Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

The Intelligence Office

From "Mosses from an Old Manse"

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

"I have lost--" he began; and then he paused.

"Yes," said the Intelligencer, "I see that you have lost,--but

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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

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
soul; in short, a more perplexing amalgamation of vice and virtue
than we witness in the outward world. Decency and external
conscience often produce a far fairer outside than is warranted by
the stains within. And be it owned, oil the other hand, that a man
seldom repeats to his nearest friend, any more than he realizes in
act, the purest wishes, which, at some blessed time or other, have
arisen from the depths of his nature and witnessed for him in this
volume. Yet there is enough on every leaf to make the good man
shudder for his own wild and idle wishes, as well as for the sinner,
whose whole life is the incarnation of a wicked desire.

But again the door is opened, and we hear the tumultuous stir of the
world,--a deep and awful sound, expressing in another form some
portion of what is written in the volume that lies before the Man of
Intelligence. A grandfatherly personage tottered hastily into the
office, with such an earnestness in his infirm alacrity that his
white hair floated backward as he hurried up to the desk, while his
dim eyes caught a momentary lustre from his vehemence of purpose.
This venerable figure explained that he was in search of To-morrow.

"I have spent all my life in pursuit of it," added the sage old
gentleman, "being assured that To-morrow has some vast benefit or
other in store for me. But I am now getting a little in years, and
must make haste; for, unless I overtake To-morrow soon, I begin to
be afraid it will finally escape me."

"This fugitive To-morrow, my venerable friend," said the Man of
Inelligence, "is a stray child of Time, and is flying from his
father into the region of the infinite. Continue your pursuit, and
you will doubtless come up with him; but as to the earthly gifts
which you expect, he has scattered them all among a throng of

Obliged to content himself with this enigmatical response, the
grandsire hastened forth with a quick clatter of his staff upon the
floor; and, as he disappeared, a little boy scampered through the
door in chase of a butterfly which had got astray amid the barren
sunshine of the city. Had the old gentleman been shrewder, he might
have detected To-morrow under the semblance of that gaudy insect.
The golden butterfly glistened through the shadowy apartment, and
brushed its wings against the Book of Wishes, and fluttered forth
again with the child still in pursuit.

A man now entered, in neglected attire, with the aspect of a
thinker, but somewhat too roughhewn and brawny for a scholar. His
face was full of sturdy vigor, with some finer and keener attribute
beneath. Though harsh at first, it was tempered with the glow of a
large, warm heart, which had force enough to heat his powerful
intellect through and through. He advanced to the Intelligencer and
looked at him with a glance of such stern sincerity that perhaps few
secrets were beyond its scope.

"I seek for Truth," said he.

"It is precisely the most rare pursuit that has ever come under my
cognizance," replied the Intelligencer, as he made the new
inscription in his volume. "Most men seek to impose some cunning
falsehood upon themselves for truth. But I can lend no help to your
researches. You must achieve the miracle for yourself. At some
fortunate moment you may find Truth at your side, or perhaps she may
be mistily discerned far in advance, or possibly behind you."

"Not behind me," said the seeker; "for I have left nothing on my
track without a thorough investigation. She flits before me,
passing now through a naked solitude, and now mingling with the
throng of a popular assembly, and now writing with the pen of a
French philosopher, and now standing at the altar of an old
cathedral, in the guise of a Catholic priest, performing the high
mass. O weary search! But I must not falter; and surely my heart-
deep quest of Truth shall avail at last."

He paused and fixed his eyes upon the Intelligencer with a depth of
investigation that seemed to hold commerce with the inner nature of
this being, wholly regardless of his external development.

"And what are you?" said he. "It will not satisfy me to point to
this fantastic show of an Intelligence Office and this mockery of
business. Tell me what is beneath it, and what your real agency in
life and your influence upon mankind."

"Yours is a mind," answered the Man of Intelligence, "before which
the forms and fantasies that conceal the inner idea from the
multitude vanish at once and leave the naked reality beneath. Know,
then, the secret. My agency in worldly action, my connection with
the press, and tumult, and intermingling, and development of human
affairs, is merely delusive. The desire of man's heart does for him
whatever I seem to do. I am no minister of action, but the
Recording Spirit."

What further secrets were then spoken remains a mystery, inasmuch as
the roar of the city, the bustle of human business, the outcry of
the jostling masses, the rush and tumult of man's life, in its noisy
and brief career, arose so high that it drowned the words of these
two talkers; and whether they stood talking in the moon, or in
Vanity Fair, or in a city of this actual world, is more than I can

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Short Stories