Essays in Miniature/Comedy of the Custom House

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COMEDY OF THE CUSTOM HOUSE


THERE is no place in the world where human nature is so thoroughly human or so purely natural as on the New York docks, when a great steamer load of returning travelers are being put through the peine forte et dure of the United States custom house. Everybody is striving to play a part, to assume an air of indifference which he does not feel, and of innocence which he knows to be fallacious; and, like Mrs. Browning's Masker, everybody betrays too plainly in his "smiling face" and "jesting bold" the anxiety that preys upon his vitals. Packed snugly away in that wilderness of trunks and boxes are hundreds, nay, thousands, of pretty trifles, which it is the painful duty of every man, and the proud ambition of every woman, to carry in unscathed and undetected. The frank, shameless delight which a woman takes in smuggling has long puzzled the male moralist, who, following the intricacies of the feminine conscience, can find no satisfactory explanation of this by-path. He cannot bring her to understand why, when she has purchased and paid for an article, it should not be hers to take where she likes, to deal with as she pleases; and a dozen discourses on political economy and the laws of nations leave her unshaken in this simple and primitive conception. As the English are said to argue best in platoons, so a woman argues best in action; and, while her husband or brother is proving to her in the clearest possible fashion that a high protective tariff is a blessing to the land, she is assiduously storing away embroidered table covers, and silk stockings, and silver spoons, and tortoise-shell combs, and tiny jeweled pins, and bits of frail Venetian glass, wherever her practiced eye tells her they will best escape detection. In the abstract, of course, dear Edwin is right—he always is—but she is far too busy with her task to enter into abstractions just now. Whatever mental subtlety she possesses is reserved for a much more important ordeal—that of getting clear, with a clean conscience, from the searching questions of the inspector. "When I am asked if I have any presents I always answer no," said a devout, church-going woman to me one day, "because I do not consider them presents until I give them away."

The grim, perplexed seriousness with which the customs officers play their part makes a delightful foil (for the spectators) to the nimble, elusive mental movements of their adversaries; and it is in the conflict between aggressor and aggrieved, between invader and invaded, that the humors of our great national institution develop their choicest bloom. The fortunes of war which recently delayed my own boxes and my hoped-for escape, gave me, by way of compensation, an easy opportunity of observing and enjoying the experiences of other people, and I was encouraged in my diversion by the too evident glee of one of the minor actors in the strife. She was a very pretty girl, this gay young combatant, not more than sixteen years old, and she sat kicking her heels on somebody else's trunk, while she watched with enviable composure the overhauling of her own. I had seen her often during the homeward voyage, and had spoken to her once or twice as she tripped endlessly up and down the deck in company with every man and boy on board; taking them impartially, one by one, and seeming to be on the same mysterious terms of intimacy with all. She had a traveling companion in the shape of a mother who adored her fretfully, and whom she treated with finely mingled affection and contempt. She never spoke of this relative without the prefix "poor." "Poor mother is awfully sick to-day," she would say in her shrill, high-pitched voice, with a laugh which showed all her little white teeth, and sounded a trifle unsympathetic in our ears. But five minutes later she was helping "poor mother" to her steamer chair, wrapping her up skilfully in half a dozen rugs and shawls, bullying the deck steward to bring her some hot bouillon, bullying her to drink the bouillon when brought, listening to her manifold complaints with an indulgent smile, and flatly refusing to obey, when entreated to put on a warmer jacket.

"Poor mother is always worrying about wraps," was her only acknowledgment of the maternal solicitude; and even this remark was made, not to her prostrate parent, but to the youth who was waiting to bear her away.

The pair had been traveling alone all summer, but were met on the docks by a person whom they both called "cousin Jim," and who assured them in a hearty, offhand manner that he would have them safe through the custom house in five minutes; a miscalculation, as it turned out, of quite three-quarters of an hour. Malignant fate assigned them an inspector who settled down to his search like an Indian to the war trail, and who seemed possessed with the idea that the wealth of the Indies lay secreted somewhere in those two shabby, travel-worn boxes. Whether this man was really enamored of his disagreeable task, whether he conscientiously believed that the United States would be impoverished and her industries crippled by the contents of that modest luggage, or whether he had been too pliable on former occasions, and seized this chance to assert his general incorruptibility, it would be hard to determine; but while older and less ardent officials lifted out trays and turned over corners in a purely perfunctory manner, seeing nothing, and seeking to see nothing of what lay beneath, this red-hot zealot went thoroughly and exhaustively to work upon the limited materials before him. Now the particular irritation of the custom house lies, not in the fact of your trunk being searched, but of your neighbor's trunk escaping; and the sharpest sting is when you chance to know that your neighbor is carrying in unmolested ten times the value of your dutiable articles. If Miss Maisie, kicking her heels and smiling affably, did not realize the hardship of her position, Miss Maisie's mother—she never had any other name, her sole claim to distinction resting on her daughter—felt it very keenly. She stood, anxious and angry, by the side of the inspector, protesting fretfully at each new inroad, and appealing for sympathy to her companions.

"It's a perfect shame, the way he has rumpled your dresses, Maisie, and upset that tray you packed so nice and close. You will never be able to get the things back again in the world, and, if you do, one half of them will be broken before we reach home. And there's your new fur cape all out of fold. I told you to wear it, or carry it in on your arm. No! that is not a present; at least I think not, is it, Maisie?" as a small brown paper parcel, carefully tied, was held up by the inspector for scrutiny.

"I can't tell till I open it," said the girl, reaching over, and very deliberately unfastening the string. "You don't remember what this is, do you, mother? Oh! I see—a piece of camphor. No, it's not a present. We brought it from America. Lasts beautifully, doesn't it?" returning the parcel with a smile. "Would you mind wrapping it up again? It's so very hard to tie anything in gloves."

Apparently the inspector did mind, for he Jerked the lump of camphor unwrapped into the trunk, and made a vicious scoop among the layers of neatly packed clothing. "Is this a present, then?" he asked, drawing to light a flat oblong white box, and snapping the cord that bound it. Inside, resting on pink cotton wool, was a small silver-backed hand-mirror of fine workmanship. "Surely this must be a present?" he repeated, with the triumphant air of one who has dragged a secret crime to justice.

Maisie's mother looked nervous, and fidgeted visibly, but Maisie herself was imperturbable. "You are mistaken; it is not," she said, without a tremor.

The man glanced at her sharply, and shrugged his shoulders. "You keep it very nicely put away for an article in use," he hinted, turning over the box once or twice with manifest doubt and reluctance. "And these—are all these your own, too?" unearthing from some secret receptacle six little card-cases of blue leather, and spreading them out jeeringly in a row.

"I told you not to get so many, Maisie, but you would do it," said her mother, in the hopeless tone of a convicted criminal.

"They were such bargains, I couldn't resist them," answered the girl sorrowfully. "Yes, they are presents; at least five of them are. I guess I will keep one for myself, and save that, any way. Just put one of them back, please. And oh, dear! do you have to lift out that heavy tray? There are nothing but clothes at the bottom of the trunk."

"Nothing at all but clothes," interposed her mother peevishly. "I don't see why you have to go through everything in this fashion."

"Nothing at all but clothes," repeated cousin Jim, who had hitherto stood staring silently at the confusion before him. "Can't you take the ladies' word for it, when they assure you there is nothing underneath but clothes?"

"My dear sir," said the inspector, exasperated into insolence, "I should be very glad to take any lady's word, but I can't. I've learned a great deal better."

Maisie's mother colored hotly, with the righteous indignation of a woman who lies easily, and is accused of falsehood; but Maisie, screwing her pretty head on one side, winked at me in shameless enjoyment of the situation. "He'll find I'm right this time," she whispered; "but wasn't it lucky he got it into his stupid brain that the glass must be a present! If he had said 'commission' now, I should have been caught, and the friend I bought it for would be simply furious if I had to pay duty on it. Poor mother insisted that I should not take a single commission this summer, so I only have very few; just that glass, and some gloves, of course, and a feather collar, and half a dozen pairs of stockings, and a little silk shawl from Rome. One girl did ask me to buy her a dress in Paris, but I wouldn't do it; and another wanted a pair of blue slippers, but fortunately I forgot her size; and another—"

"Maisie, dear, do put back your things now," interrupted her unhappy parent, who by this time was on the verge of tears. "The inspector has finished with your trunk, and is going to mine. And please be careful of your cape! I wish you had worn it instead—"

"Instead of my old one?" said the girl hastily, smoothing down, as she spoke, a very handsome and palpably new piece of sealskin on her shoulders. "Poor mother is so blundering," she sighed softly in my ear. "I am wearing this cape for Dr. Hunsdale. He is bringing it home to his sister, and of course wouldn't have any shadow of a chance with it himself. Indeed, he intended to declare it, which would have been a dreadful shame. So I just offered to pack mine and wear this one. Lots of girls do, you know. I've got a watch here for another man, too," lightly touching the châtelaine by her side. "Not a gold one. Only a little silver thing he bought for his sister, who is a child. Poor mother doesn't know about that, or she would be more miserable still; and she is pretty miserable now, isn't she?" contemplating her perturbed relative with gentle disfavor. "You see, she worries so, she makes that man believe we have something tremendously valuable somewhere, and he is bent on finding it out. There, he's after our Roman blankets; but those are for ourselves, and, what is more," raising her voice, "we have had them in use for nearly three months."

"Three months isn't long enough," returned the official surlily. "You must have had them in use a year, to bring them in free."

"A year!" echoed Maisie, opening her round eyes with innocent amazement. "If you knew much about Roman blankets, you wouldn't expect anybody to use them for a year, and then think them worth bringing home. What a thrifty lot the custom-house people must be! Poor mother! She never expected to pay for those, and it does seem a little hard on her. But what's that he's got now? Oh! do look!" for the inspector had grabbed something loosely wrapped in white tissue paper, and was holding it aloft with an exultant shake, and an "I've-tracked-you-at-last" expression. Down fell a rubber shoe, of unmistakable American manufacture, but richly crusted with layers of foreign mud. It flopped modestly into the bottom of the trunk, and was greeted with a ringing laugh of genuine, uncontrolled delight. "That's a present," sobbed the girl, literally choking with mirth, "and very valuable. We brought it from the South Kensington, and are going to send it to the Metropolitan Museum as soon as we reach home."

"Maisie, how can you be so foolish!" protested her mother, roused by desperation to some faint semblance of authority, and visibly anxious to propitiate the inspector, who looked ominously angry. "If you will wrap such absurd things in white tissue paper, naturally people think they are of some value."

"But we had so much tissue paper in London, and nothing else to wrap with," was the very reasonable reply. "Fifteen sheets the tailor sent home with my one frock, and I am keeping most of it to use at Christmas time. Poor old shoe!" lifting it tenderly out of the trunk; "if mud were a dutiable article—and I only wonder it isn't—you would come very expensive just now. Swiss mud, too, I do believe, never brushed off since that day at Grindelwald, and quite a relic. Don't you think," turning suddenly to me, "don't you really think all this is fearfully funny?"

In one sense I did, though the fun was of a strictly esoteric character, not appealing broadly to the crowd. But then Mr. Saintsbury assures us that real fun seldom does. Poor mother's sense of humor was plainly unequal to the demand made upon it; cousin Jim, who had not spoken since his first repulse, looked more bewildered than amused; and even the inspector did not seem vastly entertained by the situation. The trunks had been examined, and their contents sadly disarranged; the handbags searched, and found to contain only toilet articles and underwear; the steamer rugs, unrolled, revealed nothing more precious than an old magazine and four battered French novels. As a result of over half an hour's inquisition, the authorities had possessed themselves of two well-worn Roman blankets, a pretty, inexpensive little fan, painted on brown linen, a beer mug of Munich ware, and those five blue card-cases that had been so cheap in Paris. It hardly seemed as if the spoils were worth the conflict, or as if the three dollars and ninety cents duty charged on them could be a serious addition to the revenues of the United States. But the home-coming of one poor woman had been marred, and no salt-tax of ancient France was ever paid with more manifest reluctance and ill-will.

"It's the burning injustice of the thing I mind, Maisie," was the vehement protest hurled at the inspector's back. "There were plenty of people all around whose trunks were hardly touched. I watched one man myself, and he never lifted out a single thing—just turned the corners a little, and smoothed all down again. He was examining the Hardings's luggage, too, and I know they have five times as much as we have—really costly, beautiful things—and they never paid a cent."

"But we didn't pay a great deal," returned the girl cheerfully. She was down on her knees now, deftly rearranging the disordered trunks. "Think of all our man might have found, and did n't."

"Think of the shameful condition he left our clothes in!" said her angry mother. "It is an outrage. And those blankets! Everybody brings them, and nobody but ourselves has to pay. The Hardings had them, I know, and so did Miss Rebecca Chambers, and Mrs. Starr; and they all came in free."

"Yes, but Mr. Maitland was charged four dollars duty on a pair he bought for twenty shillings in London, and he presented them to the custom-house officers rather than give their value over again," said Maisie triumphantly.

"Did he, really?" cried her mother, brightening up wonderfully under the beneficent influence of other people's misfortunes. "What a shame! Four dollars duty on twenty-shilling blankets! I never heard of anything so preposterous."

"Yes, and Dr. Carson gave them a silver watch he had brought over for his little boy, rather than pay the duty on that, it was so high," continued Maisie, who seemed to know the fate and fortunes of every passenger on board.

Her mother's face relaxed from fretfulness into smiles. "I wonder he doesn't sue the government, or something," she remarked, with feminine vagueness. "I am sure I should. It is a good thing, Maisie, we had no watches to bring."

The girl chuckled softly, and shook the little châtelaine by her side. "Yes, it is a good thing," she said, with an air of simple conviction. "After all, we did get off pretty cheap. And it was almost worth the money to see the delicious flourish with which that muddy old overshoe tumbled on the scene. Don't you think," turning once more appealingly to me, "that three dollars and ninety cents was little enough to pay for such a sight?"

Perhaps I did. A laugh is always worth its price, and in these serious days grows rare at any figure. Besides, when a great republic condescends to play an active part in even an indifferent comedy, it is ill-timed to grumble at the cost.