wealth in sums from a few shillings up to unreckonable thousands. But in reality this often-repeated expression covered as many different desires. Wealth is the golden essence of the outward world embodying almost everything that exists beyond the limits of the soul; and therefore it is the natural yearning for the life in the midst of which we find ourselves and of which gold is the condition of enjoyment that men abridge into this general wish. Here and there it is true the volume testified to some heart so perverted as to desire gold for its own sake. Many wished for power; a strange desire indeed since it is but another form of slavery. Old people wished for the delights of youth; a fop for a fashionable coat; an idle reader for a new novel; a versifier for a rhyme to some stubborn word; a painter for Titian's secret of coloring; a prince for a cottage; a republican for a kingdom and a palace; a libertine for his neighbor's wife; a man of palate for green peas; and a poor man for a crust of bread. The ambitious desires of public men elsewhere so craftily concealed were here expressed openly and boldly side by side with the unselfish wishes of the philanthropist for the welfare of the race so beautiful so comforting in contrast with the egotism that continually weighed self against the world. Into the darker secrets of the Book of Wishes we will not penetrate. It would be an instructive employment for a student of mankind perusing this volume carefully and comparing its records with men's perfected designs as expressed in their deeds and daily life to ascertain how far the one accorded with the other. Undoubtedly in most cases the correspondence would be found remote. The holy and generous wish that rises like incense from a pure heart towards heaven often lavishes its sweet perfume on the blast of evil times. The foul selfish murderous wish that steams forth from a corrupted heart often passes into the spiritual atmosphere without being concreted into an earthly deed. Yet this volume is probably truer as a representation of the human heart than is the living drama of action as it evolves around us. There is more of good and more of evil in it; more redeeming points of the bad and more errors of the virtuous; higher upsoarings and baser degradation of the ...