SCARLET

 

1850
THE SCARLET LETTER
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
INTRODUCTORY
THE CUSTOM-HOUSE.
INTRODUCTORY TO "THE SCARLET LETTER".

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

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago,
in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf- but which is
now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no
symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark or brig, half-way
down its melancholy length, discharging hides; or, nearer at hand, a
Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out her cargo of firewood- at the
head, I say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often
overflows, and along which, at the base and in the rear of the row
of buildings, the track of many languid years is seen in a border of
unthrifty grass- here, with a view from its front windows adown this
not very enlivening prospect, and thence across the harbour, stands
a spacious edifice of brick. From the loftiest point of its roof,
during precisely three and a half hours of each forenoon, floats or
droops, in breeze or calm, the banner of the republic; but with the
thirteen stripes turned vertically, instead of horizontally, and
thus indicating that a civil, and not a military post of Uncle Sam's
government is here established. Its front is ornamented with a portico
of half-a-dozen wooden pillars, supporting a balcony, beneath which
a flight of wide granite steps descends towards the street. Over the
entrance hovers an enormous specimen of the American eagle, with
outspread wings, a shield before her breast, and, if I recollect
aright, a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each
claw. With the customary infirmity of temper that characterises 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 realised 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
alms-houses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on
charity, on monopolised labour, 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 grey
sand, in a fashion that has elsewhere fallen into long disuse; and
it is easy to conclude, from the general slovenliness of the place,
that this is a sanctuary into which womankind, with her tools of
magic, the broom and mop, has very infrequent access. In the way of
furniture, there is a stove with a voluminous funnel; an old pine
desk, with a three-legged stool beside it; two or three
wooden-bottom chairs, exceedingly decrepit and infirm; and- not to
forget the library- on some shelves, a score or two of volumes of
the Acts of Congress, and a bulky Digest of the Revenue Laws. A tin
pipe ascends through the ceiling, and forms a medium of vocal
communication with other parts of 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 recognised, honoured reader, the same individual who
welcomed you into his cheery little study, where the sunshine
glimmered so pleasantly through the willow branches, on the western
side of the Old Manse. But now, should you go thither to seek him, you
would inquire in vain for the Locofoco Surveyor. The besom of reform
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
realised during my seasons of actual residence here. Indeed, so far as
its physical aspect is concerned, with its flat, unvaried surface,
covered chiefly with wooden houses, few or none of which pretend to
architectural beauty- its irregularity, which is neither picturesque
nor quaint, but only tame- its long and lazy street, lounging
wearisomely through the whole extent of the peninsula, with Gallows
Hill and New Guinea at one end, and a view of the alms-house at the
other- such being the features of my native town, it would be quite as
reasonable to form a sentimental attachment to a disarranged
checker-board. And yet, though invariably happiest elsewhere, there is
within me a feeling for old Salem, which, in lack of a better
phrase, I must be content to call affection. The sentiment is probably
assignable to the deep and aged roots which my family has 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
trod 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 recognise as laudable; no success of mine- if
my life, beyond its domestic scope, had ever been brightened by
success- would they deem otherwise than worthless, if not positively
disgraceful. "Where is he?" murmurs one grey 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 grey-headed
shipmaster, in each generation, retiring from the quarter-deck to
the homestead, while a boy of fourteen took the hereditary place
before the mast, confronting the salt spray and the gale, which had
blustered against his sire and grandsire. The boy, also, in due
time, passed from the forecastle to the cabin, spent a tempestuous
manhood, and returned from his world-wanderings, to grow old, and die,
and mingle his dust with the natal earth. This long 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 recognised in the old town. Nevertheless, this very sentiment
is an evidence that the connection, which has become an unhealthy one,
should at least be severed. Human nature will not flourish, any more
than a potato, if it be planted and 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 halfpenny; or as if
Salem were for me the inevitable centre of the universe. So, one
fine morning, I ascended the flight of granite steps, with the
President's commission in my pocket, and was introduced to the corps
of gentlemen who were to aid me in my weighty responsibility, as chief
executive officer of the 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 heartquake. General Miller was radically
conservative; a man over whose kindly nature habit had no slight
influence; attaching himself strongly to familiar faces, and with
difficulty moved to change, even when change might have brought
unquestionable improvement. Thus, on taking charge of my department, I
found few but aged men. They were ancient sea-captains, for the most
part, who, after being tossed on every sea, and standing up sturdily
against life's tempestuous blast, had finally drifted into this
quiet nook; where, with little to disturb them, except the
periodical terrors of a Presidential election, they one and all
acquired a new lease of existence. Though by no means less liable than
their fellow-men to age and infirmity, they had evidently some
talisman or other that kept death at bay. Two or three of their
number, as I was assured, being gouty and rheumatic, or perhaps
bed-ridden, never dreamed of making their appearance at the
Custom-House during a large part of the year; but, after a torpid
winter, would creep out into the warm sunshine of May or June, go
lazily about what they termed duty, and, at their own leisure and
convenience, betake themselves to bed again. I must plead guilty to
the charge of abbreviating the official breath of more than one of
these venerable servants of the republic. They were allowed, on my
representation, to rest from their arduous labours, and soon
afterwards- as if their sole principle of life had been zeal for their
country's service; as I verily believe it was- withdrew to a better
world. It is a pious consolation to me, that, through my interference,
a sufficient space was allowed them for repentance of the evil and
corrupt practices, into which, as a matter of course, every
Custom-House officer must be supposed to fall. Neither the front nor
the back entrance of the Custom-House opens on the road to Paradise.
The greater part of my officers were Whigs. It was well for their
venerable brotherhood that the new Surveyor was not a politician, and,
though a faithful Democrat in principle, neither received nor held his
office with any reference to political services. Had it been
otherwise- had an active politician been put into this influential
post, to assume the easy task of making head against a Whig Collector,
whose infirmities withheld him from the personal administration of his
office- hardly a man of the old corps would have drawn the breath of
official life within a month after the exterminating angel had come up
the Custom-House steps. According to the received code in such
matters, it would have been nothing short of duty, in a politician, to
bring every one of those white heads under the axe of the
guillotine. It was plain enough to discern, that the old fellows
dreaded some such discourtesy at my hands. It pained, and at the
same time amused me, to behold the terrors that attended my advent; to
see a furrowed cheek, weather-beaten by half a century of storm,
turn ashy pale at the glance of so harmless an individual as myself;
to detect, as one or another addressed me, the tremor of a voice,
which, in long-past days, had been wont to bellow through a
speaking-trumpet, hoarsely enough to frighten Boreas himself to
silence. They knew, these excellent old persons, that, by all
established rule- and, as regarded some of them, weighed by their own
lack of efficiency for business- they ought to have given place to
younger men, more orthodox in politics, and altogether fitter than
themselves to serve our common Uncle. I knew it too, but could never
quite find in my heart to act upon the knowledge. Much and
deservedly to my own discredit, therefore, and considerably to the
detriment of my official conscience, they continued, during my
incumbency, to creep about the wharves, and loiter up and down the
Custom-House steps. They spent a good deal of time, also, asleep in
their accustomed corners, with their chairs tilted back against the
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 waggon-load of valuable
merchandise had been smuggled ashore, at noonday, perhaps, and
directly beneath their unsuspicious noses- nothing could exceed the
vigilance and alacrity with which they proceeded to lock, and
double-lock, and secure with tape and sealing-wax, all the avenues
of the delinquent vessel. Instead of a reprimand for their previous
negligence, the case seemed rather to require an eulogium on their
praiseworthy caution, after the mischief had happened; a grateful
recognition of the promptitude of their zeal, the moment that there
was no longer any remedy.
Unless people are more than commonly disagreeable, it is my
foolish habit to contract a kindness for them. The better part of my
companion's character, if it have a better part, is that which usually
comes uppermost in my regard, and forms the type whereby I recognise
the man. As most of these old Custom-House officers had good traits,
and as my position in reference to them, being paternal and
protective, was favourable to the growth of friendly sentiments, I
soon grew to like them all. It was pleasant, in the summer
forenoons- when the fervent heat, that almost liquefied the rest of
the human family, merely communicated a genial warmth to their
half-torpid systems- it was pleasant to hear them chatting in the back
entry, a row of them all tipped against the wall, as usual; while
the frozen witticisms of past generations were thawed out, and came
bubbling with laughter from their lips. Externally, the jollity of
aged men has much in common with the mirth of children; the intellect,
any more than a deep sense of humour, has little to do with the
matter; it is, with both, a gleam that plays upon the surface, and
imparts a sunny and cheery aspect alike to the green branch, and grey,
mouldering trunk. In one case, however, it is real sunshine; in the
other, it more resembles the phosphorescent glow of decaying wood.
It would be sad injustice, the reader must understand, to
represent all my excellent old friends as in their dotage. In the
first place, my coadjutors were not invariably old; there were men
among them in their strength and prime, of marked ability and
energy, and altogether superior to the sluggish and dependent mode
of life on which their evil stars had cast them. Then, moreover, the
white locks of age were sometimes found to be the thatch of an
intellectual tenement in good repair. But, as respects the majority of
my corps of veterans, there will be no wrong done, if I characterise
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 reechoed 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, of 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 appetising as a pickle or an oyster. As he possessed
no higher attribute, and neither sacrificed nor vitiated any spiritual
endowment by devoting all his energies and ingenuities to subserve the
delight and profit of his maw, it always pleased and satisfied me to
hear him expatiate on fish, poultry, and butcher's meat, and the
most eligible methods of preparing them for the table. His
reminiscences of good cheer, however ancient the date of the actual
banquet, seemed to bring the savour of pig or turkey under one's
very nostrils. There were flavours on his palate, that had lingered
there not less than sixty or seventy years, and were still
apparently as fresh as that of the mutton-chop which he had just
devoured for his breakfast. I have heard him smack his lips over
dinners, every guest at which, except himself, had long been food
for worms. It was marvellous to observe how the ghosts of bygone meals
were continually rising up before him; not in anger or retribution,
but as if grateful for his former appreciation, and seeking to
repudiate an endless series of enjoyment, at once shadowy and sensual.
A tenderloin 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 honourable
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 grey and broken ruins. Here and there, perchance, the walls may
remain almost complete; but elsewhere may be only a shapeless mound,
cumbrous with its very strength, and overgrown, through long years
of peace and neglect, with grass and alien 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 characterised 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 beat 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
of his energies that were not dead, but only slumbering- he was yet
capable of flinging off his infirmities like a sick man's gown,
dropping the staff of age to seize a battle-sword, and starting up
once more a warrior. And, in so intense a moment, his demeanour
would have still been calm. Such an exhibition, however, was but to be
pictured in fancy; not to be anticipated, nor desired. What I saw in
him- as evidently as the indestructible ramparts of, Old
Ticonderoga, already cited as the most appropriate simile- 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 humour, now and then, would make its way
through the veil of dim obstruction, and glimmer pleasantly upon our
faces. A trait of native elegance, seldom seen in the masculine
character after childhood or early youth, was shown in the General's
fondness for the sight and fragrance of flowers. An old soldier
might be supposed to prize only the bloody laurel on his brow; but
here was one, who seemed to have a young girl's appreciation of the
floral tribe.
There, beside the fireplace, the brave old General used to sit;
while the Surveyor- though seldom, when it could be avoided, taking
upon himself the difficult task of engaging him in conversation- was
fond of standing at a distance, and watching his quiet and almost
slumberous countenance. He seemed away from us, although we saw him
but a few yards off; remote, though we passed close beside his
chair; unattainable, though we might have stretched forth our hands
and touched his own. It might be that he lived a more real life within
his thoughts, than amid the unappropriate environment of the
Collector's office. The evolutions of the parade; the tumult of the
battle; the flourish of old, heroic music, heard thirty years before;-
such scenes and sounds, perhaps, were all alive before his
intellectual sense. Meanwhile, the merchants and 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 recreating
the stalwart soldier of the Niagara frontier- the man of true and
simple energy. It was the recollection of those memorable words of
his- "I'll try, sir!"- spoken on the very verge of a desperate and
heroic enterprise, and breathing the soul and spirit of New England
hardihood, comprehending all perils, and encountering all. If, in
our country, valour were rewarded by heraldic honour, this phrase-
which it seems so easy to speak, but which only he, with such a task
of danger and glory before him, has ever spoken- would be the best and
fittest of all mottoes for the General's shield of arms.
It contributes greatly towards a man's moral and intellectual
health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals
unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and
abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate. The accidents of my
life have often afforded me this advantage, but never with more
fulness and variety than during my continuance in office. There was
one man, especially, the observation of whose character gave me a
new idea of talent. His gifts were emphatically those of a man of
business; prompt, acute, clear-minded; with an eye that saw through
all perplexities, and a faculty of arrangement that made them
vanish, as by the waving of an enchanter's wand. Bred up from
boyhood in the Custom-House, it was his proper field of activity;
and the many intricacies of business, so harassing to the
interloper, presented themselves before him with the regularity of a
perfectly comprehended system. In my contemplation, be stood as the
ideal of his class. He was, indeed, the Custom-House in himself; or,
at all events, the mainspring that kept its variously revolving wheels
in motion; for, in an institution like this, where its officers are
appointed to subserve their own profit and convenience, and seldom
with a leading reference to their fitness for the duty to be
performed, they must perforce seek elsewhere the dexterity which is
not in them. Thus, by an inevitable necessity, as a magnet attracts
steel-filings, so did our man of business draw to himself the
difficulties which everybody met with. With an easy condescension, and
kind forbearance towards our stupidity- which, to his order of mind,
must have seemed little short of crime- would he 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, than an error in the balance of an
account, or an ink-blot on the fair page of a book of record. Here, in
a word- and it is a rare instance in my life- I had met with a
person thoroughly adapted to the situation which he held.
Such were some of the people with whom I now found myself connected.
I took it in good part, at the hands of Providence, that I was
thrown into a position so little akin to my past habits; and set
myself seriously to gather from it whatever profit was to be had.
After my fellowship of toil and impracticable schemes with the
dreamy brethren of Brook Farm; after living for three years within the
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 hearth-stone- it was time, at length, that I
should exercise other faculties of my nature, and nourish myself
with food for which I had hitherto had little appetite. Even the old
Inspector was desirable, as a change of diet, to a man who had known
Alcott. I looked upon it as an evidence, in some measure, or a
system naturally well balanced, and lacking no essential part of a
thorough organisation, 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 spiritualised, 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 make me permanently
other than I had been, without transforming me into any shape which it
would be worth my while to take. But I never considered it as other
than a transitory life. There was always a prophetic instinct, a low
whisper in my ear, that, within no long period, and whenever a new
change of custom should be essential to my good, 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 recognised, 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 favourite topics, Napoleon or
Shakespeare. The Collector's junior clerk, too- a young gentleman who,
it was whispered, occasionally covered a sheet of Uncle Sam's
letter-paper with what (at the distance of a few yards) looked very
much like poetry- used now and then to speak to me of books, as
matters with which I might possibly be conversant. This was my all
of lettered intercourse; and it was quite sufficient for my
necessities.
No longer seeking 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.
In the second story of the Custom-House, there is a large room, in
which the brick-work and naked rafters have never been covered with
panelling and plaster. The edifice- originally projected on a scale
adapted to the old commercial enterprise of the port, and with an idea
of subsequent prosperity destined never to be realised- contains far
more space than its occupants know what to do with. This airy hall,
therefore, over the Collector's apartments, remains unfinished to this
day, and, in spite of the aged cobwebs that festoon its dusky beams,
appears still to await the labour of the carpenter and mason. At one
end of the room, in a recess, were a number of barrels, piled one upon
another, containing bundles of official documents. Large quantities of
similar rubbish lay lumbering the floor. It was sorrowful to think how
many days, and weeks, and months, and years of toil, had been wasted
on these musty papers, which were now only an encumbrance on earth,
and were hidden away in this forgotten corner, never more to be
glanced at by human eyes. But, then, what reams of other
manuscripts- filled not with the dulness of official formalities,
but with the thought of inventive brains and the rich effusion of deep
hearts- had gone equally to oblivion; and that, moreover, without
serving a purpose in their day, as these heaped-up papers had, and-
saddest of all- without purchasing for their writers the comfortable
livelihood which the clerks of the Custom-House had gained by these
worthless scratchings of the pen! Yet not altogether worthless,
perhaps, as materials of local history. Here, no doubt, statistics
of the former commerce of Salem might be discovered, and memorials
of her princely merchants- old King Derby, old Billy Gray, old Simon
Forrester, and many another magnate in his day- whose powdered head,
however, was scarcely in the tomb, before his mountain-pile of
wealth began to dwindle. The founders of the greater part of the
families which now compose the aristocracy of Salem might here be
traced, from the petty and obscure beginnings of their traffic, at
periods generally much posterior to the Revolution, upward to what
their children look upon as long-established rank.
Prior to the Revolution, there is a dearth of records; the earlier
documents and archives of the Custom-House having, probably, been
carried off to Halifax, when all the King's officials accompanied
the British army in its flight from Boston. It has often been a matter
of regret with me; for, going back, perhaps, to the days of the
Protectorate, those papers must have contained many references to
forgotten or remembered men, and to antique customs, which would
have affected me with the same pleasure as when I used to pick up
Indian arrow-heads in the field near the Old Manse.
But, one idle and rainy day, it was my fortune to make a discovery
of some little interest. Poking and burrowing into the heaped-up
rubbish in the corner; unfolding one and another document, and reading
the names of vessels that had long ago foundered at sea or rotted at
the wharves, and those of merchants, never heard of now on 'Change,
nor very readily decipherable on their mossy tombstones; glancing at
such matters with the saddened, weary, half-reluctant interest which
we bestow on the corpse of dead activity- and exerting my fancy,
sluggish with little use, to raise up from these dry bones an image of
the old town's brighter aspect, when India was a new region, and
only Salem knew the way thither- I chanced to lay my hand on a small
package, carefully done up in a piece of ancient yellow parchment.
This envelope had the air of an official record of some period long
past, when clerks engrossed their stiff and formal chirography on more
substantial materials than at present. There was something about it
that quickened an instinctive curiosity, and made me undo the faded
red tape, that tied up the package, with the sense that a treasure
would here be brought to light. Unbending the rigid folds of the
parchment cover, I found it to be a commission, under the hand and
seal of Governor Shirley, in favour of one Jonathan Pue, as Surveyor
of his Majesty's Customs for the port of Salem, in the Province of
Massachusetts Bay. I remembered to have read (probably in Felt's
Annals) a notice of the decease of Mr. Surveyor Pue, about fourscore
years ago; and likewise, in a newspaper of recent times, an account of
the digging up of his remains in the little graveyard of St. Peter's
Church, during the renewal of that edifice. Nothing, if I rightly call
to mind, was left of my respected predecessor, save an imperfect
skeleton, and some fragments of apparel, and a wig of majestic
frizzle; which, unlike the head that it once adorned, was in very
satisfactory preservation. But, on examining the papers which the
parchment commission served to envelop, I found more traces of Mr.
Pue's mental part, and the internal operations of his head, than the
frizzled wig had contained of the venerable skull itself.
They were documents, in short, not official, but of a private
nature, or, at least, written in his private capacity, and
apparently with his own hand. I could account for their being included
in the heap of Custom-House lumber only by the fact, that Mr. Pue's
death had happened suddenly; and that these papers, which he
probably kept in his official desk, had never come to the knowledge of
his heirs, or were supposed to relate to the business of the
revenue. On the transfer of the archives to Halifax, this package,
proving to be of no public concern, was left behind, and had
remained ever since unopened.
The ancient Surveyor- being little molested, I suppose, at that
early day, with business pertaining to his office- seems to have
devoted some of his many leisure hours to researches as a local
antiquarian, and other inquisitions of a similar nature. These
supplied material for petty activity to a mind that would otherwise
have been eaten up with rust. A portion of his facts, by-the-bye,
did me good service in the preparation of the article entitled "MAIN
STREET," included in the present volume. The remainder may perhaps
be applied to purposes equally valuable, hereafter; or not
impossibly may be worked up, so far as they go, into a regular history
of Salem, should my veneration for the natal soil ever impel me to
so pious a task. Meanwhile, they shall be at the command of any
gentleman, inclined, and competent, to take the unprofitable labour
off my hands. As a final disposition, I contemplate depositing them
with the Essex Historical Society.
But the object that most drew my attention, in the mysterious
package, was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and
faded. There were traces about it of gold embroidery, which,
however, was greatly frayed and defaced; so that none, or very little,
of the glitter was left. It had been wrought, as was easy to perceive,
with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stitch (as I am assured by
ladies conversant with such mysteries)- gives evidence of a now
forgotten art, not to be recovered even by the process of picking
out the threads. This rag of scarlet cloth- for time, and wear, and
a sacrilegious moth, had reduced it to little other than a rag- on
careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital
letter A. By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely
three inches and a quarter in length. It had been intended, there
could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was
to be worn, or what rank, honour, and dignity, in by-past times,
were signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the
fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw little hope of
solving. And yet it strangely interested me. My eyes fastened
themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside.
Certainly, there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of
interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the
mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but
evading the analysis of my mind.
While thus perplexed- and cogitating, among other hypotheses,
whether the letter might not have been one of those decorations
which the white men used to contrive, in order to take the eyes of
Indians- I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to me- the
reader may smile, but must not doubt my word- it seemed to me, then,
that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so,
as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but
red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the
floor.
In the absorbing contemplation of the scarlet letter, I had hitherto
neglected to examine a small roll of dingy paper, around which it
had been twisted. This I now opened, and had the satisfaction to find,
recorded by the old Surveyor's pen, a reasonably complete
explanation of the whole affair. There were several foolscap sheets,
containing many particulars respecting the life and conversation of
one Hester Prynne, who appeared to have been rather a noteworthy
personage in the view of our ancestors. She had flourished during
the period between the early days of Massachusetts and the close of
the seventeenth century. Aged persons, alive in the time of Mr.
Surveyor Pue, and from whose oral testimony he had made up his
narrative, remembered her, in their youth, as a very old, but not
decrepit woman, of a stately and solemn aspect. It had been her habit,
from an almost immemorial date, to go about the country as a kind of
voluntary nurse, and doing whatever miscellaneous good she might;
taking upon herself, likewise, to give advice in all matters,
especially those of the heart; by which means, as a person of such
propensities inevitably must, she gained from many people the
reverence due to an angel, but, I should imagine, was looked upon by
others as an intruder and a nuisance. Prying further into the
manuscript, I found the record of other doings and sufferings of
this singular woman, for most of which the reader is referred to the
story entitled "THE SCARLET LETTER"; and it should be borne
carefully in mind, that the main facts of that story are authorised
and authenticated by the document of Mr Surveyor Pue. The original
papers, together with the scarlet letter itself- a most curious relic-
are still in my possession, and shall be freely exhibited to
whomsoever, induced by the great interest of the narrative, may desire
a sight of them. I must not be understood as affirming, that, in the
dressing up of the tale, and imagining the motives and modes of
passion that influenced the characters who figure in it, I have
invariably confined myself within the limits of the old Surveyor's
half-a-dozen sheets of foolscap. On the contrary, I have allowed
myself, as to such points, nearly or altogether as much license as
if the facts had been entirely of my own invention. What I contend for
is the authenticity of the outline.
This incident recalled my mind, in some degree, to its old track.
There seemed to be here the groundwork of a tale. It impressed me as
if the ancient Surveyor, in his garb of a hundred years gone by, and
wearing his immortal wig- which was buried with him, but did not
perish in the grave- had met me in the deserted chamber of the
Custom-House. In his port was the dignity of one who had borne his
Majesty's commission, and who was therefore illuminated by a ray of
the splendour that shone so dazzlingly about the throne. How unlike,
alas! the hang-dog look of a republican official, who, as the
servant of the people, feels himself less than the least, and below
the lowest of his masters. With his own ghostly hand, the obscurely
seen but majestic figure had imparted to me the scarlet symbol, and
the little roll of explanatory manuscript. With his own ghostly voice,
he had exhorted me, on the sacred consideration of my filial duty
and reverence towards him- who might reasonably regard himself as my
official ancestor- to bring his mouldy and moth-eaten lucubrations
before the public. "Do this," said the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue,
emphatically nodding the head that looked so imposing within its
memorable wig, "do this, and the profit shall be all your own! You
will shortly need it; for it is not in your days as it was in mine,
when a man's office was a life-lease, and oftentimes an heirloom. But,
I charge you, in this matter of old Mistress Prynne, give to your
predecessor's memory the credit which will be rightfully due!" And I
said to the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue, "I will!"
On Hester Prynne's story, therefore, I bestowed much thought. It was
the subject of my meditations for many an hour, while pacing to and
fro across my room, or traversing, with a hundred-fold repetition, the
long extent from the front-door of the Custom-House to the
side-entrance, and back again. Great were the weariness and
annoyance of the old Inspector and the Weighers and Gaugers, whose
slumbers were disturbed by the unmercifully lengthened tramp of my
passing and returning footsteps. Remembering their own former
habits, they used to say that the Surveyor was walking the
quarter-deck. They probably fancied that my sole object- and,
indeed, the sole object for which a sane man could ever put himself
into voluntary motion- was, to get an appetite for dinner. And to
say the truth, an appetite, sharpened by the east wind that
generally blew along the passage, was the only valuable result of
so much indefatigable exercise. So little adapted is the atmosphere of
a Custom-House to the delicate harvest of fancy and sensibility, that,
had I remained there through ten Presidencies yet to come, I doubt
whether the tale of "The Scarlet Letter" would ever have been
brought before the public eye. My imagination was a tarnished
mirror. It would not reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the
figures with which I did my best to people it. The characters of the
narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable by any heat
that I could kindle at my intellectual forge. They would take
neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but
retained all the rigidity of dead corpses, and stared me in the face
with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance. "What have you
to do with us?" that expression seemed to say. "The little power you
might once have possessed over the tribe of unrealities is gone! You
have bartered it for a pittance of the public gold. Go, then, and earn
your wages!" In short, the almost torpid creatures of my own fancy
twitted me with imbecility, and not without fair occasion.
It was not merely during the three hours and a half which Uncle
Sam claimed as his share of my daily life, that this wretched numbness
held possession of me. It went with me on my sea-shore walks, and
rambles into the country, whenever- which was seldom and
reluctantly- I bestirred myself to seek that invigorating charm of
Nature, which used to give me such freshness and activity of
thought, the moment that I stepped across the threshold of the Old
Manse. The same torpor, as regarded the capacity for intellectual
effort, accompanied me home, and weighed upon me in the chamber
which I most absurdly termed my study. Nor did it quit me, when,
late at night, I sat in the deserted parlour, lighted only by the
glimmering coal-fire and the moon, striving to picture forth imaginary
scenes, which, the next day, might flow out on the brightening page in
many-hued description.
If the imaginative faculty refused to act at such an hour, it
might well be deemed a hopeless case. Moonlight, in a familiar room,
falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so
distinctly- making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a
morning or noontide visibility- is a medium the most suitable for a
romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests. There is
the little domestic scenery of the well-known apartment; the chairs,
with each its separate individuality; the centre-table, sustaining a
workbasket, a volume or two, and an extinguished lamp; the sofa; the
bookcase; the picture on the wall- all these details, so completely
seen, are so spiritualised by the unusual light, that they seem to
lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect. Nothing
is too small or too trifling to undergo this change, and acquire
dignity thereby. A child's shoe; the doll, seated in her little wicker
carriage; the hobby-horse- whatever, in a word, has been used or
played with, during the day, is now invested with a quality of
strangeness and remoteness, though still almost as vividly present as
by daylight. Thus, therefore, the floor of our familiar room has
become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and
fairyland, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue
itself with the nature of the other. Ghosts might enter here without
affrighting us. It would be too much in keeping with the scene to
excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover a form,
beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in a streak of this magic
moonshine, with an aspect that would make us doubt whether it had
returned from afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside.
The somewhat dim coal-fire has an essential influence in producing
the effect which I would describe. It throws its unobtrusive tinge
throughout the room, with a faint ruddiness upon the walls and
ceiling, and a reflected gleam from the polish of the furniture.
This warmer light mingles itself with the cold spirituality of the
moonbeams, and communicates, as it were, a heart and sensibilities
of human tenderness to the forms which fancy summons up. It converts
them from snow-images into men and women. Glancing at the
looking-glass, we behold- deep within its haunted verge- the
smouldering glow of the half-extinguished anthracite, the white
moonbeams on the floor, and a repetition of all the gleam and shadow
of the picture, with one remove farther from the actual, and nearer to
the imaginative. Then, at such an hour, and with this scene before
him, if a man, sitting all alone, cannot dream strange things, and
make them look like truth, he need never try to write romances.
But, for myself, during the whole of my Custom-House experience,
moonlight and sunshine, and the glow of firelight, were just alike
in my regard; and neither of them was of one whit more avail than
the twinkle of a tallow-candle. An entire class of susceptibilities,
and a gift connected with them- of no great richness or value, but the
best I had- was gone from me.
It is my belief, however, that, had I attempted a different order of
composition, my faculties would not have been found so pointless and
inefficacious. I might, for instance, have contented myself with
writing out the narratives of a veteran shipmaster, one of the
Inspectors, whom I should be most ungrateful not to mention, since
scarcely a day passed that he did not stir me to laughter and
admiration by his marvellous gifts as a story-teller. Could I have
preserved the picturesque force of his style, and the humorous
colouring which nature taught him how to throw over his
descriptions, the result, I honestly believe, would have been
something new in literature. Or I might readily have found a more
serious task. It was a folly, with the materiality of this daily
life pressing so intrusively upon me, to attempt to fling myself
back into another age; or to insist on creating the semblance of a
world out of airy matter, when, at every moment, the impalpable beauty
of my soap-bubble was broken by the rude contact of some actual
circumstance. The wiser effort would have been, to diffuse thought and
imagination through the opaque substance of to-day, and thus to make
it a bright transparency; to spiritualise the burden that began to
weigh so heavily; to seek, resolutely, the true and indestructible
value that lay hidden in the petty and wearisome incidents, and
ordinary characters, with which I was now conversant. The fault was
mine. The page of life that was spread out before me seemed dull and
commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import. A
better book than I shall ever write was there; leaf after leaf
presenting itself to me, just as it was written out by the reality
of the flitting hour, and vanishing as fast as written, only because
my brain wanted the insight and my hand the cunning to transcribe
it. At some future day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered
fragments and broken paragraphs, and write them down, and find the
letters turn to gold upon the page.
These perceptions have come too late. At the instant, I was only
conscious that what would have been a pleasure once was now a hopeless
toil. There was no occasion to make much moan about this state of
affairs. I had ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales and
essays, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor of the Customs.
That was all. But, nevertheless, it is anything but agreeable to be
haunted by a suspicion that one's intellect is dwindling away; or
exhaling, without your consciousness, like ether out of a phial; so
that, at every glance, you find a smaller and less volatile
residuum. Of the fact there could be no doubt; and, examining myself
and others, I was led to conclusions, in reference to the effect of
public office on the character, not very favourable to the mode of
life in question. In some other form, perhaps, I may hereafter develop
these effects. Suffice it here to say, that a Custom-House officer, of
long continuance, can hardly be a very praiseworthy or respectable
personage, for many reasons; one of them, the tenure by which he holds
his situation, and another, the very nature of his business, which-
though, I trust, an honest one- is of such a sort that he does not
share in the united effort of mankind.
An effect- which I believe to be observable, more or less, in
every individual who has occupied the position- is, that, while he
leans on the mighty arm of the Republic, his own proper strength
departs from him. He loses, in an extent proportioned to the
weakness or force of his original nature, the capability of
self-support. If he possess an unusual share of native energy, or
the enervating magic of place do not operate too long upon him, his
forfeited powers may be redeemable. The ejected officer- fortunate
in the unkindly shove that sends him forth betimes, to struggle amid a
struggling world- may return to himself, and become all that he has
ever been. But this seldom happens. He usually keeps his ground just
long enough for his own ruin, and is then thrust out, with sinews
all unstrung, to totter along the difficult footpath of life as he
best may. Conscious of his own infirmity- that his tempered steel
and elasticity are lost- he forever afterwards looks wistfully about
him in quest of support external to himself. His pervading and
continual hope- a hallucination, which, in the face of all
discouragement, and making light of impossibilities, haunts him
while he lives, and, I fancy, like the convulsive throes of the
cholera, torments him for a brief space after death- is, that finally,
and in no long time, by some happy coincidence of circumstances, he
shall be restored to office. This faith, more than anything else,
steals the pith and availability out of whatever enterprise he may
dream of undertaking. Why should he toil and moil, and be at so much
trouble to pick himself up out of the mud, when, in a little while
hence, the strong arm of his Uncle will raise and support him? Why
should he work for his living here, or go to dig gold in California,
when he is so soon to be made happy, at monthly intervals, with a
little pile of glittering coin out of his Uncle's pocket? It is
sadly curious to observe how slight a taste of office suffices to
infect a poor fellow with this singular disease. Uncle Sam's gold-
meaning no disrespect to the worthy old gentleman- has, in this
respect, a quality of enchantment like that of the Devil's wages.
Whoever touches it should look well to himself, or he may find the
bargain to go hard against him, involving, if not his soul, yet many
of its better attributes; its sturdy force, its courage and constancy,
its truth, its self-reliance, and all that gives the emphasis to manly
character.
Here was a fine prospect in the distance! Not that the Surveyor
brought the lesson home to himself, or admitted that he could be so
utterly undone, either by continuance in office, or ejectment. Yet
my reflections were not the most comfortable. I began to grow
melancholy and restless; continually prying into my mind, to
discover which of its poor properties were gone, and what degree of
detriment had already accrued to the remainder. I endeavoured to
calculate how much longer I could stay in the Custom-House, and yet go
forth a man. To confess the truth, it was my greatest apprehension- as
it would never be a measure of policy to turn out so quiet an
individual as myself, and it being hardly in the nature of a public
officer to resign- it was my chief trouble, therefore, that I was
likely to grow grey and decrepit in the Surveyorship, and become
much such another animal as the old Inspector. Might it not, in the
tedious lapse of official life that lay before me, finally be with
me as it was with this venerable friend- to make the dinner-hour the
nucleus of the day, and to spend the rest of it, as an old dog
spends it, asleep in the sunshine or in the shade? A dreary look
forward this, for a man who felt it to be the best definition of
happiness to live throughout the whole range of his faculties and
sensibilities! But, all this while, I was giving myself very
unnecessary alarm. Providence had meditated better things for me
than I could possibly imagine for myself.
A remarkable event of the third year of my Surveyorship- to adopt
the tone of "P. P."- was the election of General Taylor to the
Presidency. It is essential, in order to a complete estimate of the
advantages of official life, to view the incumbent at the incoming
of a hostile administration. His position is then one of the most
singularly irksome, and, in every contingency, disagreeable, that a
wretched mortal can possibly occupy; with seldom an alternative of
good, on either hand, although what presents itself to him as the
worst event may very probably be the best. But it is a strange
experience, to a man of pride and sensibility, to know that his
interests are within the control of individuals who neither love nor
understand him, and by whom, since one or the other must needs happen,
he would rather be injured than obliged. Strange, too, for one who has
kept his calmness throughout the contest, to observe the
bloodthirstiness that is developed in the hour of triumph, and to be
conscious that he is himself among its objects! There are few uglier
traits of human nature than this tendency- which I now witnessed in
men no worse than their neighbours- to grow cruel, merely because they
possessed the power of inflicting harm. If the guillotine, as
applied to office-holders, were a literal fact, instead of one of
the most apt of metaphors, it is my sincere belief, that the active
members of the victorious party were sufficiently excited to have
chopped off all our heads, and have thanked Heaven for the
opportunity! It appears to me- who have been a calm and curious
observer, as well in victory as defeat- that this fierce and bitter
spirit of malice and revenge has never distinguished the many triumphs
of my own party as it now did that of the Whigs. The Democrats take
the offices, as a general rule, because they need them, and because
the practice of many years has made it the law of political warfare,
which, unless a different system be proclaimed, it were weakness and
cowardice to murmur at. But the long habit of victory has made them
generous. They know how to spare, when they see occasion; and when
they strike, the axe may be sharp, indeed, but its edge is seldom
poisoned with ill-will; nor is it their custom ignominously to kick
the head which they have just struck off.
In short, unpleasant as was my predicament, at best, I saw much
reason to congratulate myself that I was on the losing side, rather
than the triumphant one. if, heretofore, I had been none of the
warmest of partisans, I began now, at this season of peril and
adversity, to be pretty acutely sensible with which party my
predilections lay; nor was it without something like regret and shame,
that, according to a reasonable calculation of chances, I saw my own
prospect of retaining office to be better than those of my
Democratic brethren. But who can see an inch into futurity, beyond his
nose? My head was the first that fell!
The moment when a man's head drops off is seldom or never, I am
inclined to think, precisely the most agreeable of his life.
Nevertheless, like the greater part of our misfortunes, even so
serious a contingency brings its remedy and consolation with it, if
the sufferer will but make the best, rather than the worst, of the
accident which has befallen him. In my particular case, the
consolatory topics were close at hand, and, indeed, had suggested
themselves to my meditations a considerable time before it was
requisite to use them. In view of my previous weariness of office, and
vague thoughts of resignation, my fortune somewhat resembled that of a
person who should entertain an idea of committing suicide, and,
although beyond his hopes, meet with the good hap to be murdered. In
the Custom-House, as before in the Old Manse, I had spent three years;
a term long enough to rest a weary brain; long enough to break off old
intellectual habits, and make room for new ones; long enough, and
too long, to have lived in an unnatural state, doing what was really
of no advantage nor delight to any human being, and withholding myself
from toil that would, at least, have stilled an unquiet impulse in me.
Then, moreover, as regarded his unceremonious ejectment, the late
Surveyor was not altogether ill-pleased to be recognised by the
Whigs as an enemy; since his inactivity in political affairs- his
tendency to roam, at will, in that broad and quiet field where all
mankind may meet, rather than confine himself to those narrow paths
where brethren of the same household must diverge from one another-
had sometimes made it questionable with his brother Democrats
whether he was a friend. Now, after he had won the crown of
martyrdom (though with no longer a head to wear it on), the point
might be looked upon as settled. Finally, little heroic as he was,
it seemed more decorous to be overthrown in the downfall of the
party with which he had been content to stand, than to remain a
forlorn survivor, when so many worthier men were falling; and, at
last, after subsisting for four years on the mercy of a hostile
administration, to be compelled then to define his position anew,
and claim the yet more humiliating mercy of a friendly one.
Meanwhile the press had taken up my affair, and kept me, for a
week or two, careering through the public prints, in my decapitated
state, like Irving's Headless Horseman; ghastly and grim, and
longing to be buried, as a politically dead man ought. So much for
my figurative self. The real human being, all this time, with his head
safely on his shoulders, had brought himself to the comfortable
conclusion that everything was for the best; and, making an investment
in ink, paper, and steel-pens, had opened his long-disused
writing-desk, and was again a literary man.
Now it was that the lucubrations of my ancient predecessor, Mr.
Surveyor Pue, came into play. Rusty through long idleness, some little
space was requisite before my intellectual machinery could be
brought to work upon the tale, with an effect in any degree
satisfactory. Even yet, though my thoughts were ultimately much
absorbed in the task, it wears, to my eye, a stern and sombre
aspect; too much ungladdened by genial sunshine; too little relieved
by the tender and familiar influences which soften almost every
scene of nature and real life, and, undoubtedly, should soften every
picture of them. This uncaptivating effect is perhaps due to the
period of hardly accomplished revolution, and still seething
turmoil, in which the story shaped itself. It is no indication,
however, of a lack of cheerfulness in the writer's mind; for he was
happier, while straying through the gloom of these sunless
fantasies, than at any time since he had quitted the Old Manse. Some
of the briefer articles, which contribute to make up the volume,
have likewise been written since my involuntary withdrawal from the
toils and honours of public life, and the remainder are gleaned from
annuals and magazines, of such antique date that they have gone
round the circle, and come back to novelty again. Keeping up the
metaphor of the political guillotine, the whole may be considered as
the POSTHUMOUS PAPERS OF A DECAPITATED SURVEYOR; and the sketch
which I am now bringing to a close, if too autobiographical for a
modest person to publish in his life-time, will readily be excused
in a gentleman who writes from beyond the grave. Peace be with all the
world! My blessing on my friends! My forgiveness to my enemies! For
I am in the realm of quiet!
The life of the Custom-House lies like a dream behind me. The old
Inspector- who, by-the-bye, I regret to say, was overthrown and killed
by a horse, some time ago; else he would certainly have lived forever-
he, and all those other venerable personages who sat with him at the
receipt of custom, are but shadows in my view; white-headed and
wrinkled images, which my fancy used to sport with, and has now
flung aside forever. The merchants- Pingree, Phillips, Shepard, Upton,
Kimball, Bertram, Hunt- these, and many other names, which had such
a classic familiarity for my ear six months ago- these men of traffic,
who seemed to occupy so important a position in the world- how
little time has it required to disconnect me from them all, not merely
in act, but recollection! It is with an effort that I recall the
figures and appellations of these few. Soon, likewise, my old native
town will loom upon me through the haze of memory, a mist brooding
over and around it; as if it were no portion of the real earth, but an
overgrown village in cloudland, with only imaginary inhabitants to
people its wooden houses, and walk its homely lanes; and the
unpicturesque prolixity of its main street. Henceforth, it ceases to
be a reality of my life, I am a citizen of somewhere else. My good
townspeople will not much regret me; for- though it has been as dear
an object as any, in my literary efforts, to be of some importance
in their eyes, and to win myself a pleasant memory in this abode and
burial-place of so many of my forefathers- there has never been, for
me, the general atmosphere which a literary man requires, in order
to ripen the best harvest of his mind. I shall do better amongst other
faces; and these familiar ones, it need hardly be said, will do just
as well without me.
It may be, however- oh, transporting and triumphant thought!- that
the great-grandchildren of the present race may sometimes think kindly
of the scribbler of bygone days, when the antiquary of days to come,
among the sites memorable in the town's history, shall point out the
locality of THE TOWN PUMP!
I.
THE PRISON-DOOR.

A THRONG of bearded men, in sad-coloured garments, and grey,
steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and
others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the
door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron
spikes.
The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and
happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it
among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the
virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a
prison. In accordance with this rule, it may safely be assumed that
the forefathers of Boston had built the first prison-house somewhere
in the vicinity of Cornhill, almost as seasonably as they marked out
the first burial-ground, on Isaac Johnson's lot, and round about his
grave, which subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated
sepulchres in the old churchyard of King's Chapel. Certain it is that,
some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the
wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other
indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its
beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of
its oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the New
World. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have
known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the
wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with
burdock, pig-weed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which
evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early
borne the black flower of civilised society, a prison. But, on one
side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild
rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems,
which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to
the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came
forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity
and be kind to him.
This rose-bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history;
but whether it had merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so
long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally
overshadowed it- or whether, as there is fair authority for believing,
it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson, as
she entered the prison-door- we shall not take upon us to determine.
Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now
about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do
otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader.
It may serve, let us hope, to symbolise some sweet moral blossom, that
may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale
of human frailty and sorrow.
II.
THE MARKET-PLACE.

THE grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain
summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a
pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston; all with their
eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door. Amongst any
other population, or at a later period in the history of New
England, the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of
these good people would have augured some awful business in hand. It
could have betokened nothing short of the anticipated execution of
some noted culprit, on whom the sentence of a legal tribunal had but
confirmed the verdict of public sentiment. But, in that early severity
of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so
indubitably be drawn. It might be, that a sluggish bond-servant, or an
undutiful child, whom his parents had given over to the civil
authority, was to be corrected at the whipping-post. It might be, that
an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be
scourged out of the town, or an idle and vagrant Indian, whom the
white man's fire-water had made riotous about the streets, was to be
driven with stripes into the shadow of the forest. It might be, too,
that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter-tempered widow
of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows. In either case,
there was very much the same solemnity of demeanour on the part of the
spectators; as befitted a people amongst whom religion and law were
almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly
interfused, that the mildest and the severest acts of public
discipline were alike made venerable and awful. Meagre, indeed, and
cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such
bystanders, at the scaffold. On the other hand, a penalty which, in
our days, would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule, might
then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of
death itself.
It was a circumstance to be noted, on the summer morning when our
story begins its course, that the women, of whom there were several in
the crowd, appeared to take a peculiar interest in whatever penal
infliction might be expected to ensue. The age had not so much
refinement, that any sense of impropriety restrained the wearers of
petticoat and farthingale from stepping forth into the public ways,
and wedging their not unsubstantial persons, if occasion were, into
the throng nearest to the scaffold at an execution. Morally, as well
as materially, there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of
old English birth and breeding, than in their fair descendants,
separated from them by a series of six or seven generations; for,
throughout that chain of ancestry, every successive mother has
transmitted to her child a fainter bloom, a more delicate and
briefer beauty, and a slighter physical frame, if not a character of
less force and solidity, than her own. The women who were now standing
about the prison-door stood within less than half a century of the
period when the man-like Elizabeth had been the not altogether
unsuitable representative of the sex. They were her country-women; and
the beef and ale of their native land, with a moral diet not a whit
more refined, entered largely into their composition. The bright
morning sun, therefore, shone on broad shoulders and well-developed
busts, and on round and ruddy cheeks, that had ripened in the
far-off island, and had hardly yet grown paler or thinner in the
atmosphere of New England. There was, moreover, a boldness and
rotundity of speech among these matrons, as most of them seemed to be,
that would startle us at the present day, whether in respect to its
purport or its volume of tone.
"Goodwives," said a hard-featured dame of fifty, "I'll tell ye a
piece of my mind. It would be greatly for the public behoof, if we
women, being of mature age and church-members in good repute, should
have the handling of such malefactresses as this Hester Prynne. What
think ye, gossips? If the hussy stood up for judgment before us
five, that are now here in a knot together, would she come off with
such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded? Marry, I
trow not!"
"People say," said another, "that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale,
her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to heart that such a
scandal should have come upon his congregation."
"The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch-
that is a truth," added a third autumnal matron. "At the very least,
they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's
forehead. Madam Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But
she- the naughty baggage- little will she care what they put upon
the bodice of her gown! Why, look you, she may cover it with a brooch,
or such like heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as
ever!"
"Ah, but," interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a child by
the hand, "Let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will
be always in her heart."
"What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her
gown, or the flesh of her forehead?" cried another female, the ugliest
as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges. "This
woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not
law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the
statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect,
thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray!"
"Mercy on us, goodwife," exclaimed a man in the crowd, "is there
no virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of the
gallows? That is the hardest word yet! Hush, now, gossips! for the
lock is turning in the prison-door, and here comes Mistress Prynne
herself."
The door of the jail being flung open from within, there appeared,
in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into sunshine, the
grim and grisly presence of the town-beadle, with a sword by his side,
and his staff of office in his hand. This personage prefigured and
represented in his aspect the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic
code of law, which it was his business to administer in its final
and closest application to the offender. Stretching forth the official
staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young
woman, whom he thus drew forward; until, on the threshold of the
prison-door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural
dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if
by her own free will. She bore in her arms a child, a baby of some
three months old, who winked and turned aside its little face from the
too vivid light of day; because its existence, heretofore, had brought
it acquainted only with the grey twilight of a dungeon, or other
darksome apartment of the prison.
When the young woman- the mother of this child- stood fully revealed
before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the
infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly
affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which
was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely
judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide
another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush,
and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed,
looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of
her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery
and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was
so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous
luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and
fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a
splendour in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly
beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.
The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a
large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw
off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being
beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had
the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She
was ladylike, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those
days; characterised by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the
delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace, which is now recognised
as its indication. And never had Hester Prynne appeared more ladylike,
in the antique interpretation of the term, than as she issued from the
prison. Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her
dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even
startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the
misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped. It may be true,
that, to a sensitive observer, there was something exquisitely painful
in it. Her attire, which, indeed, she had wrought for the occasion, in
prison, and had modelled much after her own fancy, seemed to express
the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood, by
its wild and picturesque peculiarity. But the point which drew all
eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer- so that both men and
women, who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now
impressed as if they beheld her for the first time- was that SCARLET
LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom.
It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations
with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.
"She hath good skill at her needle, that's certain," remarked one of
her female spectators; "but did ever a woman, before this brazen
hussy, contrive such a way of showing it! Why, gossips, what is it but
to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out
of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a punishment?"
"It were well," muttered the most iron-visaged of the old dames, "if
we stripped Madam Hester's rich gown off her dainty shoulders; and
as for the red letter, which she hath stitched so curiously, I'll
bestow a rag of mine own rheumatic flannel, to make a fitter one!"
"Oh, peace, neighbours, peace!" whispered their youngest
companion; "do not let her hear you! Not a stitch in that
embroidered letter, but she has felt it in her heart."
The grim beadle now made a gesture with his staff.
"Make way, good people, make way, in the King's name!" cried he.
"Open a passage; and, I promise ye, Mistress Prynne shall be set where
man, woman, and child, may have a fair sight of her brave apparel,
from this time till an hour past meridian. A blessing on the righteous
Colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the
sunshine! Come along, Madam Hester, and show your scarlet letter in
the market-place!"
A lane was forthwith opened through the crowd of spectators.
Preceded by the beadle, and attended by an irregular procession of
stern-browed men and unkindly-visaged women, Hester Prynne set forth
towards the place appointed for her punishment. A crowd of eager and
curious schoolboys, understanding little of the matter in hand, except
that it gave them a half-holiday, ran before her progress, turning
their heads continually to stare into her face, and at the winking
baby in her arms, and at the ignominious letter on her breast. It
was no great distance, in those days, from the prison-door to the
market-place. Measured by the prisoner's experience, however, it might
be reckoned a journey of some length; for, haughty as her demeanour
was, she perchance underwent an agony from every footstep of those
that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the
street for them all to spurn and trample upon. In our nature, however,
there is a provision alike marvellous and merciful, that the
sufferer should never know the intensity of what he endures by its
present torture, but chiefly by the pang that rankles after it. With
almost a serene deportment, therefore, Hester Prynne passed through
this portion of her ordeal, and came to a sort of scaffold, at the
western extremity of the market-place. It stood nearly beneath the
eaves of Boston's earliest church, and appeared to be a fixture there.
In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine,
which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely
historical and traditionary among us, but was held, in the old time,
to be as effectual an agent, in the promotion of good citizenship,
as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of France. It was,
in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose the framework
of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human
head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze. The
very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this
contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks,
against our common nature- whatever be the delinquencies of the
individual- no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to
hide his face for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to
do. In Hester Prynne's instance, however, as not unfrequently in other
cases, her sentence bore, that she should stand a certain time upon
the platform, but without undergoing that gripe about the neck and
confinement of the head, the proneness to which was the most
devilish characteristic of this ugly engine. Knowing well her part,
she ascended a flight of wooden steps, and was thus displayed to the
surrounding multitude, at about the height of a man's shoulders
above the street.
Had there been a papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might have
seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien,
and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image
of Divine Maternity, which so many illustrious painters have vied with
one another to represent; something which should remind him, indeed,
but only by contrast, of that sacred image of sinless motherhood,
whose infant was to redeem the world. Here, there was the taint of
deepest sin in the most sacred quality of human life, working such
effect, that the world was only the darker for this woman's beauty,
and the more lost for the infant that she had borne.
The scene was not without a mixture of awe, such as must always
invest the spectacle of guilt and shame in a fellow-creature, before
society shall have grown corrupt enough to smile, instead of
shuddering, at it. The witnesses of Hester Prynne's disgrace had not
yet passed beyond their simplicity. They were stern enough to look
upon her death, had that been the sentence, without a murmur at its
severity, but had none of the heartlessness of another social state,
which would find only a theme for jest in an exhibition like the
present. Even if there had been a disposition to turn the matter
into ridicule, it must have been repressed and overpowered by the
solemn presence of men no less dignified than the Governor, and
several of his counsellors, a judge, a general, and the ministers of
the town; all of whom sat or stood in a balcony of the meetinghouse,
looking down upon the platform. When such personages could
constitute a part of the spectacle, without risking the majesty or
reverence of rank and office, it was safely to be inferred that the
infliction of a legal sentence would have an earnest and effectual
meaning. Accordingly, the crowd was sombre and grave. The unhappy
culprit sustained herself as best a woman might, under the heavy
weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes, all fastened upon her and
concentrated at her bosom. It was almost intolerable to be borne. Of
an impulsive and passionate nature, she had fortified herself to
encounter the stings and venomous stabs of public contumely,
wreaking itself in every variety of insult; but there was a quality so
much more terrible in the solemn mood of the popular mind, that she
longed rather to behold all those rigid countenances contorted with
scornful merriment, and herself the object. Had a roar of laughter
burst from the multitude- each man, each woman, each little
shrill-voiced child, contributing their individual parts- Hester
Prynne might have repaid them all with a bitter and disdainful
smile. But, under the leaden infliction which it was her doom to
endure, she felt, at moments, as if she must needs shriek out with the
full power of her lungs, and cast herself from the scaffold down
upon the ground, or else go mad at once.
Yet there were intervals when the whole scene, in which she was
the most conspicuous object, seemed to vanish from her eyes, or at
least, glimmered indistinctly before them, like a mass of
imperfectly shaped and spectral images. Her mind, and especially her
memory. was preternaturally active, and kept bringing up other
scenes than this roughly hewn street of a little town, on the edge
of the Western wilderness; other faces than were lowering upon her
from beneath the brims of those steeple-crowned hats. Reminiscences,
the most trifling and immaterial, passages of infancy and school-days,
sports, childish quarrels, and the little domestic traits of her
maiden years, came swarming back upon her, intermingled with
recollections of whatever was gravest in her subsequent life; one
picture precisely as vivid as another; as if all were of similar
importance, or all alike a play. Possibly, it was an instinctive
device of her spirit, to relieve itself, by the exhibition of these
phantasmagoric forms, from the cruel weight and hardness of the
reality.
Be that as it might, the scaffold of the pillory was a point of view
that revealed to Hester Prynne the entire track along which she had
been treading, since her happy infancy. Standing on that miserable
eminence, she saw her native village, in old England, and her paternal
home; a decayed house of grey stone, with a poverty-stricken aspect,
but retaining a half-obliterated shield of arms over the portal, in
token of antique gentility. She saw her father's face, with its bald
brow, and reverend white beard, that flowed over the old-fashioned
Elizabethan ruff; her mother's, too, with the look of heedful and
anxious love which it always wore in her remembrance, and which,
even since her death, had so often laid the impediment of a gentle
remonstrance in her daughter's pathway. She saw her own face,
glowing with girlish beauty, and illuminating all the interior of
the dusky mirror in which she had been wont to gaze at it. There she
beheld another countenance, of a man well stricken in years, a pale,
thin, scholar-like visage, with eyes dim and bleared by the
lamplight that had served them to pore over many ponderous books.
Yet those same bleared optics had a strange, penetrating power, when
it was their owner's purpose to read the human soul. This figure of
the study and the cloister, as Hester Prynne's womanly fancy failed
not to recall, was slightly deformed, with the left shoulder a
trifle higher than the right. Next rose before her, in memory's
picture-gallery, the intricate and narrow thoroughfares, the tall grey
houses, the huge cathedrals, and the public edifices, ancient in
date and quaint in architecture, of a Continental city; where a new
life had awaited her, still in connection with the misshapen
scholar; a new life, but feeding itself on time-worn materials, like a
tuft of green moss on a crumbling wall. Lastly, in lieu of these
shifting scenes, came back the rude market-place of the Puritan
settlement, with all the townspeople assembled and levelling their
stern regards at Hester Prynne- yes, at herself- who stood on the
scaffold of the pillory, an infant on her arm, and the letter A, in
scarlet, fantastically embroidered with gold thread, upon her bosom!
Could it be true? She clutched the child so fiercely to her
breast, that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at
the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure
herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes!- these were
her realities- all else had vanished!
III.
THE RECOGNITION.

FROM this intense consciousness of being the object of severe and
universal observation, the wearer of the scarlet letter was at
length relieved, by discerning, on the outskirts of the crowd, a
figure which irresistibly took possession of her thoughts. An
Indian, in his native garb, was standing there; but the red men were
not so infrequent visitors of the English settlements, that one of
them would have attracted any notice from Hester Prynne, at such a
time; much less would he have excluded all other objects and ideas
from her mind. By the Indian's side, and evidently sustaining a
companionship with him, stood a white man, clad in a strange
disarray of civilised and savage costume.
He was small in stature, with a furrowed visage, which, as yet,
could hardly be termed aged. There was a remarkable intelligence in
his features, as of a person who had so cultivated his mental part
that it could not fail to mould the physical to itself, and become
manifest by unmistakable tokens. Although, by a seemingly careless
arrangement of his heterogeneous garb, he had endeavoured to conceal
or abate the peculiarity, it was sufficiently evident to Hester
Prynne, that one of this man's shoulders rose higher than the other.
Again, at the first instant of perceiving that thin visage, and the
slight deformity of the figure, she pressed her infant to her bosom
with so convulsive a force that the poor babe uttered another cry of
pain. But the mother did not seem to hear it.
At his arrival in the market-place, and some time before she saw
him, the stranger had bent his eyes on Hester Prynne. It was
carelessly, at first, like a man chiefly accustomed to look inward,
and to whom external matters are of little value and import, unless
they bear relation to something within his mind. Very soon, however,
his look became keen and penetrative. A writhing horror twisted itself
across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over them, and
making one little pause, with all its wreathed intervolutions, in open
sight. His face darkened with some powerful emotion, which,
nevertheless, he so instantaneously controlled by an effort of his
will, that, save at a single moment, its expression might have
passed for calmness. After a brief space, the convulsion grew almost
imperceptible, and finally subsided into the depths of his nature.
When he found the eyes of Hester Prynne fastened on his own, and saw
that she appeared to recognise him, he slowly and calmly raised his
finger, made a gesture with it in the air, and laid it on his lips.
Then, touching the shoulder of a townsman who stood next to him,
he addressed him, in a formal and courteous manner.
"I pray you, good sir," said he, "who is this woman?- and
wherefore is she here set up to public shame?"
"You must needs be a stranger in this region, friend," answered
the townsman, looking curiously at the questioner and his savage
companion, "else you would surely have heard of Mistress Hester
Prynne, and her evil doings. She hath raised a great scandal, I
promise you, in godly Master Dimmesdale's church."
"You say truly," replied the other. "I am a stranger, and have
been a wanderer, sorely against my will. I have met with grievous
mishaps by sea and land, and have been long held in bonds among the
heathen folk, to the southward; and am now brought hither by this
Indian, to be redeemed out of my captivity. Will it please you,
therefore, to tell me of Hester Prynne's- have I her name rightly?- of
this woman's offences, and what has brought her to yonder scaffold?"
"Truly, friend; and methinks it must gladden your heart, after
your troubles and sojourn in the wilderness," said the townsman, "to
find yourself, at length, in a land where iniquity is searched out,
and punished in the sight of rulers and people; as here in our godly
New England. Yonder woman, sir, you must know, was the wife of a
certain learned man, English by birth, but who had long dwelt in
Amsterdam, whence, some good time agone, he was minded to cross over
and cast in his lot with us of the Massachusetts. To this purpose,
he sent his wife before him, remaining himself to look after some
necessary affairs. Marry, good sir, in some two years, or less, that
the woman has been a dweller here in Boston, no tidings have come of
this learned gentleman, Master Prynne; and his young wife, look you,
being left to her own misguidance-"
"Ah!- aha!- I conceive you," said the stranger, with a bitter smile.
"So learned a man as you speak of should have learned this, too, in
his books. And who, by your favour, sir, may be the father of yonder
babe- it is some three or four months old, I should judge- which
Mistress Prynne is holding in her arms?"
"Of a truth, friend, that matter remaineth a riddle; and the
Daniel who shall expound it is yet a-wanting," answered the
townsman. "Madam Hester absolutely refuseth to speak, and the
magistrates have laid their heads together in vain. Peradventure the
guilty one stands looking on at this sad spectacle, unknown of man,
and forgetting that God sees him."
"The learned man," observed the stranger, with another smile,
"should come himself, to look into the mystery."
"It behooves him well, if he be still in life," responded the
townsman. "Now, good sir, our Massachusetts magistracy, bethinking
themselves that this woman is youthful and fair, and doubtless was
strongly tempted to her fall- and that, moreover, as is most likely,
her husband may be at the bottom of the sea- they have not been bold
to put in force the extremity of our righteous law against her. The
penalty thereof is death. But in their great mercy and tenderness of
heart, they have doomed Mistress Prynne to stand only a space of three
hours on the platform of the pillory, and then and thereafter, for the
remainder of her natural life, to wear a mark of shame upon her
bosom."
"A wise sentence!" remarked the stranger, gravely bowing his head.
"Thus she will be a living sermon against sin, until the ignominious
letter be engraved upon her tombstone. It irks me, nevertheless,
that the partner of her iniquity should not, at least, stand on the
scaffold by her side. But he will be known!- he will be known!- he
will be known!"
He bowed courteously to the communicative townsman, and,
whispering a few words to his Indian attendant, they both made their
way through the crowd.
While this passed, Hester Prynne had been standing on her
pedestal, still with a fixed gaze towards the stranger; so fixed a
gaze that, at moments of intense absorption, all other objects in
the visible world seemed to vanish, leaving only him and her. Such
an interview, perhaps, would have been more terrible than even to meet
him as she now did, with the hot, mid-day sun burning down upon her
face, and lighting up its shame; with the scarlet token of infamy on
her breast; with the sin-born infant in her arms; with a whole people,
drawn forth as to a festival, staring at the features that should have
been seen only in the quiet gleam of the fireside, in the happy shadow
of a home, or beneath a matronly veil, at church. Dreadful as it
was, she was conscious of a shelter in the presence of these
thousand witnesses. It was better to stand thus, with so many
betwixt him and her, than to greet him, face to face, they two
alone. She fled for refuge, as it were, to the public exposure, and
dreaded the moment when its protection should be withdrawn from her.
Involved in these thoughts, she scarcely heard a voice behind her,
until it had repeated her name more than once, in a loud and solemn
tone, audible to the whole multitude.
"Hearken unto me, Hester Prynne!" said the voice.
It has already been noticed, that directly over the platform on
which Hester Prynne stood was a kind of balcony, or open gallery,
appended to the meeting-house. It was the place whence proclamations
were wont to be made, amidst an assemblage of the magistracy, with all
the ceremonial that attended such public observances in those days.
Here, to witness the scene which we are describing, sat Governor
Bellingham himself, with four sergeants about his chair, bearing
halberds, as a guard of honour. He wore a dark feather in his hat, a
border of embroidery on his cloak, and a black velvet tunic beneath; a
gentleman advanced in years, with a hard experience written in his
wrinkles. He was not ill fitted to be the head and representative of a
community, which owed its origin and progress, and its present state
of development, not to the impulses of youth, but to the stern and
tempered energies of manhood, and the sombre sagacity of age;
accomplishing so much, precisely because it imagined and hoped so
little. The other eminent characters, by whom the chief ruler was
surrounded, were distinguished by a dignity of mien, belonging to a
period when the forms of authority were felt to possess the sacredness
of Divine institutions. They were, doubtless, good men, just, and
sage. But, out of the whole human family, it would not have been
easy to select the same number of wise and virtuous persons, who
should be less capable of sitting in judgment on an erring woman's
heart, and disentangling its mesh of good and evil, than the sages
of rigid aspect towards whom Hester Prynne now turned her face. She
seemed conscious, indeed, that whatever sympathy she might expect, lay
in the larger and warmer heart of the multitude; for, as she lifted
her eyes towards the balcony, the unhappy woman grew pale and
trembled.
The voice which had called her attention was that of the reverend
and famous John Wilson, the eldest clergyman of Boston, a great
scholar, like most of his contemporaries in the profession, and withal
a man of kind and genial spirit. This last attribute, however, had
been less carefully developed than his intellectual gifts, and was, in
truth, rather a matter of shame than self-congratulation with him.
There he stood, with a border of grizzled locks beneath his skull-cap;
while his grey eyes, accustomed to the shaded light of his study, were
winking, like those of Hester's infant, in the unadulterated sunshine.
He looked like the darkly engraved portraits which we see prefixed
to old volumes of sermons; and had no more right than one of those
portraits would have, to step forth, as he now did, and meddle with
a question of human guilt, passion, and anguish.
"Hester Prynne," said the clergyman, "I have striven with my young
brother here, under whose preaching of the Word you have been
privileged to sit"- here Mr. Wilson laid his hand on the shoulder of a
pale young man beside him- "I have sought, I say, to persuade this
godly youth, that he should deal with you, here in the face of Heaven,
and before these wise and upright rulers, and in hearing of all the
people, as touching the vileness and blackness of your sin. Knowing
your natural temper better than I, he could the better judge what
arguments to use, whether of tenderness or terror, such as might
prevail over your hardness and obstinacy; insomuch that you should
no longer hide the name of him who tempted you to this grievous
fall. But he opposes to me (with a young man's over-softness, albeit
wise beyond his years) that it were wronging the very nature of
woman to force her to lay open her heart's secrets in such broad
daylight, and in presence of so great a multitude. Truly, as I
sought to convince him, the shame lay in the commission of the sin,
and not in the showing of it forth. What say you to it, once again,
brother Dimmesdale! Must it be thou, or I, that shall deal with this
poor sinner's soul?"
There was a murmur among the dignified and reverend occupants of the
balcony; and Governor Bellingham gave expression to its purport,
speaking in an authoritative voice, although tempered with respect
towards the youthful clergyman whom he addressed.
"Good Master Dimmesdale," said he, "the responsibility of this
woman's soul lies greatly with you. It behooves you, therefore, to
exhort her to repentance, and to confession, as a proof and
consequence thereof."
The directness of this appeal drew the eyes of the whole crowd
upon the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale; a young clergyman, who had come from
one of the great English universities, bringing all the learning of
the age into our wild forest-land. His eloquence and religious fervour
had already given the earnest of high eminence in his profession. He
was a person of very striking aspect, with a white, lofty, and
impending brow, large, brown, melancholy eyes, and a mouth which,
unless when he forcibly compressed it, was apt to be tremulous,
expressing both nervous sensibility and a vast power of
self-restraint. Notwithstanding his high native gifts and scholar-like
attainments, there was an air about this young minister- an
apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look- as of a being who
felt himself quite astray and at a loss in the pathway of human
existence, and could only be at ease in some seclusion of his own.
Therefore, so far as his duties would permit, he trod in the shadowy
bypaths, and thus kept himself simple and childlike; coming forth,
when occasion was, with a freshness, and fragrance, and dewy purity of
thought, which, as many people said, affected them like the speech
of an angel.
Such was the young man whom the Reverend Mr. Wilson and the Governor
had introduced so openly to the public notice, bidding him speak, in
the hearing of all men, to that mystery of a woman's soul, so sacred
even in its pollution. The trying nature of his position drove the
blood from his cheek, and made his lips tremulous.
"Speak to the woman, my brother," said Mr. Wilson. "It is of
moment to her soul, and therefore, as the worshipful Governor says,
momentous to thine own, in whose charge hers is. Exhort her to confess
the truth!"
The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale bent his head, in silent prayer, as it
seemed, and then came forward.
"Hester Prynne," said he, leaning over the balcony, and looking down
steadfastly into her eyes, "thou hearest what this good man says,
and seest the accountability under which I labour. If thou feelest
it to be for thy soul's peace, and that thy earthly punishment will
thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak
out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer! Be not silent
from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for believe me, Hester,
though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there
beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than
to hide a guilty heart through life. What can thy silence do for
him, except it tempt him- yea, compel him, as it were- to add
hypocrisy to sin? Heaven hath granted thee an open ignominy, that
thereby thou mayest work out an open triumph over the evil within
thee, and the sorrow without. Take heed how thou deniest to him-
who, perchance, hath not the courage to grasp it for himself- the
bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips!"
The young pastor's voice was tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and
broken. The feeling that it so evidently manifested, rather than the
direct purport of the words, caused it to vibrate within all hearts,
and brought the listeners into one accord of sympathy. Even the poor
baby, at Hester's bosom, was affected by the same influence; for it
directed its hitherto vacant gaze towards Mr. Dimmesdale, and held
up its little arms, with a half-pleased, half-plaintive murmur. So
powerful seemed the minister's appeal, that the people could not
believe but that Hester Prynne would speak out the guilty name; or
else that the guilty one himself, in whatever high or lowly place he
stood, would be drawn forth by an inward and inevitable necessity, and
compelled to ascend the scaffold.
Hester shook her head.
"Woman, transgress not beyond the limits of Heaven's mercy!" cried
the Reverend Mr. Wilson, more harshly than before. "That little babe
hath been gifted with a voice, to second and confirm the counsel which
thou hast heard. Speak out the name! That, and thy repentance, may
avail to take the scarlet letter off thy breast."
"Never!" replied Hester Prynne, looking, not at Mr. Wilson, but into
the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman. "It is too deeply
branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his
agony, as well as mine!"
"Speak, woman!" said another voice, coldly and sternly, proceeding
from the crowd about the scaffold. "Speak; and give your child a
father!"
"I will not speak!" answered Hester, turning pale as death, but
responding to this voice, which she too surely recognized. "And my
child must seek a heavenly Father; she shall never know an earthly
one!"
"She will not speak!" murmured Mr. Dimmesdale, who, leaning over the
balcony, with his hand upon his heart, had awaited the result of his
appeal. He now drew back, with a long respiration. "Wondrous
strength and generosity of a woman's heart! She will not speak!"
Discerning the impractible state of the poor culprit's mind, the
elder clergyman, who had carefully prepared himself for the
occasion, addressed to the multitude a discourse on sin, in all its
branches, but with continual reference to the ignominious letter. So
forcibly did he dwell upon this symbol, for the hour or more during
which his periods were rolling over the people's heads, that it
assumed new terrors in their imagination, and seemed to derive its
scarlet hue from the flames of the infernal pit. Hester Prynne,
meanwhile, kept her place upon the pedestal of shame, with glazed
eyes, and an air of weary indifference. She had borne, that morning,
all that nature could endure; and as her temperament was not of the
order that escapes from too intense suffering by a swoon, her spirit
could only shelter itself beneath a stony crust of insensibility,
while the faculties of animal life remained entire. In this state, the
voice of the preacher thundered remorselessly, but unavailingly,
upon her ears. The infant, during the latter portion of her ordeal,
pierced the air with its wailings and screams; she strove to hush
it, mechanically, but seemed scarcely to sympathise with its
trouble. With the same hard demeanour, she was led back to prison, and
vanished from the public gaze within its iron-clamped portal. It was
whispered, by those who peered after her, that the scarlet letter
threw a lurid gleam along the dark passage-way of the interior.
IV.
THE INTERVIEW.

AFTER her return to the prison, Hester Prynne was found to be in a
state of nervous excitement that demanded constant watchfulness,
lest she should perpetrate violence on herself, or do some
half-frenzied mischief to the poor babe. As night approached, it
proving impossible to quell her insubordination by rebuke or threats
of punishment, Master Brackett, the jailer, thought fit to introduce a
physician. He described him as a man of skill in all Christian modes
of physical science, and likewise familiar with whatever the savage
people could teach, in respect to medicinal herbs and roots that
grew in the forest. To say the truth, there was much need of
professional assistance, not merely for Hester herself, but still more
urgently for the child; who, drawing its sustenance from the
maternal bosom, seemed to have drank in with it all the turmoil, the
anguish and despair, which pervaded the mother's system. It now
writhed in convulsions of pain, and was a forcible type, in its little
frame, of the moral agony which Hester Prynne had borne throughout the
day.
Closely following the jailer into the dismal apartment, appeared
that individual of singular aspect, whose presence in the crowd had
been of such deep interest to the wearer of the scarlet letter. He was
lodged in the prison, not as suspected of any offence, but as the most
convenient and suitable mode of disposing of him, until the
magistrates should have conferred with the Indian sagamores respecting
his ransom. His name was announced as Roger Chillingworth. The jailer,
after ushering him into the room, remained a moment, marvelling at the
comparative quiet that followed his entrance; for Hester Prynne had
immediately become as still as death, although the child continued
to moan.
"Prithee, friend, leave me alone with my patient," said the
practitioner. "Trust me, good jailer, you shall briefly have peace
in your house; and, I promise you, Mistress Prynne shall hereafter
be more amenable to just authority than you may have found her
heretofore."
"Nay, if your worship can accomplish that," answered Master
Brackett, "I shall own you for a man of skill indeed! Verily, the
woman hath been like a possessed one; and there lacks little, that I
should take in hand to drive Satan out of her with stripes."
The stranger had entered the room with the characteristic quietude
of the profession to which he announced himself as belonging. Nor
did his demeanour change, when the withdrawal of the prison keeper
left him face to face with the woman, whose absorbed notice of him, in
the crowd, had intimated so close a relation between himself and
her. His first care was given to the child; whose cries, indeed, as
she lay writhing on the trundle-bed, made it of peremptory necessity
to postpone all other business to the task of soothing her. He
examined the infant carefully, and then proceeded to unclasp a
leathern case, which he took from beneath his dress. It appeared to
contain medical preparations, one of which he mingled with a cup of
water.
"My old studies in alchemy," observed he, "and my sojourn, for above
a year past, among a people well versed in the kindly properties of
simples, have made a better physician of me than many that claim the
medical degree. Here, woman! The child is yours- she is none of
mine- neither will she recognise my voice or aspect as a father's.
Administer this draught, therefore, with thine own hand."
Hester repelled the offered medicine, at the same time gazing with
strongly marked apprehension into his face.
"Wouldst thou avenge thyself on the innocent babe?" whispered she.
"Foolish woman!" responded the physician, half coldly, half
soothingly. "What should ail me, to harm this misbegotten and
miserable babe? The medicine is potent for good; and were it my child-
yea, mine own, as well as thine!- I could do no better for it."
As she still hesitated, being, in fact, in no reasonable state of
mind, he took the infant in his arms, and himself administered the
draught. It soon proved its efficacy, and redeemed the leech's pledge.
The moans of the little patient subsided; its convulsive tossings
gradually ceased; and, in a few moments, as is the custom of young
children after relief from pain, it sank into a profound and dewy
slumber. The physician, as he had a fair right to be termed, next
bestowed his attention on the mother. With calm and intent scrutiny,
he felt her pulse, looked into her eyes- a gaze that made her heart
shrink and shudder, because so familiar, and yet so strange and
cold- and, finally, satisfied with his investigation, proceeded to
mingle another draught.
"I know not Lethe nor Nepenthe," remarked he; "but I have learned
many new secrets in the wilderness, and here is one of them- a
recipe that an Indian taught me, in requital of some lessons of my
own, that were as old as Paracelsus. Drink it! It may be less soothing
than a sinless conscience. That I cannot give thee. But it will calm
the swell and heaving of thy passion, like oil thrown on the waves
of a tempestuous sea."
He presented the cup to Hester, who received it with a slow, earnest
look into his face; not precisely a look of fear, yet full of doubt
and questioning, as to what his purposes might be. She looked also
at her slumbering child.
"I have thought of death," said she- "have wished for it- would
even have prayed for it, were it fit that such as I should pray for
anything. Yet, if death be in this cup, I bid thee think again, ere
thou beholdest me quaff it. See! It is even now at my lips."
"Drink, then," replied he, still with the same cold composure. "Dost
thou know me so little, Hester Prynne? Are my purposes wont to be so
shallow? Even if I imagine a scheme of vengeance, what could I do
better for my object than to let thee live- than to give thee
medicines against all harm and peril of life- so that this burning
shame may still blaze upon thy bosom!" As he spoke, he laid his long
forefinger on the scarlet letter, which forthwith seemed to scorch
into Hester's breast, as if it had been red-hot. He noticed her
involuntary gesture, and smiled. "Live, therefore, and bear about
thy doom with thee, in the eyes of men and women- in the eyes of him
whom thou didst call thy husband- in the eyes of yonder child! And,
that thou mayest live, take off this draught."
Without further expostulation or delay, Hester Prynne drained the
cup, and, at the motion of the man of skill, seated herself on the bed
where the child was sleeping; while he drew the only chair which the
room afforded, and took his own seat beside her. She could not but
tremble at these preparations; for she felt that- having now done all
that humanity, or principle, or, if so it were, a refined cruelty,
impelled him to do, for the relief of physical suffering- he was
next to treat with her as the man whom she had most deeply and
irreparably injured.
"Hester," said he, "I ask not wherefore, nor how, thou hast fallen
into the pit, or say, rather, thou hast ascended to the pedestal of
infamy, on which I found thee. The reason is not far to seek. It was
my folly, and thy weakness. I- a man of thought- the bookworm of great
libraries- a man already in decay, having given my best years to
feed the hungry dream of knowledge- what had I to do with youth and
beauty like thine own! Misshapen from my birth-hour, how could I
delude myself with the idea that intellectual gifts might veil
physical deformity in a young girl's fantasy! Men call me wise. If
sages were ever wise in their own behoof, I might have foreseen all
this. I might have known that, as I came out of the vast and dismal
forest, and entered this settlement of Christian men, the very first
object to meet my eyes would be thyself, Hester Prynne, standing up, a
statue of ignominy, before the people. Nay, from the moment when we
came down the old churchsteps together, a married pair, I might have
beheld the bale-fire of that scarlet letter blazing at the end of
our path!"
"Thou knowest," said Hester- for, depressed as she was, she could
not endure this last quiet stab at the token of her shame- "thou
knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any."
"True," replied he. "It was my folly! I have said it. But, up to
that epoch of my life, I had lived in vain. The world had been so
cheerless! My heart was a habitation large enough for many guests, but
lonely and chill, and without a household fire. I longed to kindle
one! It seemed not so wild a dream- old as I was, and sombre as I was,
and misshapen as I was- that the simple bliss, which is scattered
far and wide, for all mankind to gather up, might yet be mine. And so,
Hester, I drew thee into my heart, into its innermost chamber, and
sought to warm thee by the warmth which thy presence made there!"
"I have greatly wronged thee," murmured Hester.
"We have wronged each other," answered he. "Mine was the first
wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural
relation with my decay. Therefore, as a man who has not thought and
philosophised in vain, I seek no vengeance, plot no evil against thee.
Between thee and me the scale hangs fairly balanced. But, Hester,
the man lives who has wronged us both! Who is he?"
"Ask me not!" replied Hester Prynne, looking firmly into his face.
"That thou shalt never know!"
"Never, sayest thou?" rejoined he, with a smile of dark and
self-relying intelligence. "Never know him! Believe me, Hester,
there are few things- whether in the outward world, or, to a certain
depth, in the invisible sphere of thought- few things hidden from
the man who devotes himself earnestly and unreservedly to the solution
of a mystery. Thou mayest cover up thy secret from the prying
multitude. Thou mayest conceal it, too, from the ministers and
magistrates, even as thou didst this day, when they sought to wrench
the name out of thy heart, and give thee a partner on thy pedestal.
But, as for me, I come to the inquest with other senses than they
possess. I shall seek this man, as I have sought truth in books; as
I have sought gold in alchemy. There is a sympathy that will make me
conscious of him. I shall see him tremble. I shall feel myself
shudder, suddenly and unawares. Sooner or later, he must needs be
mine!"
The eyes of the wrinkled scholar glowed so intensely upon her,
that Hester Prynne clasped her hands over her heart, dreading lest
he should read the secret there at once.
"Thou wilt not reveal his name? Not the less he is mine," resumed
he, with a look of confidence, as if destiny were at one with him. "He
bears no letter of infamy wrought into his garment, as thou dost;
but I shall read it on his heart. Yet fear not for him! Think not that
I shall interfere with Heaven's own method of retribution, or, to my
own loss, betray him to the gripe of human law. Neither do thou
imagine that I shall contrive aught against his life; no, nor
against his fame, if, as I judge, he be a man of fair repute. Let
him live! Let him hide himself in outward honour, if he may! Not the
less he shall be mine!"
"Thy acts are like mercy," said Hester, bewildered and appalled.
"But thy words interpret thee as a terror!"
"One thing, thou that wast my wife, I would enjoin upon thee,"
continued the scholar. "Thou hast kept the secret of thy paramour.
Keep, likewise, mine! There are none in this land that know me.
Breathe not, to any human soul, that thou didst ever call me
husband! Here, on this wild outskirt of the earth, I shall pitch my
tent; for, elsewhere a wanderer, and isolated from human interests,
I find here a woman, a man, a child, amongst whom and myself there
exist the closest ligaments. No matter whether of love or hate; no
matter whether of right or wrong! Thou and thine, Hester Prynne,
belong to me. My home is where thou art, and where he is. But betray
me not!"
"Wherefore dost thou desire it?" inquired Hester, shrinking, she
hardly knew why, from this secret bond. "Why not announce thyself
openly, and cast me off at once?"
"It may be," he replied, "because I will not encounter the dishonour
that besmirches the husband of a faithless woman. It may be for
other reasons. Enough, it is my purpose to live and die unknown.
Let, therefore, thy husband be to the world as one already dead, and
of whom no tidings shall ever come. Recognise me not, by word, by
sign, by look! Breathe not the secret, above all, to the man thou
wottest of. Shouldst thou fail me in this, beware! His fame, his
position, his life, will be in my hands. Beware!"
"I will keep thy secret, as I have his," said Hester.
"Swear it!" rejoined he.
And she took the oath.
"And now, Mistress Prynne," said old Roger Chillingworth, as he
was hereafter to be named, "I leave thee alone; alone with thy infant,
and the scarlet letter! How is it, Hester? Doth thy sentence bind thee
to wear the token in thy sleep? Art thou not afraid of nightmares
and hideous dreams?"
"Why dost thou smile so at me?" inquired Hester, troubled at the
expression of his eyes. "Art thou like the Black Man that haunts the
forest round about us? Hast thou enticed me into a bond that will
prove the ruin of my soul?"
"Not thy soul," he answered, with another smile. "No, not thy soul."
V.
HESTER AT HER NEEDLE.

HESTER PRYNNE'S term of confinement was now at an end. Her
prison-door was thrown open, and she came forth into the sunshine,
which, falling on all alike, seemed, to her sick and morbid heart,
as if meant for no other purpose than to reveal the scarlet letter
on her breast. Perhaps there was a more real torture in her first
unattended footsteps from the threshold of the prison, than even in
the procession and spectacle that have been described, where she was
made the common infamy, at which all mankind was summoned to point its
finger. Then, she was supported by an unnatural tension of the nerves,
and by all the combative energy of her character, which enabled her to
convert the scene into a kind of lurid triumph. It was, moreover, a
separate and insulated event, to occur but once in her lifetime, and
to meet which, therefore, reckless of economy, she might call up the
vital strength that would have sufficed for many quiet years. The very
law that condemned her- a giant of stern features, but with vigour
to support, as well as to annihilate, in his iron arm- had held her
up, through the terrible ordeal of her ignominy. But now, with this
unattended walk from her prison-door, began the daily custom; and
she must either sustain and carry it forward by the ordinary resources
of her nature, or sink beneath it. She could no longer borrow from the
future to help her through the present grief. To-morrow would bring
its own trial with it; so would the next day, and so would the next;
each its own trial, and yet the very same that was now so
unutterably grievous to be borne. The days of the far-off future would
toil onward, still with the same burden for her to take up, and bear
along with her, but never to fling down; for the accumulating days,
and added years, would pile up their misery upon the heap of shame.
Throughout them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the
general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and
in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman's
frailty and sinful passion. Thus the young and pure would be taught to
look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast- at her,
the child of honourable parents- at her, the mother of a babe, that
would hereafter be a woman- at her, who had once been innocent- as the
figure, the body, the reality of sin. And over her grave, the infamy
that she must carry thither would be her only monument.
It may seem marvellous, that, with the world before her- kept by
no restrictive clause of her condemnation within the limits of the
Puritan settlement, so remote and so obscure- free to return to her
birthplace, or to any other European land, and there hide her
character and identity under a new exterior, as completely as if
emerging into another state of being- and having also the passes of
the dark, inscrutable forest open to her, where the wildness of her
nature might assimilate itself with a people whose customs and life
were alien from the law that had condemned her- it may seem
marvellous, that this woman should still call that place her home,
where, and where only, she must needs be the type of shame. But
there is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that
it has the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings
to linger around and haunt, ghost-like, the spot where some great
and marked event has given the colour to their lifetime; and still the
more irresistibly, the darker the tinge that saddens it. Her sin,
her ignominy, were the roots which she had struck into the soil. It
was as if a new birth, with stronger assimilations than the first, had
converted the forest-land, still so uncongenial to every other pilgrim
and wanderer, into Hester Prynne's wild and dreary, but life-long
home. All other scenes of earth- even that village of rural England,
where happy infancy and stainless maidenhood seemed yet to be in her
mother's keeping, like garments put off long ago- were foreign to her,
in comparison. The chain that bound her here was of iron links, and
galling to her inmost soul, but could never be broken.
It might be, too- doubtless it was so, although she hid the secret
from herself, and grew pale whenever it struggled out of her heart,
like a serpent from its hole- it might be that another feeling kept
her within the scene and pathway that had been so fatal. There dwelt,
there trode the feet of one with whom she deemed herself connected
in a union, that, unrecognised on earth, would bring them together
before the bar of final judgment, and make that their
marriage-altar, for a joint futurity of endless retribution. Over
and over again, the tempter of souls had thrust this idea upon
Hester's contemplation, and laughed at the passionate and desperate
joy with which she seized, and then strove to cast it from her. She
barely looked the idea in the face, and hastened to bar it in its
dungeon. What she compelled herself to believe- what, finally, she
reasoned upon, as her motive for continuing a resident of New England-
was half a truth, and half a self-delusion. Here, she said to herself,
had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her
earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily
shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than
that which she had lost; more saint-like, because the result of
martyrdom.
Hester Prynne, therefore, did not flee. On the outskirts of the
town, within the verge of the peninsula, but not in close vicinity
to any other habitation, there was a small thatched cottage. It had
been built by an earlier settler, and abandoned, because the soil
about it was too sterile for cultivation, while its comparative
remoteness put it out of the sphere of that social activity which
already marked the habits of the emigrants. It stood on the shore,
looking across a basin of the sea at the forest-covered hills, towards
the west. A clump of scrubby trees, such as alone grew on the
peninsula, did not so much conceal the cottage from view, as seem to
denote that here was some object which would fain have been, or at
least ought to be, concealed. In this little, lonesome dwelling,
with some slender means that she possessed, and by the license of
the magistrates, who still kept an inquisitorial watch over her,
Hester established herself, with her infant child. A mystic shadow
of suspicion immediately attached itself to the spot. Children, too
young to comprehend wherefore this woman should be shut out from the
sphere of human charities, would creep nigh enough to behold her
plying her needle at the cottage-window, or standing in the doorway,
or labouring in her little garden, or coming forth along the pathway
that led townward; and, discerning the scarlet letter on her breast,
would scamper off with a strange, contagious fear.
Lonely as was Hester's situation, and without a friend on earth
who dared to show himself, she, however, incurred no risk of want. She
possessed an art that sufficed, even in a land that afforded
comparatively little scope for its exercise, to supply food for her
thriving infant and herself. It was the art- then, as now, almost
the only one within a woman's grasp- of needlework. She bore on her
breast, in the curiously embroidered letter, a specimen of her
delicate and imaginative skill, of which the dames of a court might
gladly have availed themselves, to add the richer and more spiritual
adornment of human ingenuity to their fabrics of silk and gold.
Here, indeed, in the sable simplicity that generally characterised the
Puritanic modes of dress, there might be an infrequent call for the
finer productions of her handiwork. Yet the taste of the age,
demanding whatever was elaborate in compositions of this kind, did not
fail to extend its influence over our stern progenitors, who had
cast behind them so many fashions which it might seem harder to
dispense with. Public ceremonies, such as ordinations, the
installation of magistrates, and all that could give majesty to the
forms in which a new government manifested itself to the people, were,
as a matter of policy, marked by a stately and well-conducted
ceremonial, and a sombre, but yet a studied magnificence. Deep
ruffs, painfully wrought bands, and gorgeously embroidered gloves were
all deemed necessary to the official state of men assuming the reins
of power; and were readily allowed to individuals dignified by rank or
wealth, even while sumptuary laws forbade these and similar
extravagances to the plebeian order. In the array of funerals, too-
whether for the apparel of the dead body, or to typify, by manifold
emblematic-devices of sable cloth and snowy lawn, the sorrow of the
survivors- there was a frequent and characteristic demand for such
labour as Hester Prynne could supply. Baby-linen- for babies then wore
robes of state- afforded still another possibility of toil and
emolument.
By degrees, nor very slowly, her handiwork became what would now
be termed the fashion. Whether from commiseration for a woman of so
miserable a destiny; or from the morbid curiosity that gives a
fictitious value even to common or worthless things; or by whatever
other intangible circumstance was then, as now, sufficient to
bestow, on some persons, what others might seek in vain; or because
Hester really filled a gap which must otherwise have remained
vacant; it is certain that she had ready and fairly requited
employment for as many hours as she saw fit to occupy with her needle.
Vanity, it may be, chose to mortify itself, by putting on, for
ceremonials of pomp and state, the garments that had been wrought by
her sinful hands. Her needle-work was seen on the ruff of the
Governor; military men wore it on their scarfs, and the minister on
his hand; it decked the baby's little cap; it was shut up, to be
mildewed and moulder away, in the coffins of the dead. But it is not
recorded that, in a single instance, her skill was called in aid to
embroider the white veil which was to cover the pure blushes of a
bride. The exception indicated the ever relentless vigour with which
society frowned upon her sin.
Hester sought not to acquire anything beyond a subsistence, of the
plainest and most ascetic description, for herself, and a simple
abundance for her child. Her own dress was of the coarsest materials
and the most sombre hue; with only that one ornament- the scarlet
letter- which it was her doom to wear. The child's attire, on the
other hand, was distinguished by a fanciful, or, we might rather
say, a fantastic ingenuity, which served, indeed, to heighten the airy
charm that early began to develop itself in the little girl, but which
appeared to have also a deeper meaning. We may speak further of it
hereafter. Except for that small expenditure in the decoration of
her infant, Hester bestowed all her superfluous means in charity, on
wretches less miserable than herself, and who not infrequently
insulted the hand that fed them. Much of the time, which she might
readily have applied to the better efforts of her art, she employed in
making coarse garments for the poor. It is probable that there was
an idea of penance in this mode of occupation, and that she offered up
a real sacrifice of enjoyment, in devoting so many hours to such
rude handiwork. She had in her nature a rich, voluptuous, Oriental
characteristic- a taste for the gorgeously beautiful, which, save in
the exquisite productions of her needle, found nothing else, in all
the possibilities of her life, to exercise itself upon. Women derive a
pleasure, incomprehensible to the other sex, from the delicate toil of
the needle. To Hester Prynne it might have been a mode of
expressing, and therefore soothing, the passion of her life. Like
all other joys, she rejected it as sin. This morbid meddling of
conscience with an immaterial matter betokened, it is to be feared, no
genuine and steadfast penitence, but something doubtful, something
that might be deeply wrong, beneath.
In this manner, Hester Prynne came to have a part to perform in
the world. With her native energy of character, and rare capacity,
it could not entirely cast her off, although it had set a mark upon
her, more intolerable to a woman's heart than that which branded the
brow of Cain. In all her intercourse with society, however, there
was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it. Every
gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she
came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was
banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere, or
communicated with the common nature by other organs and senses than
the rest of human kind. She stood apart from moral interests, yet
close beside them, like a ghost that revisits the familiar fireside,
and can no longer make itself seen or felt; no more smile with the
household joy, nor mourn with the kindred sorrow; or, should it
succeed in manifesting its forbidden sympathy, awakening only terror
and horrible repugnance. These emotions, in fact, and its bitterest
scorn besides, seemed to be the sole portion that she retained in
the universal heart. It was not an age of delicacy; and her
position, although she understood it well, and was in little danger of
forgetting it, was often brought before her vivid self-perception,
like a new anguish, by the rudest touch upon the tenderest spot. The
poor, as we have already said, whom she sought out to be the objects
of her bounty, often reviled the hand that was stretched forth to
succour them. Dames of elevated rank, likewise, whose doors she
entered in the way of her occupation, were accustomed to distil
drops of bitterness into her heart; sometimes through that alchemy
of quiet malice, by which women can concoct a subtile poison from
ordinary trifles; and sometimes, also, by a coarser expression, that
fell upon the sufferer's defenceless breast like a rough blow upon
an ulcerated wound. Hester had schooled herself long and well; she
never responded to these attacks, save by a flush of crimson that rose
irrepressibly over her pale cheek, and again subsided into the
depths of her bosom. She was patient- a martyr, indeed- but she
forbore to pray for her enemies; lest, in spite of her forgiving
aspirations, the words of the blessing should stubbornly twist
themselves into a curse.
Continually, and in a thousand other ways, did she feel the
innumerable throbs of anguish that had been so cunningly contrived for
her by the undying, the ever-active sentence of the Puritan
tribunal. Clergymen paused in the street to address words of
exhortation, that brought a crowd, with its mingled grin and frown,
around the poor, sinful woman. If she entered a church, trusting to
share the Sabbath smile of the Universal Father, it was often her
mishap to find herself the text of the discourse. She grew to have a
dread of children; for they had imbibed from their parents a vague
idea of something horrible in this dreary woman, gliding silently
through the town, with never any companion but one only child.
Therefore, first allowing her to pass, they pursued her at a
distance with shrill cries, and the utterance of a word that had no
distinct purport to their own minds, but was none the less terrible to
her, as proceeding from lips that babbled it unconsciously. It
seemed to argue so wide a diffusion of her shame, that all nature knew
of it; it could have caused her no deeper pang, had the leaves of
the trees whispered the dark story among themselves- had the summer
breeze murmured about it- had the wintry blast shrieked it aloud!
Another peculiar torture was felt in the gaze of a new eye. When
strangers looked curiously at the scarlet letter- and none ever failed
to do so- they branded it afresh into Hester's soul; so that,
oftentimes, she could scarcely refrain, yet always did refrain, from
covering the symbol with her hand. But then, again, an accustomed
eye had likewise its own anguish to inflict. Its cool stare of
familiarity was intolerable. From first to last, in short, Hester
Prynne had always this dreadful agony in feeling a human eye upon
the token; the spot never grew callous; it seemed, on the contrary, to
grow more sensitive with daily torture.
But sometimes, once in many days, or perchance in many months, she
felt an eye- a human eye- upon the ignominious brand, that seemed to
give a momentary relief, as if half of her agony were shared. The next
instant, back it all rushed again, with still a deeper throb of
pain; for, in that brief interval, she had sinned anew. Had Hester
sinned alone?
Her imagination was somewhat affected, and, had she been of a softer
moral and intellectual fibre, would have been still more so, by the
strange and solitary anguish of her life. Walking to and fro, with
those lonely footsteps, in the little world with which she was
outwardly connected, it now and then appeared to Hester- if altogether
fancy, it was nevertheless too potent to be resisted- she felt or
fancied, then, that the scarlet letter had endowed her with a new
sense. She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing, that it
gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts.
She was terror-stricken by the revelations that were thus made. What
were they? Could they be other than the insidious whispers of the
bad angel, who would fain have persuaded the struggling woman, as
yet only half his victim, that the outward guise of purity was but a
lie, and that, if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet
letter would blaze forth on many a bosom besides Hester Prynne's?
Or, must she receive those intimations- so obscure, yet so distinct-
as truth? In all her miserable experience, there was nothing else so
awful and so loathsome as this sense. It perplexed, as well as shocked
her, by the irreverent inopportuneness of the occasions that brought
it into vivid action. Sometimes the red infamy upon her breast would
give a sympathetic throb, as she passed near a venerable minister or
magistrate, the model of piety and justice, to whom that age of
antique reverence looked up, as to a mortal man in fellowship with
angels. "What evil thing is at hand?" would Hester say to herself.
Lifting her reluctant eyes, there would be nothing human within the
scope of view, save the form of this earthly saint! Again, a mystic
sisterhood would contumaciously assert itself, as she met the
sanctified frown of some matron, who, according to the rumour of all
tongues, had kept cold snow within her bosom throughout life. That
unsunned snow in the matron's bosom, and the burning shame on Hester
Prynne's- what had the two in common? Or, once more, the electric
thrill would give her warning- "Behold, Hester, here is a companion!"-
and, looking up, she would detect the eyes of a young maiden
glancing at the scarlet letter, shyly and aside, and quickly
averted, with a faint, chill crimson in her cheeks; as if her purity
were somewhat sullied by that momentary glance. O Fiend, whose
talisman was that fatal symbol, wouldst thou leave nothing, whether in
youth or age, for this poor sinner to revere?- such loss of faith is
ever one of the saddest results of sin. Be it accepted as a proof that
all was not corrupt in this poor victim of her own frailty, and
man's hard law, that Hester Prynne yet struggled to believe that no
fellow-mortal was guilty like herself.
The vulgar, who, in those dreary old times, were always contributing
a grotesque horror to what interested their imaginations, had a
story about the scarlet letter which we might readily work up into a
terrific legend. They averred, that the symbol was not mere scarlet
cloth, tinged in an earthly dye-pot, but was red-hot with infernal
fire, and could be seen glowing all alight, whenever Hester Prynne
walked abroad in the night-time. And we must needs say, it seared
Hester's bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the
rumour than our modern incredulity may be inclined to admit.
VI.
PEARL.

WE have as yet hardly spoken of the infant; that little creature,
whose innocent life had sprung, by the inscrutable decree of
Providence, a lovely and immortal flower, out of the rank luxuriance
of a passion. How strange it seemed to the sad woman, as she watched
the growth, and the beauty that became every day more brilliant, and
the intelligence that threw its quivering sunshine over the tiny
features of this child! Her Pearl!- For so had Hester called her;
not as a name expressive of her aspect, which had nothing of the calm,
white, unimpassioned lustre that would be indicated by the comparison.
But she named the infant "Pearl," as being of great price- purchased
with all she had- her mother's only treasure! How strange, indeed! Man
had marked this woman's sin by a scarlet letter, which had such potent
and disastrous efficacy that no human sympathy could reach her, save
it were sinful like herself. God, as a direct consequence of the sin
which man thus punished, had given her a lovely child, whose place was
on that same dishonoured bosom, to connect her parent for ever with
the race and descent of mortals, and to be finally a blessed soul in
heaven! Yet these thoughts affected Hester Prynne less with hope
than apprehension. She knew that her deed had been evil; she could
have no faith, therefore, that its result would be good. Day after
day, she looked fearfully into the child's expanding nature; ever
dreading to detect some dark and wild peculiarity, that should
correspond with the guiltiness to which she owed her being.
Certainly, there was no physical defect. By its perfect shape, its
vigour, and its natural dexterity in the use of all its untried limbs,
the infant was worthy to have been brought forth in Eden; worthy to
have been left there, to be the plaything of the angels after the
world's first parents were driven out. The child had a native grace
which does not invariably coexist with faultless beauty; its attire,
however simple, always impressed the beholder as if it were the very
garb that precisely became it best. But little Pearl was not clad in
rustic weeds. Her mother, with a morbid purpose that may be better
understood hereafter, had bought the richest tissues that could be
procured, and allowed her imaginative faculty its full play in the
arrangement and decoration of the dresses which the child wore, before
the public eye. So magnificent was the small figure, when thus
arrayed, and such was the splendour of Pearl's own proper beauty,
shining through the gorgeous robes which might have extinguished a
paler loveliness, that there was an absolute circle of radiance around
her, on the darksome cottage floor. And yet a russet gown, torn and
soiled with the child's rude play, made a picture of her just as
perfect. Pearl's aspect was imbued with a spell of infinite variety;
in this one child there were many children, comprehending the full
scope between the wild-flower prettiness of a peasant-baby, and the
pomp, in little, of an infant princess. Throughout all, however, there
was a trait of passion, a certain depth of hue, which she never
lost; and if, in any of her changes, she had grown fainter or paler,
she would have ceased to be herself- it would have been no longer
Pearl!
This outward mutability indicated, and did not more than fairly
express, the various properties of her inner life. Her nature appeared
to possess depth, too, as well as variety; but- or else Hester's fears
deceived her- it lacked reference and adaptation to the world into
which she was born. The child could not be made amenable to rules.
In giving her existence, a great law had been broken; and the result
was a being whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but
all in disorder; or with an order peculiar to themselves, amidst which
the point of variety and arrangement was difficult or impossible to be
discovered. Hester could only account for the child's character- and
even then most vaguely and imperfectly- by recalling what she
herself had been, during that momentous period while Pearl was
imbibing her soul from the spiritual world, and her bodily frame
from its material of earth. The mother's impassioned state had been
the medium through which were transmitted to the unborn infant the
rays of its moral Life; and, however white and clear originally,
they had taken the deep stains of crimson and gold, the fiery
lustre, the black shadow, and the untempered light, of the intervening
substance. Above all, the warfare of Hester's spirit, at that epoch,
was perpetuated in Pearl. She could recognise her wild, desperate,
defiant mood, the flightiness of her temper, and even some of the very
cloud-shapes of gloom and despondency that had brooded in her heart.
They were now illuminated by the morning radiance of a young child's
disposition, but, later in the day of earthly existence, might be
prolific of the storm and whirlwind.
The discipline of the family, in those days, was of a far more rigid
kind than now. The frown, the harsh rebuke, the frequent application
of the rod, enjoined by Scriptural authority, were used, not merely in
the way of punishment for actual offences, but as a wholesome
regimen for the growth and promotion of all childish virtues. Hester
Prynne, nevertheless, the lonely mother of this one child, ran
little risk of erring on the side of undue severity. Mindful, however,
of her own errors and misfortunes, she early sought to impose a
tender, but strict control over the infant immortality that was
committed to her charge. But the task was beyond her skill. After
testing both smiles and frowns, and proving that neither mode of
treatment possessed any calculable influence, Hester was ultimately
compelled to stand aside, and permit the child to be swayed by her own
impulses. Physical compulsion or restraint was effectual, of course,
while it lasted. As to any other kind of discipline, whether addressed
to her mind or heart, little Pearl might or might not be within its
reach, in accordance with the caprice that ruled the moment. Her
mother, while Pearl was yet an infant, grew acquainted with a
certain peculiar look, that warned her when it would be labour
thrown away to insist, persuade, or plead. It was a look so
intelligent, yet inexplicable, so perverse, sometimes so malicious,
but generally accompanied by a wild flow of spirits, that Hester could
not help questioning, at such moments, whether Pearl was a human
child. She seemed rather an airy sprite, which, after playing its
fantastic sports for a little while upon the cottage-floor, would flit
away with a mocking smile. Whenever that look appeared in her wild,
bright, deeply black eyes, it invested her with a strange remoteness
and intangibility; it was as if she were hovering in the air and might
vanish, like a glimmering light, that comes we know not whence, and
goes we know not whither. Beholding it, Hester was constrained to rush
towards the child- to pursue the little elf in the flight which she
invariably began- to snatch her to her bosom, with a close pressure
and earnest kisses- not so much from overflowing love, as to assure
herself that Pearl was flesh and blood, and not utterly delusive.
But Pearl's laugh, when she was caught, though full of merriment and
music, made her mother more doubtful than before.
Heart-smitten at this bewildering and baffling spell, that so
often came between herself and her sole treasure, whom she had
bought so dear, and who was all her world, Hester sometimes burst into
passionate tears. Then, perhaps- for there was no foreseeing how it
might affect her- Pearl would frown, and clench her little fist, and
harden her small features into a stern, unsympathising look of
discontent. Not seldom, she would laugh anew, and louder than
before, like a thing incapable and unintelligent of human sorrow.
Or- but this more rarely happened- she would be convulsed with a
rage of grief, and sob out her love for her mother, in broken words,
and seem intent on proving that she had a heart, by breaking it. Yet
Hester was hardly safe in confiding herself to that gusty
tenderness; it passed, as suddenly as it came. Brooding over all these
matters, the mother felt like one who has evoked a spirit, but, by
some irregularity in the process of conjuration, has failed to win the
master-word that should control this new and incomprehensible
intelligence. Her only real comfort was when the child lay in the
placidity of sleep. Then she was sure of her, and tasted hours of
quiet, sad, delicious happiness; until- perhaps with that perverse
expression glimmering from beneath her opening lids- little Pearl
awoke!
How soon- with what strange rapidity, indeed!- did Pearl arrive at
an age that was capable of social intercourse, beyond the mother's
ever-ready smile and nonsense-words! And then what a happiness would
it have been, could Hester Prynne have heard her clear, birdlike voice
mingling with the uproar of other childish voices, and have
distinguished and unravelled her own darling's tones, amid all the
entangled outcry of a group of sportive children! But this could never
be. Pearl was a born outcast of the infantile world. An imp of evil,
emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened
infants. Nothing was more remarkable than the instinct, as it
seemed, with which the child comprehended her loneliness; the
destiny that had drawn an inviolable circle round about her; the whole
peculiarity, in short, of her position in respect to other children.
Never, since her release from prison, had Hester met the public gaze
without her. In all her walks about the town, Pearl, too, was there;
first as the babe in arms, and afterwards as the little girl, small
companion of her mother, holding a forefinger with her whole grasp,
and tripping along at the rate of three or four footsteps to one of
Hester's. She saw the children of the settlement, on the grassy margin
of the street, or at the domestic thresholds, disporting themselves in
such grim fashion as the Puritanic nurture would permit; playing at
going to church, perchance; or at scourging Quakers; or taking
scalps in a sham-fight with the Indians; or scaring one another with
freaks of imitative witchcraft. Pearl saw, and gazed intently, but
never sought to make acquaintance. If spoken to, she would not speak
again. If the children gathered about her, as they sometimes did,
Pearl would grow positively terrible in her puny wrath, snatching up
stones to fling at them, with shrill, incoherent exclamations, that
made her mother tremble, because they had so much the sound of a
witch's anathemas in some unknown tongue.
The truth was, that the little Puritans, being of the most
intolerant brood that ever lived, had a vague idea of something
outlandish, unearthly, or at variance with ordinary fashions, in the
mother and child; and therefore scorned them in their hearts, and
not unfrequently reviled them with their tongues. Pearl felt the
sentiment, and requited it with the bitterest hatred that can be
supposed to rankle in a childish bosom. These outbreaks of a fierce
temper had a kind of value, and even comfort, for her mother;
because there was at least an intelligible earnestness in the mood,
instead of the fitful caprice that so often thwarted her in the
child's manifestations. It appalled her, nevertheless, to discern here
again, a shadowy reflection of the evil that had existed in herself.
All this enmity and passion had Pearl inherited, by inalienable right,
out of Hester's heart. Mother and daughter stood together in the
same circle of seclusion from human society; and in the nature of
the child seemed to be perpetuated those unquiet elements that had
distracted Hester Prynne before Pearl's birth, but had since begun
to be soothed away by the softening influences of maternity.
At home, within and around her mother's cottage, Pearl wanted not
a wide and various circle of acquaintance. The spell of life went
forth from her ever creative spirit, and communicated itself to a
thousand objects, as a torch kindles a flame wherever it may be
applied. The unlikeliest materials- a stick, a bunch of rags, a
flower- were the puppets of Pearl's witchcraft, and, without
undergoing any outward change, became spiritually adapted to
whatever drama occupied the stage of her inner world. Her one
baby-voice served a multitude of imaginary personages, old and
young, to talk withal. The pine-trees, aged, black and solemn, and
flinging groans and other melancholy utterances on the breeze,
needed little transformation to figure as Puritan elders; the
ugliest weeds of the garden were their children, whom Pearl smote down
and uprooted, most unmercifully. It was wonderful, the vast variety of
forms into which she threw her intellect, with no continuity,
indeed, but darting up and dancing, always in a state of preternatural
activity- soon sinking down, as if exhausted by so rapid and
feverish a tide of life- and succeeded by other shapes of a similar
wild energy. It was like nothing so much as the phantasmagoric play of
the northern lights. In the mere exercise of the fancy, however, and
the sportiveness of a growing mind, there might be little more than
was observable in other children of bright faculties; except as Pearl,
in the dearth of human playmates, was thrown more upon the visionary
throng which she created. The singularity lay in the hostile
feelings with which the child regarded all these offspring of her
own heart and mind. She never created a friend, but seemed always to
be sowing broadcast the dragon's teeth, whence sprung a harvest of
armed enemies, against whom she rushed to battle. It was inexpressibly
sad- then what depth of sorrow to a mother, who felt in her own
heart the cause!- to observe, in one so young, this constant
recognition of an adverse world, and so fierce a training of the
energies that were to make good her cause, in the contest that must
ensue.
Gazing at Pearl, Hester Prynne often dropped her work upon her
knees, and cried out with an agony which she would fain have hidden,
but which made utterance for itself, betwixt speech and a groan, "O
Father in heaven- if Thou art still my Father- what is this being
which I have brought into the world!" And Pearl, overbearing the
ejaculation, or aware, through some more subtile channel, of those
throbs of anguish, would turn her vivid and beautiful little face upon
her mother, smile with sprite-like intelligence, and resume her play.
One peculiarity of the child's deportment remains yet to be told.
The very first thing which she had noticed, in her life, was- what?-
not the mother's smile, responding to it, as other babies do, by
that faint, embryo smile of the little mouth, remembered so doubtfully
afterwards, and with such fond discussion whether it were indeed a
smile. By no means! But that first object of which Pearl seemed to
become aware was- shall we say it?- the scarlet letter on Hester's
bosom! One day, as her mother stooped over the cradle, the infant's
eyes had been caught by the glimmering of the gold embroidery about
the letter; and, putting up her little hand, she grasped at it,
smiling, not doubtfully, but with a decided gleam, that gave her
face the look of a much older child. Then, gasping for breath, did
Hester Prynne clutch the fatal token, instinctively endeavouring to
tear it away; so infinite was the torture inflicted by the intelligent
touch of Pearl's baby hand. Again, as if her mother's agonised gesture
were meant only to make sport for her, did little Pearl look into
her eyes, and smile! From that epoch, except when the child was
asleep, Hester had never felt a moment's safety; not a moment's calm
enjoyment of her. Weeks, it is true, would sometimes elapse, during
which Pearl's gaze might never once be fixed upon the scarlet
letter; but then, again, it would come at unawares, like the stroke of
sudden death, and always with that peculiar smile, and odd
expression of the eyes.
Once, this freakish, elvish cast came into the child's eyes, while
Hester was looking at her own image in them, as mothers are fond of
doing; and, suddenly- for women in solitude, and with troubled hearts,
are pestered with unaccountable delusions- she fancied that she
beheld, not her own miniature portrait, but another face, in the small
black mirror of Pearl's eye. It was a face fiend-like, full of smiling
malice, yet bearing the semblance of features that she had known
full well, though seldom with a smile, and never with malice in
them. It was as if an evil spirit possessed the child, and had just
then peeped forth in mockery. Many a time afterwards had Hester been
tortured, though less vividly, by the same illusion.
In the afternoon of a certain summer's day, after Pearl grew big
enough to run about, she amused herself with gathering handfuls of
wild-flowers, and flinging them, one by one, at her mother's bosom;
dancing up and down, like a little elf, whenever she hit the scarlet
letter. Hester's first motion had been to cover her bosom with her
clasped hands. But, whether from pride or resignation, or a feeling
that her penance might best be wrought out by this unutterable pain,
she resisted the impulse, and sat erect, pale as death, looking
sadly into little Pearl's wild eyes. Still came the battery of
flowers, almost invariably hitting the mark, and covering the mother's
breast with hurts for which she could find no balm in this world,
nor knew how to seek it in another. At last, her shot being all
expended, the child stood still and gazed at Hester, with that
little laughing image of a fiend peeping out- or, whether it peeped or
no, her mother so imagined it- from the unsearchable abyss of her
black eyes.
"Child, what art thou?" cried the mother.
"Oh, I am your little Pearl!" answered the child.
But, while she said it, Pearl laughed, and began to dance up and
down, with the humorsome gesticulation of a little imp, whose next
freak might be to fly up the chimney.
"Art thou my child, in very truth?" asked Hester.
Nor did she put the question altogether idly, but, for the moment,
with a portion of genuine earnestness; for, such was Pearl's wonderful
intelligence, that her mother half doubted whether she were not
acquainted with the secret spell of her existence, and might not now
reveal herself.
"Yes; I am little Pearl!" repeated the child, continuing her antics.
"Thou art not my child! Thou art no Pearl of mine!" said the mother,
half playfully; for it was often the case that a sportive impulse came
over her, in the midst of her deepest suffering. "Tell me, then,
what thou art, and who sent thee hither?"
"Tell me, mother!" said the child seriously, coming up to Hester,
and pressing herself close to her knees. "Do thou tell me!"
"Thy Heavenly Father sent thee!" answered Hester Prynne.
But she said it with a hesitation that did not escape the
acuteness of the child. Whether moved only by her ordinary
freakishness, or because an evil spirit prompted her, she put up her
small forefinger, and touched the scarlet letter.
"He did not send me!" cried she positively. "I have no Heavenly
Father!"
"Hush, Pearl, hush! Thou must not talk so!" answered the mother,
suppressing a groan. "He sent us all into this world. He sent even me,
thy mother. Then, much more, thee! Or, if not, thou strange and elfish
child, whence didst thou come?"
"Tell me! Tell me!" repeated Pearl, no longer seriously, but
laughing, and capering about the floor. "It is thou that must tell
me!"
But Hester could not resolve the query, being herself in a dismal
labyrinth of doubt. She remembered- betwixt a smile and a shudder- the
talk of the neighbouring townspeople; who, seeking vainly elsewhere
for the child's paternity, and observing some of her old attributes,
had given out that poor little Pearl was a demon offspring; such as,
ever since old Catholic times, had occasionally been seer, on earth,
through the agency of their mother's sin, and to promote some foul and
wicked purpose. Luther, according to the scandal of his monkish
enemies, was a brat of that hellish breed; nor was Pearl the only
child to whom this inauspicious origin was assigned among the New
England Puritans.
VII.
THE GOVERNOR'S HALL.

HESTER PRYNNE went, one day, to the mansion of Governor
Bellingham, with a pair of gloves, which she had fringed and
embroidered to his order, and which were to be worn on some great
occasion of state; for, though the chances of a popular election had
caused this former ruler to descend a step or two from the highest
rank, he still held an honourable and influential place among the
colonial magistracy.
Another and far more important reason than the delivery of a pair of
embroidered gloves impelled Hester, at this time, to seek an interview
with a personage of so much power and activity in the affairs of the
settlement. It had reached her ears, that there was a design on the
part of some of the leading inhabitants, cherishing the more rigid
order of principles in religion and government, to deprive her of
her child. On the supposition that Pearl, as already hinted, was of
demon origin, these good people not unreasonably argued that a
Christian interest in the mother's soul required them to remove such a
stumbling-block from her path. If the child, on the other hand, were
really capable of moral and religious growth, and possessed the
elements of ultimate salvation, then, surely, it would enjoy all the
fairer prospect of these advantages, by being transferred to wiser and
better guardianship than Hester Prynne's. Among those who promoted the
design, Governor Bellingham was said to be one of the most busy. It
may appear singular, and, indeed, not a little ludicrous, that an
affair of this kind, which, in later days, would have been referred to
no higher jurisdiction than that of the selectmen of the town,
should then have been a question publicly discussed, and on which
statesmen of eminence took sides. At that epoch of pristine
simplicity, however, matters of even slighter public interest, and
of far less intrinsic weight, than the welfare of Hester and her
child, were strangely mixed up with the deliberations of legislators
and acts of state. The period was hardly, if at all, earlier than that
of our story, when a dispute concerning the right of property in a
pig, not only caused a fierce and bitter contest in the legislative
body of the colony, but resulted in an important modification of the
framework itself of the legislature.
Full of concern, therefore- but so conscious of her own right that
it seemed scarcely an unequal match between the public, on the one
side, and a lonely woman, backed by the sympathies of nature, on the
other- Hester Prynne set forth from her solitary cottage. Little
Pearl, of course, was her companion. She was now of an age to run
lightly along by her mother's side, and, constantly in motion, from
morn till sunset, could have accomplished a much longer journey than
that before her. Often, nevertheless, more from caprice than
necessity, she demanded to be taken up in arms; but was soon as
imperious to be set down again, and frisked onward before Hester on
the grassy pathway, with many a harmless trip and tumble. We have
spoken of Pearl's rich and luxuriant beauty; a beauty that shone
with deep and vivid tints; a bright complexion, eyes possessing
intensity both of depth and glow, and hair already of a deep, glossy
brown, and which, in after years, would be nearly akin to black. There
was fire in her and throughout her; she seemed the unpremeditated
offshoot of a passionate moment. Her mother, in contriving the child's
garb, had allowed the gorgeous tendencies of her imagination their
full play; arraying her in a crimson velvet tunic, of a peculiar
cut, abundantly embroidered with fantasies and flourishes of gold
thread. So much strength of colouring, which must have given a wan and
pallid aspect to cheeks of a fainter bloom, was admirably adapted to
Pearl's beauty, and made her the very brightest little jet of flame
that ever danced upon the earth.
But it was a remarkable attribute of this garb, and, indeed, of
the child's whole appearance, that it irresistibly and inevitably
reminded the beholder of the token which Hester Prynne was doomed to
wear upon her bosom. It was the scarlet letter in another form; the
scarlet letter endowed with life! The mother herself- as if the red
ignominy were so deeply scorched into her brain that all her
conceptions assumed its form- had carefully wrought out the
similitude; lavishing many hours of morbid ingenuity, to create an
analogy between the object of her affection and the emblem of her
guilt and torture. But, in truth, Pearl was the one, as well as the
other; and only in consequence of that identity had Hester contrived
so perfectly to represent the scarlet letter in her appearance.
As the two wayfarers came within the precincts of the town, the
children of the Puritans looked up from their play- or what passed for
play with those sombre little urchins- and spake gravely one to
another-
"Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a
truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running
along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!"
But Pearl, who was a dauntless child, after frowning, stamping her
foot, and shaking her little hand with a variety of threatening
gestures, suddenly made a rush at the knot of her enemies, and put
them all to flight. She resembled, in her fierce pursuit of them, an
infant pestilence- the scarlet fever, or some such half-fledged
angel of judgment- whose mission was to punish the sins of the
rising generation. She screamed and shouted, too, with a terrific
volume of sound, which, doubtless, caused the hearts of the
fugitives to quake within them. The victory accomplished, Pearl
returned quietly to her mother, and looked up, smiling, into her face.
Without further adventure, they reached the dwelling of Governor
Bellingham. This was a large wooden house, built in a fashion of which
there are specimens still extant in the streets of our elder towns;
now moss-grown, crumbling to decay, and melancholy at heart with the
many sorrowful or joyful occurrences, remembered or forgotten, that
have happened, and passed away, within their dusky chambers. Then,
however, there was the freshness of the passing year on its
exterior, and the cheerfulness, gleaming forth from the sunny windows,
of a human habitation, into which death had never entered. It had,
indeed, a very cheery aspect; the walls being overspread with a kind
of stucco, in which fragments of broken glass were intermixed; so
that, when the sunshine fell aslant-wise over the front of the
edifice, it glittered and sparkled as if diamonds had been flung
against it by the double handful. The brilliancy might have befitted
Aladdin's palace, rather than the mansion of a grave old Puritan
ruler. It was further decorated with strange and seemingly
cabalistic figures and diagrams, suitable to the quaint taste of the
age, which had been drawn in the stucco when newly laid on, and had
now grown hard and durable, for the admiration of after times.
Pearl, looking at this bright wonder of a house, began to caper
and dance, and imperatively required that the whole breadth of
sunshine should be stripped off its front, and given her to play with.
"No, my little Pearl!" said her mother. "Thou must gather thine
own sunshine. I have none to give thee!"
They approached the door; which was of an arched form, and flanked
on each side by a narrow tower or projection of the edifice, in both
of which were lattice-windows, with wooden shutters to close over them
at need. Lifting the iron hammer that hung at the portal, Hester
Prynne gave a summons, which was answered by one of the Governor's
bond-servants; a free-born Englishman, but now a seven years' slave.
During that term he was to be the property of his master, and as
much a commodity of bargain and sale as an ox, or a joint-stool. The
serf wore the blue coat, which was the customary garb of serving-men
at that period, and long before, in the old hereditary halls of
England.
"Is the worshipful Governor Bellingham within?" inquired Hester.
"Yea, forsooth," replied the bond-servant, staring with wide-open
eyes at the scarlet letter, which, being a new-comer in the country,
he had never before seen. "Yea, his honourable worship is within.
But he hath a godly minister or two with him, and likewise a leech. Ye
may not see his worship now."
"Nevertheless, I will enter," answered Hester Prynne; and the
bond-servant, perhaps judging from the decision of her air, and the
glittering symbol in her bosom, that she was a great lady in the land,
offered no opposition.
So the mother and little Pearl were admitted into the hall of
entrance. With many variations, suggested by the nature of his
building-materials, diversity of climate, and a different mode of
social life, Governor Bellingham had planned his new habitation
after the residences of gentlemen of fair estate in his native land.
Here, then, was a wide and reasonably lofty hall, extending through
the whole depth of the house and forming a medium of general
communication, more or less directly, with all the other apartments.
At one extremity, this spacious room was lighted by the windows of the
two towers, which formed a small recess on either side of the
portal. At the other end, though partly muffled by a curtain, it was
more powerfully illuminated by one of those embowed hall-windows which
we read of in old books, and which was provided with a keep and
cushioned seat. Here, on the cushion, lay a folio tome, probably of
the Chronicles of England, or other such substantial literature;
even as, in our own days, we scatter gilded volumes on the
centre-table, to be turned over by the casual guest. The furniture
of the hall consisted of some ponderous chairs, the backs of which
were elaborately carved with wreaths of oaken flowers; and likewise
a table in the same taste; the whole being of the Elizabethan age,
or perhaps earlier, and heirlooms, transferred hither from the
Governor's paternal home. On the table- in token that the sentiment of
old English hospitality had not been left behind- stood a large pewter
tankard, at the bottom of which, had Hester or Pearl peeped into it,
they might have seen the frothy remnant of a recent draught of ale.
On the wall hung a row of portraits, representing the forefathers of
the Bellingham lineage, some with armour on their breasts, and
others with stately ruffs and robes of peace. All were characterised
by the sternness and severity which old portraits so invariably put
on; as if they were the ghosts, rather than the pictures, of
departed worthies, and were gazing with harsh and intolerant criticism
at the pursuits and enjoyments of living men.
At about the centre of the oaken panels, that lined the hall, was
suspended a suit of mail, not, like the pictures, an ancestral
relic, but of the most modern date; for it had been manufactured by
a skilful armourer in London, the same year in which Governor
Bellingham came over to New England. There was a steel headpiece, a
cuirass, a gorget, and greaves, with a pair of gauntlets and a sword
hanging beneath; all, and especially the helmet and breastplate, so
highly burnished as to glow with white radiance, and scatter an
illumination everywhere about upon the floor. This bright panoply
was not meant for mere idle show, but had been worn by the Governor on
many a solemn muster and training field, and had glittered,
moreover, at the head of a regiment in the Pequod war. For, though
bred a lawyer, and accustomed to speak of Bacon, Coke, Noye, and
Finch, as his professional associates, the exigencies of this new
country had transformed Governor Bellingham into a soldier, as well as
a statesman and ruler.
Little Pearl- who was as greatly pleased with the gleaming armour as
she had been with the glittering frontispiece of the house- spent some
time looking into the polished mirror of the breastplate.
"Mother," cried she, "I see you here. Look! Look!"
Hester looked, by way of humouring the child; and she saw that,
owing to the peculiar effect of this convex mirror, the scarlet letter
was represented in exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be
greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance. In truth, she
seemed absolutely hidden behind it. Pearl pointed upward, also, at a
similar picture in the head-piece; smiling at her mother, with the
elfish intelligence that was so familiar an expression on her small
physiognomy. That look of naughty merriment was likewise reflected
in the mirror, with so much breadth and intensity of effect, that it
made Hester Prynne feel as if it could not be the image of her own
child, but of an imp who was seeking to mould itself into Pearl's
shape.
"Come along, Pearl," said she, drawing her away. "Come and look into
this fair garden. It may be, we shall see flowers there; more
beautiful ones than we find in the woods."
Pearl, accordingly, ran to the bow-window, at the farther end of the
hall, and looked along the vista of a garden-walk, carpeted with
closely shaven grass, and bordered with some rude and immature attempt
at shrubbery. But the proprietor appeared already to have
relinquished, as hopeless, the effort to perpetuate on this side of
the Atlantic, in a hard soil and amid the close struggle for
subsistence, the native English taste for ornamental gardening.
Cabbages grew in plain sight; and a pumpkin vine, rooted at some
distance, had run across the intervening space, and deposited one of
its gigantic products directly beneath the hall-window; as if to
warn the Governor that this great lump of vegetable gold was as rich
an ornament as New England earth would offer him. There were a few
rose-bushes, however, and a number of apple-trees, probably the
descendants of those planted by the Reverend Mr. Blackstone, the first
settler of the peninsula; that half mythological personage, who
rides through our early annals, seated on the back of a bull.
Pearl, seeing the rose-bushes, began to cry for a red rose, and
would not be pacified.
"Hush, child, hush!" said her mother earnestly. "Do not cry, dear
little Pearl! I hear voices in the garden. The Governor is coming, and
gentlemen along with him!"
In fact, adown the vista of the garden avenue, a number of persons
were seen approaching towards the house. Pearl, in utter scorn of
her mother's attempt to quiet her, gave an eldritch scream, and then
became silent; not from any notion of obedience, but because the quick
and mobile curiosity of her disposition was excited by the
appearance of these new personages.
VIII.
THE ELF-CHILD AND THE MINISTER.

GOVERNOR BELLINGHAM, in a loose gown and easy cap- much as elderly
gentlemen loved to endue themselves with, in their domestic privacy-
walked foremost, and appeared to be showing off his estate, and
expatiating on his projected improvements. The wide circumference of
an elaborate ruff, beneath his grey beard, in the antiquated fashion
of King James' reign, caused his head to look not a little like that
of John the Baptist in a charger. The impression made by his aspect,
so rigid and severe, and frost-bitten with more than autumnal age, was
hardly in keeping with the appliances of worldly enjoyment wherewith
he had evidently done his utmost to surround himself. But it is an
error to suppose that our grave forefathers- though accustomed to
speak and think of human existence as a state merely of trial and
warfare, and though unfeignedly prepared to sacrifice goods and life
at the behest of duty- made it a matter of conscience to reject such
means of comfort, or even luxury, as lay fairly within their grasp.
This creed was never taught, for instance, by the venerable pastor,
John Wilson, whose beard, white as a snow-drift, was seen over
Governor Bellingham's shoulder; while its wearer suggested that
pears and peaches might yet be naturalised in the New England climate,
and that purple grapes might possibly be compelled to flourish,
against the sunny garden-wall. The old clergyman, nurtured at the rich
bosom of the English Church, had a long-established and legitimate
taste for all good and comfortable things; and however stern he
might show himself in the pulpit, or in his public reproof of such
transgressions as that of Hester Prynne, still, the genial benevolence
of his private life had won him warmer affection than was accorded
to any of his professional contemporaries.
Behind the Governor and Mr. Wilson came two other guests; one the
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, whom the reader may remember as having
taken a brief and reluctant part in the scene of Hester Prynne's
disgrace; and, in close companionship with him, old Roger
Chillingworth, a person of great skill in physic, who, for two or
three years past, had been settled in the town. It was understood that
this learned man was the physician as well as friend of the young
minister, whose health had severely suffered, of late, by his too
unreserved self-sacrifice to the labours and duties of the pastoral
relation.
The Governor, in advance of his visitors, ascended one or two steps,
and, throwing open the leaves of the great hall-window, found
himself close to little Pearl. The shadow of the curtain fell on
Hester Prynne, and partially concealed her.
"What have we here?" said Governor Bellingham, looking with surprise
at the scarlet little figure before him. "I profess, I have never seen
the like, since my days of vanity, in old King James' time, when I was
wont to esteem it a high favour to be admitted to a court mask!
There used to be a swarm of these small apparitions, in holiday
time; and we called them children of the Lord of Misrule. But how
gat such a guest into my hall?"
"Ay, indeed!" cried good old Mr. Wilson. "What little bird of
scarlet plumage may this be? Methinks I have seen just such figures,
when the sun has been shining through a richly painted window, and
tracing out the golden and crimson images across the floor. But that
was in the old land. Prithee, young one, who art thou, and what has
ailed thy mother to bedizen thee in this strange fashion? Art thou a
Christian child- ha? Dost know thy catechism? Or art thou one of those
naughty elfs or fairies, whom we thought to have left behind us,
with other relics of Papistry, in merry old England?"
"I am mother's child," answered the scarlet vision, "and my name
is Pearl!"
"Pearl?- Ruby, rather!- or Coral!- or Red Rose, at the very least,
judging from thy hue!" responded the old minister, putting forth his
hand in a vain attempt to pat little Pearl on the cheek. "But where is
this mother of thine? Ah! I see," he added; and, turning to Governor
Bellingham, whispered, "This is the selfsame child of whom we have
held speech together; and behold here the unhappy woman, Hester
Prynne, her mother!"
"Sayest thou so?" cried the Governor. "Nay, we might have judged
that such a child's mother must needs be a scarlet woman, and a worthy
type of her of Babylon! But she comes at a good time; and we will look
into this matter forthwith."
Governor Bellingham stepped through the window into the hall,
followed by his three guests.
"Hester Prynne," said he, fixing his naturally stern regard on the
wearer of the scarlet letter, "there hath been much question
concerning thee, of late. The point hath been weightily discussed,
whether we, that are of authority and influence, do well discharge our
consciences by trusting an immortal Soul, such as there is in yonder
child, to the guidance of one who hath stumbled and fallen amid the
pitfalls of this world. Speak thou, the child's own mother! Were it
not, thinkest thou, for thy little one's temporal and eternal welfare,
that she be taken out of thy charge, and clad soberly, and disciplined
strictly, and instructed in the truths of heaven and earth? What canst
thou do for the child, in this kind?"
"I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this!"
answered Hester Prynne, laying her finger on the red token.
"Woman, it is thy badge of shame!" replied the stern magistrate. "It
is because of the stain which that letter indicates, that we would
transfer thy child to other hands."
"Nevertheless," said the mother calmly, though growing more pale,
"this badge hath taught me- it daily teaches me- it is teaching me
at this moment- lessons whereof my child may be the wiser and
better, albeit they can profit nothing to thyself."
"We will judge warily," said Bellingham, "and look well what we
are about to do. Good Master Wilson, I pray you, examine this Pearl-
since that is her name- and see whether she hath had such Christian
nurture as befits a child of her age."
The old minister seated himself in an arm-chair, and made an
effort to draw Pearl betwixt his knees. But the child, unaccustomed to
the touch or familiarity of any but her mother, escaped through the
open window, and stood on the upper step, looking like a wild tropical
bird, of rich plumage, ready to take flight into the upper air. Mr.
Wilson, not a little astonished at this outbreak- for he was a
grandfatherly sort of personage, and usually a vast favourite with
children- essayed, however, to proceed with the examination.
"Pearl," said he, with great solemnity, "thou must take heed to
instruction, that so, in due season, thou mayest wear in thy bosom the
pearl of great price. Canst thou tell me, my child, who made thee?"
Now Pearl knew well enough who made her; for Hester Prynne, the
daughter of a pious home, very soon after her talk with the child
about her Heavenly Father, had begun to inform her of those truths
which the human spirit, at whatever stage of immaturity, imbibes
with such eager interest. Pearl, therefore, so large were the
attainments of her three years' lifetime, could have borne a fair
examination in the New England Primer, or the first column of the
Westminster Catechisms, although unacquainted with the outward form of
either of those celebrated works. But that perversity, which all
children have more or less of, and of which little Pearl had a tenfold
portion, now, at the most inopportune moment, took thorough possession
of her, and closed her lips, or impelled her to speak words amiss.
After putting her finger in her mouth, with many ungracious refusals
to answer good Mr. Wilson's question, the child finally announced that
she had not been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother off
the bush of wild roses that grew by the prison-door.
This fantasy was probably suggested by the near proximity of the
Governor's red roses, as Pearl stood outside of the window; together
with her recollection of the prison rose-bush, which she had passed in
coming hither.
Old Roger Chillingworth, with a smile on his face, whispered
something in the young clergyman's ear. Hester Prynne looked at the
man of skill, and even then, with her fate hanging in the balance, was
startled to perceive what a change had come over his features- how
much uglier they were- how his dark complexion seemed to have grown
duskier, and his figure more misshapen- since the days when she had
familiarly known him. She met his eyes for an instant, but was
immediately constrained to give all her attention to the scene now
going forward.
"This is awful!" cried the Governor, slowly recovering from the
astonishment into which Pearl's response had thrown him. "Here is a
child of three years old, and she cannot tell who made her! Without
question, she is equally in the dark as to her soul, its present
depravity and future destiny! Methinks, gentlemen, we need inquire
no further!"
Hester caught hold of Pearl, and drew her forcibly into her arms,
confronting the old Puritan magistrate with almost a fierce
expression. Alone in the world, cast off by it, and with this sole
treasure to keep her heart alive, she felt that she possessed
indefeasible rights against the world, and was ready to defend them to
the death.
"God gave me the child!" cried she. "He gave her in requital of
all things else, which ye had taken from me. She is my happiness!- she
is my torture, none the less! Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl
punishes me too! See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable
of being loved, and so endowed with a millionfold the power of
retribution for my sin? Ye shall not take her! I will die first!"
"My poor woman," said the not unkind old minister, "the child
shall be well cared for!- far better than thou canst do it!"
"God gave her into my keeping," repeated Hester Prynne, raising
her voice almost to a shriek. "I will not give her up!"- And here,
by a sudden impulse, she turned to the young clergyman, Mr.
Dimmesdale, at whom, up to this moment, she had seemed hardly so
much as once to direct her eyes.- "Speak thou for me!" cried she.
"Thou wast my pastor, and hadst charge of my soul, and knowest me
better than these men can. I will not lose the child! Speak for me!
Thou knowest- for thou hast sympathies which these men lack- thou
knowest what is in my heart, and what are a mother's rights, and how
much the stronger they are, when that mother has but her child and the
scarlet letter! Look thou to it! I will not lose the child! Look to
it!"
At this wild and singular appeal, which indicated that Hester
Prynne's situation had provoked her to little less than madness, the
young minister at once came forward, pale, and holding his hand over
his heart, as was his custom whenever his peculiarly nervous
temperament was thrown into agitation. He looked now more careworn and
emaciated than as we described him at the scene of Hester's public
ignominy; and whether it were his failing health, or whatever the
cause might be, his large dark eyes had a world of pain in their
troubled and melancholy depth.
"There is truth in what she says," began the minister, with a
voice sweet, tremulous, but powerful, insomuch that the hall
re-echoed, and the hollow armour rang with it- "truth in what Hester
says, and in the feeling which inspires her! God gave her the child,
and gave her, too, an instinctive knowledge of its nature and
requirements- both seemingly so peculiar- which no other mortal
being can possess. And, moreover, is there not a quality of awful
sacredness in the relation between this mother and this child?"
"Ay!- how is that, good Master Dimmesdale?" interrupted the
Governor. "Make that plain, I pray you!"
"It must be even so," resumed the minister. "For, if we deem it
otherwise, do we not thereby say that the Heavenly Father, the Creator
of all flesh, hath lightly recognised a deed of sin, and made of no
account the distinction between unhallowed lust and holy love? This
child of its father's guilt and its mother's shame hath come from
the hand of God, to work in many ways upon her heart, who pleads so
earnestly, and with such bitterness of spirit, the right to keep
her. It was meant for a blessing; for the one blessing of her life! It
was meant, doubtless, as the mother herself hath told us, for a
retribution too; a torture to be felt at many an unthought-of
moment; a pang, a sting, an ever-recurring agony, in the midst of a
troubled joy! Hath she not expressed this thought in the garb of the
poor child, so forcibly reminding us of that red symbol which sears
her bosom?"
"Well said again!" cried good Mr. Wilson. "I feared the woman had no
better thought than to make a mountebank of her child!"
"Oh, not so!- not so!" continued Mr. Dimmesdale. "She recognises,
believe me, the solemn miracle which God hath wrought, in the
existence of that child. And may she feel, too- what, methinks, is the
very truth- that this boon was meant, above all things else, to keep
the mother's soul alive, and to preserve her from blacker depths of
sin into which Satan might else have sought to plunge her! Therefore
it is good for this poor, sinful woman that she hath an infant
immortality, a being capable of eternal joy or sorrow, confided to her
care- to be trained up by her to righteousness- to remind her, at
every moment, of her fall- but yet to teach her, as it were by the
Creator's sacred pledge, that, if she bring the child to heaven, the
child also will bring its parent thither! Herein is the sinful mother
happier than the sinful father. For Hester Prynne's sake, then, and no
less for the poor child's sake, let us leave them as Providence hath
seen fit to place them!"
"You speak, my friend, with a strange earnestness," said old Roger
Chillingworth, smiling at him.
"And there is a weighty import in what my young brother hath
spoken," added the Reverend Mr. Wilson. "What say you, worshipful
Master Bellingham? Hath he not pleaded well for the poor woman?"
"Indeed hath he," answered the magistrate, "and hath adduced such
arguments, that we will even leave the matter as it now stands; so
long, at least, as there shall be no further scandal in the woman.
Care must be had, nevertheless, to put the child to due and stated
examination in the catechism, at thy hands or Master Dimmesdale's.
Moreover, at a proper season, the tithing-men must take heed that
she go both to school and to meeting."
The young minister, on ceasing to speak, had withdrawn a few steps
from the group, and stood with his face partially concealed in the
heavy folds of the window-curtain; while the shadow of his figure,
which the sunlight cast upon the floor, was tremulous with the
vehemence of his appeal. Pearl, that wild and flighty little elf,
stole softly towards him, and taking his hand in the grasp of both her
own, laid her cheek against it; a caress so tender, and withal so
unobtrusive, that her mother, who was looking on, asked herself, "Is
that my Pearl?" Yet she knew that there was love in the child's heart,
although it mostly revealed itself in passion, and hardly twice in her
lifetime had been softened by such gentleness as now. The minister-
for, save the long-sought regards of woman, nothing is sweeter than
these marks of childish preference, accorded spontaneously by a
spiritual instinct, and therefore seeming to imply in us something
truly worthy to be loved- the minister looked round, laid his hand
on the child's head, hesitated an instant, and then kissed her brow.
Little Pearl's unwonted mood of sentiment lasted no longer; she
laughed, and went capering down the hall, so airily, that old Mr.
Wilson raised a question whether even her tiptoes touched the floor.
"The little baggage had witchcraft in her, I profess," said he to
Mr. Dimmesdale. "She needs no old woman's broomstick to fly withal!"
"A strange child!" remarked old Roger Chillingworth. "It is easy
to see the mother's part in her. Would it be beyond a philosopher's
research, think ye, gentlemen, to analyse that child's nature, and,
from its make and mould, to give a shrewd guess at the father?"
"Nay; it would be sinful, in such a question, to follow the clew
of profane philosophy," said Mr. Wilson. "Better to fast and pray upon
it; and still better, it may be, to leave the mystery as we find it,
unless Providence reveal it of its own accord. Thereby, every good
Christian man hath a title to show a father's kindness towards the
poor, deserted babe."
The affair being so satisfactorily concluded, Hester Prynne, with
Pearl, departed from the house. As they descended the steps, it is
averred that the lattice of a chamber-window was thrown open, and
forth into the sunny day was thrust the face of Mistress Hibbins,
Governor Bellingham's bitter-tempered sister, and the same who, a
few years later, was executed as a witch.
"Hist, hist!" said she, while her ill-omened physiognomy seemed to
cast a shadow over the cheerful newness of the house. "Wilt thou go
with us to-night? There will be a merry company in the forest; and I
well-nigh promised the Black Man that comely Hester Prynne should make
one."
"Make my excuse to him, so please you!" answered Hester, with a
triumphant smile. "I must tarry at home, and keep watch over my little
Pearl. Had they taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with
thee into the forest, and signed my name in the Black Man's book
too, and that with mine own blood!"
"We shall have thee there anon!" said the witch-lady, frowning, as
she drew back her head.
But here- if we suppose this interview betwixt Mistress Hibbins
and Hester Prynne to be authentic, and not a parable- was already an
illustration of the young minister's argument against sundering the
relation of a fallen mother to the offspring of her frailty. Even thus
early had the child saved her from Satan's snare.
IX.
THE LEECH.

UNDER the appellation of Roger Chillingworth, the reader will
remember, was hidden another name, which its former wearer had
resolved should never more be spoken. It has been related, how, in the
crowd that witnessed Hester Prynne's ignominious exposure, stood a
man, elderly, travel-worn, who, just emerging from the perilous
wilderness, beheld the woman, in whom he hoped to find embodied the
warmth and cheerfulness of home, set up as a type of sin before the
people. Her matronly fame was trodden under all men's feet. Infamy was
babbling around her in the public market-place. For her kindred,
should the tidings ever reach them, and for the companions of her
unspotted life, there remained nothing but the contagion of her
dishonour; which would not fail to be distributed in strict accordance
and proportion with the intimacy and sacredness of their previous
relationship. Then why- since the choice was with himself- should
the individual, whose connection with the fallen woman had been the
most intimate and sacred of them all, come forward to vindicate his
claim to an inheritance so little desirable? He resolved not to be
pilloried beside her on her pedestal of shame. Unknown to all but
Hester Prynne, and possessing the lock and key of her silence, he
chose to withdraw his name from the roll of mankind, and as regarded
his former ties and interests, to vanish out of life as completely
as if he indeed lay at the bottom of the ocean, whither rumour had
long ago consigned him. This purpose once effected, new interests
would immediately spring up, and likewise a new purpose; dark, it is
true, if not guilty, but of force enough to engage the full strength
of his faculties.
In pursuance of this resolve, he took up his residence in the
Puritan town, as Roger Chillingworth, without other introduction
than the learning and intelligence of which he possessed more than a
common measure. As his studies, at a previous period of his life,
had made him extensively acquainted with the medical science of the
day, it was as a physician that he presented himself, and as such
was cordially received. Skilful men, of the medical and chirurgical
profession, were of rare occurrence in the colony. They seldom, it
would appear, partook of the religious zeal that brought other
emigrants across the Atlantic. In their researches into the human
frame, it may be that the higher and more subtile faculties of such
men were materialised, and that they lost the spiritual view of
existence amid the intricacies of that wondrous mechanism, which
seemed to involve art enough to comprise all of life within itself. At
all events, the health of the good town of Boston, so far as
medicine had aught to do with it, had hitherto lain in the
guardianship of an aged deacon and apothecary, whose piety and godly
deportment were stronger testimonials in his favour than any that he
could have produced in the shape of a diploma. The only surgeon was
one who combined the occasional exercise of that noble art with the
daily and habitual flourish of a razor. To such a professional body
Roger Chillingworth was a brilliant acquisition. He soon manifested
his familiarity with the ponderous and imposing machinery of antique
physic; in which every remedy contained a multitude of far-fetched and
heterogeneous ingredients, as elaborately compounded as if the
proposed result had been the Elixir of Life. In his Indian
captivity, moreover, he had gained much knowledge of the properties of
native herbs and roots; nor did he conceal from his patients, that
these simple medicines, Nature's boon to the untutored savage, had
quite as large a share of his own confidence as the European
pharmacopoeia, which so many learned doctors had spent centuries in
elaborating.
This learned stranger was exemplary, as regarded, at least, the
outward forms of a religious life, and, early after his arrival, had
chosen for his spiritual guide the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. The
young divine, whose scholar-like renown still lived in Oxford, was
considered by his more fervent admirers as little less than a
heavenly-ordained apostle, destined, should he live and labour for the
ordinary term of life, to do as great deeds for the now feeble New
England Church, as the early Fathers had achieved for the infancy of
the Christian faith. About this period, however, the health of Mr.
Dimmesdale had evidently begun to fail. By those best acquainted
with his habits, the paleness of the young minister's cheek was
accounted for by his too earnest devotion to study, his scrupulous
fulfilment of parochial duty, and, more than all, by the fasts and
vigils of which he made a frequent practice, in order to keep the
grossness of this earthly state from clogging and obscuring his
spiritual lamp. Some declared, that, if Mr. Dimmesdale were really
going to die, it was cause enough, that the world was not worthy to be
any longer trodden by his feet. He himself, on the other hand, with
characteristic humility, avowed his belief, that, if Providence should
see fit to remove him, it would be because of his own unworthiness
to perform its humblest mission here on earth. With all this
difference of opinion as to the cause of his decline, there could be
no question of the fact. His form grew emaciated; his voice, though
still rich and sweet, had a certain melancholy prophecy of decay in
it; he was often observed, on any slight alarm or other sudden
accident, to put his hand over his heart, with first a flush and
then a paleness, indicative of pain.
Such was the young clergyman's condition, and so imminent the
prospect that his dawning light would be extinguished, all untimely,
when Roger Chillingworth made his advent to the town. His first
entry on the scene, few people could tell whence, dropping down, it
were, out of the sky, or starting from the nether earth, had an aspect
of mystery, which was easily heightened to the miraculous. He was
now known to be a man of skill; it was observed that he gathered
herbs, and the blossoms of wild-flowers, and dug up roots, and plucked
off twigs from the forest-trees like one acquainted with hidden
virtues in what was valueless to common eyes. He was heard to speak of
Sir Kenelm Digby, and other famous men- whose scientific attainments
were esteemed hardly less than supernatural- as having been his
correspondents or associates. Why, with such rank in the learned
world, had he come hither? What could he, whose sphere was in great
cities, be seeking in the wilderness? In answer to this query, a
rumour gained ground- and, however absurd, was entertained by some
very sensible people- that Heaven had wrought an absolute miracle,
by transporting an eminent Doctor of Physic, from a German university,
bodily through the air, and setting him down at the door of Mr.
Dimmesdale's study! Individuals of wiser faith, indeed, who knew
that Heaven promotes its purposes without aiming at the stage-effect
of what is called miraculous interposition, were inclined to see a
providential hand in Roger Chillingworth's so opportune arrival.
This idea was countenanced by the strong interest which the
physician ever manifested in the young clergyman; he attached
himself to him as a parishioner, and sought to win a friendly regard
and confidence from his naturally reserved sensibility. He expressed
great alarm at his pastor's state of health, but was anxious to
attempt the cure, and, if early undertaken, seemed not despondent of a
favourable result. The elders, the deacons, the motherly dames, and
the young and fair maidens, of Mr. Dimmesdale's flock, were alike
importunate that he should make trial of the physician's frankly
offered skill. Mr. Dimmesdale gently repelled their entreaties.
"I need no medicine," said he.
But how could the young minister say so, when, with every successive
Sabbath, his cheek was paler and thinner, and his voice more tremulous
than before- when it had now become a constant habit, rather than a
casual gesture, to press his hand over his heart? Was he weary of
his labours? Did he wish to die? These questions were solemnly
propounded to Mr. Dimmesdale by the elder ministers of Boston and
the deacons of his church, who, to use their own phrase, "dealt with
him" on the sin of rejecting the aid which Providence so manifestly
held out. He listened in silence, and finally promised to confer
with the physician.
"Were it God's will," said the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, when, in
fulfilment of this pledge, he requested old Roger Chillingworth's
professional advice, "I could be well content, that my labours and
my sorrows, and my sins and my pains, should shortly end with me,
and what is earthly of them be buried in my grave, and the spiritual
go with me to my eternal state, rather than that you should put your
skill to the proof in my behalf."
"Ah," replied Roger Chillingworth, with that quietness which,
whether imposed or natural, marked all his deportment, "it is thus
that a young clergyman is apt to speak. Youthful men, not having taken
a deep root, give up their hold of life so easily! And saintly men,
who walk with God on earth, would fain be away, to walk with Him on
the golden pavements of the New Jerusalem."
"Nay," rejoined the young minister, putting his hand to his heart,
with a flush of pain flitting over his brow, "were I worthier to
walk there, I could be better content to toil here."
"Good men ever interpret themselves too meanly," said the physician.
In this manner, the mysterious old Roger Chillingworth became the
medical adviser of the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. As not only the
disease interested the physician, but he was strongly moved to look
into the character and qualities of the patient, these two men, so
different in age, came gradually to spend much time together. For
the sake of the minister's health, and to enable the leech to gather
plants with healing balm in them, they took long walks on the
sea-shore, or in the forest; mingling various talk with the plash
and murmur of the waves, and the solemn wind-anthem among the
tree-tops. Often, likewise, one was the guest of the other, in his
place of study and retirement. There was a fascination for the
minister in the company of the man of science, in whom he recognised
an intellectual cultivation of no moderate depth or scope; together
with a range and freedom of ideas, that he would have vainly looked
for among the members of his own profession. In truth, he was
startled, if not shocked, to find this attribute in the physician. Mr.
Dimmesdale was a true priest, a true religionist, with the reverential
sentiment largely developed, and an order of mind that impelled itself
powerfully along the track of a creed, and wore its passage
continually deeper with the lapse of time. In no state of society
would he have been what is called a man of liberal views; it would
always be essential to his peace to feel the pressure of a faith about
him, supporting, while it confined him within its iron framework.
Not the less, however, though with a tremulous enjoyment, did he
feel the occasional relief of looking at the universe through the
medium of another kind of intellect than those with which he
habitually held converse. It was as if a window were thrown open,
admitting a freer atmosphere into the close and stifled study, where
his life was wasting itself away, amid lamplight, or obstructed
day-beams, and the musty fragrance, be it sensual or moral, that
exhales from books. But the air was too fresh and chill to be long
breathed with comfort. So the minister, and the physician with him,
withdrew again within the limits of what their church defined as
orthodox.
Thus Roger Chillingworth scrutinised his patient carefully, both
as he saw him in his ordinary life, keeping an accustomed pathway in
the range of thoughts familiar to him, and as he appeared when
thrown amidst other moral scenery, the novelty of which might call out
something new to the surface of his character. He deemed it essential,
it would seem, to know the man, before attempting to do him good.
Wherever there is a heart and an intellect, the diseases of the
physical frame are tinged with the peculiarities of these. In Arthur
Dimmesdale, thought and imagination were so active, and sensibility so
intense, that the bodily infirmity would be likely to have its
groundwork there. So Roger Chillingworth- the man of skill, the kind
and friendly physician- strove to go deep into his patient's bosom,
delving among his principles, prying into his recollections, and
probing everything with a cautious touch, like a treasure-seeker in
a dark cavern. Few secrets can escape an investigator, who has
opportunity and license to undertake such a quest, and skill to follow
it up. A man burdened with a secret should especially avoid the
intimacy of his physician. If the latter possess native sagacity,
and a nameless something more- let us call it intuition; if he show no
intrusive egotism, nor disagreeably prominent characteristics of his
own; if he have the power, which must be born with him, to bring his
mind into such affinity with his patient's, that this last shall
unawares have spoken what he imagines himself only to have thought; if
such revelations be received without tumult, and acknowledged not so
often by an uttered sympathy as by silence, an inarticulate breath,
and here and there a word, to indicate that all is understood; if to
these qualifications of a confidant be joined the advantages
afforded by his recognised character as a physician- then, at some
inevitable moment, will the soul of the sufferer be dissolved, and
flow forth in a dark, but transparent stream, bringing all its
mysteries into the daylight.
Roger Chillingworth possessed all, or most, of the attributes
above enumerated. Nevertheless, time went on; a kind of intimacy, as
we have said, grew up between these two cultivated minds, which had as
wide a field as the whole sphere of human thought and study, to meet
upon; they discussed every topic of ethics and religion, of public
affairs, and private character; they talked much, on both sides, of
matters that seemed personal to themselves; and yet no secret, such as
the physician fancied must exist there, ever stole out of the
minister's consciousness into his companion's ear. The latter had
his suspicions, indeed, that even the nature of Mr. Dimmesdale's
bodily disease had never fairly been revealed to him. It was a strange
reserve!
After a time, at a hint from Roger Chillingworth, the friends of Mr.
Dimmesdale effected an arrangement by which the two were lodged in the
same house; so that every ebb and flow of the minister's life-tide
might pass under the eye of his anxious and attached physician.
There was much joy throughout the town, when this greatly desirable
object was attained. It was held to be the best possible measure for
the young clergyman's welfare: unless, indeed, as often urged by
such as felt authorised to do so, he had selected some one of the many
blooming damsels, spiritually devoted to him, to become his devoted
wife. This latter step, however, there was no present prospect that
Arthur Dimmesdale would be prevailed upon to take; he rejected all
suggestions of the kind, as if priestly celibacy were one of his
articles of church-discipline. Doomed by his own choice, therefore, as
Mr. Dimmesdale so evidently was, to eat his unsavoury morsel always at
another's board, and endure the lifelong chill which must be his lot
who seeks to warm himself only at another's fireside, it truly
seemed that this sagacious, experienced, benevolent old physician,
with his concord of paternal and reverential love for the young
pastor, was the very man, of all mankind, to be constantly within
reach of his voice.
The new abode of the two friends was with a pious widow, of good
social rank, who dwelt in a house covering pretty nearly the site on
which the venerable structure of King's Chapel has since been built.
It had the graveyard, originally Isaac Johnson's home-field, on one
side, and so was well adapted to call up serious reflections, suited
to their respective employments, in both minister and man of physic.
The motherly care of the good widow assigned to Mr. Dimmesdale a front
apartment, with a sunny exposure, and heavy window-curtains, to create
a noon-tide shadow, when desirable. The walls were hung round with
tapestry, said to be from the Gobelin looms, and, at all events,
representing the Scriptural story of David and Bathsheba, and Nathan
the Prophet, in colours still unfaded, but which made the fair woman
of the scene almost as grimly picturesque as the woe-denouncing
seer. Here, the pale clergyman piled up his library, rich with
parchment-bound folios of the Fathers, and the lore of Rabbis, and
monkish erudition, of which the Protestant divines, even while they
vilified and decried that class of writers, were yet constrained often
to avail themselves. On the other side of the house, old Roger
Chillingworth arranged his study and laboratory; not such as a
modern man of science would reckon even tolerably complete, but
provided with a distilling apparatus, and the means of compounding
drugs and chemicals, which the practised alchemist knew well how to
turn to purpose. With such commodiousness of situation, these two
learned persons sat themselves down, each in his own domain, yet
familiarly passing from one apartment to the other, and bestowing a
mutual and not incurious inspection into one another's business.
And the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale's best discerning friends, as
we have intimated, very reasonably imagined that the hand of
Providence had done all this, for the purpose- besought in so many
public, and domestic, and secret prayers- of restoring the young
minister to health. But- it must now be said- another portion of the
community had latterly begun to take its own view of the relation
betwixt Mr. Dimmesdale and the mysterious old physician. When an
uninstructed multitude attempts to see with its eyes, it is
exceedingly apt to be deceived. When, however, it forms its
judgment, as it usually does, on the intuitions of its great and
warm heart, the conclusions thus attained are often so profound and so
unerring, as to possess the character of truths supernaturally
revealed. The people, in the case of which we speak, could justify its
prejudice against Roger Chillingworth by no fact or argument worthy of
serious refutation. There was an aged handicraftsman, it is true,
who had been a citizen of London at the period of Sir Thomas
Overbury's murder, now some thirty years agone; he testified to having
seen the physician, under some other name, which the narrator of the
story had now forgotten, in company with Doctor Forman, the famous old
conjurer, who was implicated in the affair of Overbury. Two or three
individuals hinted, that the man of skill, during his Indian
captivity, had enlarged his medical attainments by joining in the
incantations of the savage priests; who were universally
acknowledged to be powerful enchanters, often performing seemingly
miraculous cures by their skill in the black art. A large number-
and many of these were persons of such sober sense and practical
observation that their opinions would have been valuable in other
matters- affirmed that Roger Chillingworth's aspect had undergone a
remarkable change while he had dwelt in town, and especially since his
abode with Mr. Dimmesdale. At first, his expression had been calm,
meditative, scholar-like. Now, there was something ugly and evil in
his face, which they had not previously noticed, and which grew
still the more obvious to sight, the oftener they looked upon him.
According to the vulgar idea, the fire in his laboratory had been
brought from the lower regions, and was fed with infernal fuel; and
so, as might be expected, his visage was getting sooty with the smoke.
To sum up the matter, it grew to be a widely diffused opinion,
that the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, like many other personages of
especial sanctity, in all ages of the Christian world, was haunted
either by Satan himself, or Satan's emissary, in the guise of old
Roger Chillingworth. This diabolical agent had the Divine
permission, for a season, to burrow into the clergyman's intimacy, and
plot against his soul. No sensible man, it was confessed, could
doubt on which side the victory would turn. The people looked, with an
unshaken hope, to see the minister come forth out of the conflict,
transfigured with the glory which he would unquestionably win.
Meanwhile, nevertheless, it was sad to think of the perchance mortal
agony through which he must struggle towards his triumph.
Alas! to judge from the gloom and terror in the depths of the poor
minister's eyes, the battle was a sore one, and the victory anything
but secure.
X.
THE LEECH AND HIS PATIENT.

OLD Roger Chillingworth, throughout life, had been calm in
temperament, kindly, though not of warm affections, but ever, and in
all his relations with the world, a pure and upright man. He had begun
an investigation, as he imagined, with the severe and equal
integrity of a judge, desirous only of truth, even as if the
question involved no more than the air-drawn lines and figures of a
geometrical problem, instead of human passions, and wrongs inflicted
on himself. But, as he proceeded, a terrible fascination, a kind of
fierce, though still calm, necessity seized the old man within its
gripe, and never set him free again, until he had done all its
bidding. He now dug into the poor clergyman's heart, like a miner
searching for gold; or, rather, like a sexton delving into a grave,
possibly in quest of a jewel that had been buried on the dead man's
bosom, but likely to find nothing save mortality and corruption.
Alas for his own soul, if these were what he sought!
Sometimes, a light glimmered out of the physician's eyes, burning
blue and ominous, like the reflection of a furnace, or, let us say,
like one of those gleams of ghastly fire that darted from Bunyan's
awful doorway in the hill-side, and quivered on the pilgrim's face.
The soil where this dark miner was working had perchance shown
indications that encouraged him.
"This man," said he, at one such moment, to himself, "pure as they
deem him- all spiritual as he seems- hath inherited a strong animal
nature from his father or his mother. Let us dig a little farther in
the direction of this vein!"
Then, after long search into the minister's dim interior, and
turning over many precious materials, in the shape of high aspirations
for the welfare of his race, warm love of souls, pure sentiments,
natural piety, strengthened by thought and study, and illuminated by
revelation- all of which invaluable gold was perhaps no better than
rubbish to the seeker- he would turn back, discouraged, and begin
his quest towards another point. He groped along as stealthily, with
as cautious a tread, and as wary an outlook, as a thief entering a
chamber where a man lies only half asleep- or, it may be, broad awake-
with purpose to steal the very treasure which this man guards as the
apple of his eye. In spite of his premeditated carefulness, the
floor would now and then creak; his garments would rustle; the
shadow of his presence, in a forbidden proximity, would be thrown
across his victim. In other words, Mr. Dimmesdale, whose sensibility
of nerve often produced the effect of spiritual intuition, would
become vaguely aware that something inimical to his peace had thrust
itself into relation with him. But old Roger Chillingworth, too, had
perceptions that were almost intuitive; and when the minister threw
his startled eyes towards him, there the physician sat; his kind,
watchful, sympathising, but never intrusive friend.
Yet Mr. Dimmesdale would perhaps have seen this individual's
character more perfectly, if a certain morbidness, to which sick
hearts are liable, had not rendered him suspicious of all mankind.
Trusting no man as his friend, he could not recognise his enemy when
the latter actually appeared. He therefore still kept up a familiar
intercourse with him, daily receiving the old physician in his
study; or visiting the laboratory, and, for recreation's sake,
watching the processes by which weeds were converted into drugs of
potency.
One day, leaning his forehead on his hand, and his elbow on the sill
of the open window, that looked towards the graveyard, he talked
with Roger Chillingworth, while the old man was examining a bundle
of unsightly plants.
"Where," asked he, with a look askance at them- for it was the
clergyman's peculiarity that he seldom, nowadays, looked
straight-forth at any object, whether human or inanimate- "where, my
kind doctor, did you gather those herbs, with such a dark, flabby
leaf?"
"Even in the graveyard here at hand," answered the physician,
continuing his employment. "They are new to me. I found them growing
on a grave, which bore no tombstone, nor other memorial of the dead
man, save these ugly weeds, that have taken upon themselves to keep
him in remembrance. They grew out of his heart, and typify, it may be,
some hideous secret that was buried with him, and which he had done
better to confess during his lifetime."
"Perchance," said Mr. Dimmesdale, "he earnestly desired it, but
could not."
"And wherefore?" rejoined the physician. "Wherefore not; since all
the powers of nature call so earnestly for the confession of sin, that
these black weeds have sprung up out of a buried heart, to make
manifest an unspoken crime?"
"That, good sir, is but a fantasy of yours," replied the minister.
"There can be, if I forebode aright, no power, short of the Divine
mercy, to disclose, whether by uttered words, or by type or emblem,
the secrets that may be buried with a human heart. The heart, making
itself guilty of such secrets, must perforce hold them until the day
when all hidden things shall be revealed. Nor have I so read or
interpreted Holy Writ, as to understand that the disclosure of human
thoughts and deeds, then to be made, is intended as a part of the
retribution. That, surely, were a shallow view of it. No; these
revelations, unless I greatly err, are meant merely to promote the
intellectual satisfaction of all intelligent beings, who will stand
waiting, on that day, to see the dark problem of this life made plain.
A knowledge of men's hearts will be needful to the completest solution
of that problem. And I conceive, moreover, that the hearts holding
such miserable secrets as you speak of will yield them up, at that
last day, not with reluctance, but with a joy unutterable."
"Then why not reveal them here?" asked Roger Chillingworth, glancing
quietly aside at the minister. "Why should not the guilty ones
sooner avail themselves of this unutterable solace?"
"They mostly do," said the clergyman, griping hard at his breast, as
if afflicted with an importunate throb of pain. "Many, many a poor
soul hath given its confidence to me, not only on the deathbed, but
while strong in life, and fair in reputation. And ever, after such
an outpouring, oh, what a relief have I witnessed in those sinful
brethren! even as in one who at last draws free air, after long
stifling with his own polluted breath. How can it be otherwise? Why
should a wretched man, guilty, we will say, of murder, prefer to
keep the dead corpse buried in his own heart, rather than fling it
forth at once, and let the universe take care of it?"
"Yet some men bury their secrets thus," observed the calm physician.
"True; there are such men," answered Mr. Dimmesdale. "But, not to
suggest more obvious reasons, it may be that they are kept silent by
the very constitution of their nature. Or- can we not suppose it?-
guilty as they may be, retaining, nevertheless, a zeal for God's glory
and man's welfare, they shrink from displaying themselves black and
filthy in the view of men; because, thenceforward, no good can be
achieved by them; no evil of the past be redeemed by better service.
So, to their own unutterable torment, they go about among their
fellow-creatures, looking pure as new-fallen snow; while their
hearts are all speckled and spotted with iniquity of which they cannot
rid themselves."
"These men deceive themselves," said Roger Chillingworth, with
somewhat more emphasis than usual, and making a slight gesture with
his forefinger. "They fear to take up the shame that rightfully
belongs to them. Their love for man, their zeal for God's service-
these holy impulses may or may not coexist in their hearts with the
evil inmates to which their guilt has unbarred the door, and which
must needs propagate a hellish breed within them. But, if they seek to
glorify God, let them not lift heavenward their unclean hands! If they
would serve their fellow-men, let them do it by making manifest the
power and reality of conscience, in constraining them to penitential
self-abasement! Wouldst thou have me to believe, O wise and pious
friend, that a false show can be better- can be more for God's
glory, or man's welfare- than God's own truth? Trust me, such men
deceive themselves!"
"It may be so," said the young clergyman, indifferently, as
waiving a discussion that he considered irrelevant or unseasonable. He
had a ready faculty, indeed, of escaping from any topic that
agitated his too sensitive and nervous temperament. "But, now, I would
ask of my well-skilled physician, whether, in good sooth, he deems
me to have profited by his kindly care of this weak frame of mine?"
Before Roger Chillingworth could answer, they heard the clear,
wild laughter of a young child's voice, proceeding from the adjacent
burial-ground. Looking instinctively from the open window- for it
was summer-time- the minister beheld Hester Prynne and little Pearl
passing along the footpath that traversed the enclosure. Pearl
looked as beautiful as the day, but was in one of those moods of
perverse merriment which, whenever they occurred, seemed to remove her
entirely out of the sphere of sympathy or human contact. She now
skipped irreverently from one grave to another; until, coming to the
broad, flat, armorial tombstone of a departed worthy- perhaps of Isaac
Johnson himself- she began to dance upon it. In reply to her
mother's command and entreaty that she would behave more decorously,
little Pearl paused to gather the prickly burrs from a tall burdock
which grew beside the tomb. Taking a handful of these, she arranged
them along the lines of the scarlet letter that decorated the maternal
bosom, to which the burrs, as their nature was, tenaciously adhered.
Hester did not pluck them off.
Roger Chillingworth had by this time approached the window, and
smiled grimly down.
"There is no law, nor reverence for authority, no regard for human
ordinances or opinions, right or wrong, mixed up with that child's
composition," remarked her, as much to himself as to his companion. "I
saw her, the other day, bespatter the Governor himself with water,
at the cattle-trough in Spring Lane. What, in Heaven's name, is she?
Is the imp altogether evil? Hath she affections? Hath she any
discoverable principle of being?"
"None- save the freedom of a broken law," answered Mr. Dimmesdale,
in a quiet way, as if he had been discussing the point within himself.
"Whether capable of good I know not."
The child probably overheard their voices; for, looking up to the
window, with a bright, but naughty smile of mirth and intelligence,
she threw one of the prickly burrs at the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. The
sensitive clergyman shrunk, with nervous dread, from the light
missile. Detecting his emotion, Pearl clapped her little hands, in the
most extravagant ecstasy. Hester Prynne, likewise, had involuntarily
looked up; and all these four persons, old and young, regarded one
another in silence, till the child laughed aloud, and shouted, "Come
away, mother! Come away, or yonder old Black Man will catch you! He
hath got hold of the minister already. Come away, mother, or he will
catch you! But he cannot catch little Pearl!"
So she drew her mother away, skipping, dancing, and frisking
fantastically, among the hillocks of the dead people, like a
creature that had nothing in common with a bygone and buried
generation, nor owned herself akin to it. It was as if she had been
made afresh, out of new elements, and must perforce be permitted to
live her own life, and be a law unto herself, without her
eccentricities being reckoned to her for a crime.
"There goes a woman," resumed Roger Chillingworth, after a pause,
"who, be her demerits what they may, hath none of that mystery of
hidden sinfulness which you deem so grievous to be borne. Is Hester
Prynne the less miserable, think you, for that scarlet letter on her
breast?"
"I do verily believe it," answered the clergyman. "Nevertheless, I
cannot answer for her. There was a look of pain in her face, which I
would gladly have been spared the sight of. But still, methinks, it
must needs be better for the sufferer to be free to show his pain,
as this poor woman Hester is, than to cover it all up in his heart."
There was another pause; and the physician began anew to examine and
arrange the plants which he had gathered.
"You inquired of me, a little time agone," said he, at length, "my
judgment as touching your health."
"I did," answered the clergyman, "and would gladly learn it. Speak
frankly, I pray you, be it for life or death."
"Freely, then, and plainly," said the physician, still busy with his
plants, but keeping a wary eye on Mr. Dimmesdale, "the disorder is a
strange one; not so much in itself, nor as outwardly manifested- in so
far, at least, as the symptoms have been laid open to my
observation. Looking dally at you, my good sir, and watching the
tokens of your aspect, now for months gone by, I should deem you a man
sore sick, it may be, yet not so sick but that an instructed and
watchful physician might well hope to cure you. But- I know not what
to say- the disease is what I seem to know, yet know it not."
"You speak in riddles, learned sir," said the pale minister,
glancing aside out of the window.
"Then, to speak more plainly," continued the physician, "and I crave
pardon, sir- should it seem to require pardon- for this needful
plainness of my speech. Let me ask, as your friend- as one having
charge, under Providence, of your life and physical well-being- hath
all the operation of this disorder been fairly laid open and recounted
to me?"
"How can you question it?" asked the minister. "Surely, it were
child's play, to call in a physician, and then hide the sore!"
"You would tell me, then, that I know all?" said Roger Chillingworth
deliberately, and fixing an eye, bright with intense and
concentrated intelligence, on the minister's face. "Be it so! But,
again! He to whom only the outward and physical evil is laid open,
knoweth, oftentimes, but half the evil which be is called upon to
cure. A bodily disease, which we look upon as whole and entire
within itself, may, after all, be but a symptom of some ailment in the
spiritual part. Your pardon, once again, good sir, if my speech give
the shadow of offence. You, sir, of all men whom I have known, are
he whose body is the closest conjoined, and imbued, and identified, so
to speak, with the spirit whereof it is the instrument."
"Then I need ask no further," said the clergyman, somewhat hastily
rising from his chair. "You deal not, I take it, in medicine for the
soul!"
"Thus, a sickness," continued Roger Chillingworth going on, in an
unaltered tone, without heeding the interruption, but standing up
and confronting the emaciated and white-cheeked minister, with his
low, dark, and misshapen figure- "a sickness, a sore place, if we may
so call it, in your spirit, hath immediately its appropriate
manifestation in your bodily frame. Would you, therefore, that your
physician heal the bodily evil? How may this be, unless you first
lay open to him the wound or trouble in your soul?"
"No!- not to thee!- not to an earthly physician!" cried Mr.
Dimmesdale passionately, and turning his eyes, full and bright, and
with a kind of fierceness, on old Roger Chillingworth. "Not to thee!
But, if it be the soul's disease, then do I commit myself to the one
Physician of the soul! He, if it stand with His good pleasure, can
cure; or He can kill! Let Him do with me as, in His justice and
wisdom, He shall see good. But who art thou, that meddlest in this
matter?- that dares thrust himself between the sufferer and his God?"
With a frantic gesture, he rushed out of the room.
"It is as well to have made this step," said Roger Chillingworth
to himself, looking after the minister, with a grave smile. "There
is nothing lost. We shall be friends again anon. But see, now, how
passion takes hold upon this man, and hurrieth him out of himself!
As with one passion, so with another! He hath done a wild thing ere
now, this pious Master Dimmesdale, in the hot passion of his heart!"
It proved not difficult to re-establish the intimacy of the two
companions, on the same footing and in the same degree as
heretofore. The young clergyman, after a few hours of privacy, was
sensible that the disorder of his nerves had hurried him into an
unseemly outbreak of temper, which there had been nothing in the
physician's words to excuse or palliate. He marvelled, indeed, at
the violence with which he had thrust back the kind old man, when
merely proffering the advice which it was his duty to bestow, and
which the minister himself had expressly sought. With these remorseful
feelings, he lost no time in making the amplest apologies, and
besought his friend still to continue the care, which, if not
successful in restoring him to health, had, in all probability, been
the means of prolonging his feeble existence to that hour. Roger
Chillingworth readily assented, and went on with his medical
supervision of the minister; doing his best for him, in all good
faith, but always quitting the patient's apartment, at the close of
a professional interview, with a mysterious and puzzled smile upon his
lips. This expression was invisible in Mr. Dimmesdale's presence,
but grew strongly evident as the physician crossed the threshold.
"A rare case!" he muttered. "I must needs look deeper into it. A
strange sympathy betwixt soul and body! Were it only for the art's
sake, I must search this matter to the bottom!"
It came to pass, not long after the scene above recorded, that the
Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, at noon-day, and entirely unawares, fell into
a deep, deep slumber, sitting in his chair, with a large
black-letter volume open before him on the table. It must have been
a work of vast ability in the somniferous school of literature. The
profound depth of the minister's repose was the more remarkable,
inasmuch as he was one of those persons whose sleep, ordinarily, is as
light, as fitful, and as easily scared away, as a small bird hopping
on a twig. To such an unwonted remoteness, however, had his spirit now
withdrawn into itself, that he stirred not in his chair, when old
Roger Chillingworth, without any extraordinary precaution, came into
the room. The physician advanced directly in front of his patient,
laid his hand upon his bosom, and thrust aside the vestment, that,
hitherto, had always covered it even from the professional eye.
Then, indeed, Mr. Dimmesdale shuddered, and slightly stirred.
After a brief pause, the physician turned away.
But, with what a wild look of wonder, joy, and horror! With what a
ghastly rapture, as it were, too mighty to be expressed only by the
eye and features, and therefore bursting forth through the whole
ugliness of his figure, and making itself even riotously manifest by
the extravagant gestures with which he threw up his arms towards the
ceiling, and stamped his foot upon the floor! Had a man seen old Roger
Chillingworth, at that moment of his ecstasy, he would have had no
need to ask how Satan comports himself, when a precious human soul
is lost to heaven, and won into his kingdom.
But what distinguished the physician's ecstasy from Satan's was
the trait of wonder in it!
XI.
THE INTERIOR OF A HEART.

AFTER the incident last described, the intercourse between the
clergyman and the physician, though externally the same, was really of
another character than it had previously been. The intellect of
Roger Chillingworth had now a sufficiently plain path before it. It
was not, indeed, precisely that which he had laid out for himself to
read. Calm, gentle, passionless, as he appeared, there was yet, we
fear, a quiet depth of malice, hitherto latent, but active now, in
this unfortunate old man, which led him to imagine a more intimate
revenge than any mortal had ever wreaked upon an enemy. To make
himself the one trusted friend, to whom should be confided all the
fear, the remorse, the agony, the ineffectual repentance, the backward
rush of sinful thoughts, expelled in vain! All that guilty sorrow,
hidden from the world, whose great heart would have pitied and
forgiven, to be revealed to him, the Pitiless, to him, the
Unforgiving! All that dark treasure to be lavished on the very man, to
whom nothing else could so adequately pay the debt of vengeance.
The clergyman's shy and sensitive reserve had balked this scheme.
Roger Chillingworth, however, was inclined to be hardly, if at all,
less satisfied with the aspect of affairs, which Providence- using the
avenger and his victim for its own purposes, and, perchance,
pardoning, where it seemed most to punish- had substituted for his
black devices. A revelation, he could almost say, had been granted
to him. It mattered little, for his object, whether celestial, or from
what other region. By its aid, in all the subsequent relations betwixt
him and Mr. Dimmesdale, not merely the external presence, but the very
inmost soul, of the latter seemed to be brought out before his eyes,
so that he could see and comprehend its every movement. He became,
thenceforth, not a spectator only, but a chief actor, in the poor
minister's interior world. He could play upon him as he chose. Would
he arouse him with a throb of agony? The victim was for ever on the
rack; it needed only to know the spring that controlled the engine-
and the physician knew it well! Would be startle him with sudden fear?
As at the waving of a magician's wand, uprose a grisly phantom- uprose
a thousand phantoms- in many shapes, of death, or more awful shame,
all flocking round about tie clergyman, and pointing with their
fingers at his breast!
All this was accomplished with a subtlety so perfect, that the
minister, though he had constantly a dim perception of some evil
influence watching over him, could never gain a knowledge of its
actual nature. True, he looked doubtfully, fearfully- even, at
times, with horror and the bitterness of hatred- at the deformed
figure of the old physician. His gestures, his gait, his grizzled
beard, his slightest and most indifferent acts, the very fashion of
his garments, were odious in the clergyman's sight; a token implicitly
to be relied on, of a deeper antipathy in the breast of the latter
than he was willing to acknowledge to himself. For, as it was
impossible to assign a reason for such distrust and abhorrence, so Mr.
Dimmesdale, conscious that the poison of one morbid spot was infecting
his heart's entire substance, attributed all his presentiments to no
other cause. He took himself to task for his bad sympathies in
reference to Roger Chillingworth, disregarded the lesson that he
should have drawn from them, and did his best to root them out. Unable
to accomplish this, he nevertheless, as a matter of principle,
continued his habits of social familiarity with the old man, and
thus gave him constant opportunities for perfecting the purpose to
which- poor, forlorn creature that he was, and more wretched than
his victim- the avenger had devoted himself.
While thus suffering under bodily disease, and gnawed and tortured
by some black trouble of the soul, and given over to the
machinations of his deadliest enemy, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale had
achieved a brilliant popularity in his sacred office. He won it,
indeed, in great part, by his sorrows. His intellectual gifts, his
moral perceptions, his power of experiencing and communicating
emotion, were kept in a state of preternatural activity by the prick
and anguish of his daily life. His fame, though still on its upward
slope, already overshadowed the soberer reputations of his
fellow-clergymen, eminent as several of them were. There were scholars
among them, who had spent more years in acquiring abstruse lore,
connected with the divine profession, than Mr. Dimmesdale had lived;
and who might well, therefore, be more profoundly versed in such solid
and valuable attainments than their youthful brother. There were
men, too, of a sturdier texture of mind than his, and endowed with a
far greater share of shrewd, hard, iron, or granite understanding;
which, duly mingled with a fair proportion of doctrinal ingredient,
constitutes a highly respectable, efficacious, and unamiable variety
of the clerical species. There were others, again, true saintly
fathers, whose faculties had been elaborated by weary toil among their
books, and by patient thought, and etherealised, moreover, by
spiritual communications with the better world, into which their
purity of life had almost introduced these holy personages, with their
garments of mortality still clinging to them. All that they lacked was
the gift that descended upon the chosen disciples at Pentecost, in
tongues of flame; symbolising, it would seem, not the power of
speech in foreign and unknown languages, but that of addressing the
whole human brotherhood in the heart's native language. These fathers,
otherwise so apostolic, lacked Heaven's last and rarest attestation of
their office, the Tongue of Flame. They would have vainly sought-
had they ever dreamed of seeking- to express the highest truths
through the humblest medium of familiar words and images. Their voices
came down, afar and indistinctly, from the upper heights where they
habitually dwelt.
Not improbably, it was to this latter class of men that Mr.
Dimmesdale, by many of his traits of character, naturally belonged. To
the high mountain-peaks of faith and sanctity he would have climbed,
had not the tendency been thwarted by the burden, whatever it might
be, of crime or anguish, beneath which it was his doom to totter. It
kept him down, on a level with the lowest; him, the man of ethereal
attributes, whose voice the angels might else have listened to and
answered! But this very burden it was, that gave him sympathies so
intimate with the sinful brotherhood of mankind; so that his heart
vibrated in unison with theirs, and received their pain into itself,
and sent its own throb of pain through a thousand other hearts, in
gushes of sad, persuasive eloquence. Oftenest persuasive, but
sometimes terrible! The people knew not the power that moved them
thus. They deemed the young clergyman a miracle of holiness. They
fancied him the mouthpiece of Heaven's messages of wisdom, and rebuke,
and love. In their eyes, the very ground on which he trod was
sanctified. The virgins of his church grew pale around him, victims of
a passion so imbued with religious sentiment that they imagined it
to be all religion, and brought it openly, in their white bosoms, as
their most acceptable sacrifice before the altar. The aged members
of his flock, beholding Mr. Dimmesdale's frame so feeble, while they
were themselves so rugged in their infirmity, believed that he would
go heavenward before them, and enjoined it upon their children, that
their old bones should be buried close to their young pastor's holy
grave. And, all this time, perchance, when poor Mr. Dimmesdale was
thinking of his grave, he questioned with himself whether the grass
would ever grow on it, because an accursed thing must there be buried!
It is inconceivable, the agony with which this public veneration
tortured him! It was his genuine impulse to adore the truth, and to
reckon all things shadow-like, and utterly devoid of weight or
value, that had not its divine essence as the life within their
life. Then, what was he?- a substance?- or the dimmest of all shadows?
He longed to speak out, from his own pulpit, at the full height of his
voice, and tell the people what he was. "I, whom you behold in these
black garments of the priesthood- I, who ascend the sacred desk, and
turn my pale face heavenward, taking upon myself to hold communion, in
your behalf, with the Most High Omniscience- I, in whose daily life
you discern the sanctity of Enoch- I, whose footsteps, as you suppose,
leave a gleam along my earthly track, whereby the pilgrims that
shall come after me may be guided to the regions of the blest- I,
who have laid the hand of baptism upon your children- I, who have
breathed the parting prayer over your dying friends, to whom the
Amen sounded faintly from a world which they had quitted- I, your
pastor, whom you so reverence and trust, am utterly a pollution and
a lie!"
More than once, Mr. Dimmesdale had gone into the pulpit, with a
purpose never to come down its steps, until he should have spoken
words like the above. More than once, he had cleared his throat, and
drawn in the long, deep, and tremulous breath, which, when sent
forth again, would come burdened with the black secret of his soul.
More than once- nay, more than a hundred times- he had actually
spoken! Spoken! But how? He had told his hearers that he was
altogether vile, a viler companion of the vilest, the worst of
sinners, an abomination, a thing of unimaginable iniquity; and that
the only wonder was, that they did not see his wretched body
shrivelled up before their eyes, by the burning wrath of the Almighty!
Could there be plainer speech than this? Would not the people start up
in their seats, by a simultaneous impulse, and tear him down out of
the pulpit which he defiled? Not so, indeed! They heard it all, and
did but reverence him the more. They little guessed what deadly
purport lurked in those self-condemning words. "The godly youth!" said
they among themselves. "The saint on earth! Alas, if he discern such
sinfulness in his own white soul, what horrid spectacle would he
behold in thine or mine!" The minister well knew- subtle, but
remorseless hypocrite that he was!- the light in which his vague
confession would be viewed. He had striven to put a cheat upon himself
by making the avowal of a guilty conscience, but had gained only one
other sin, and a self-acknowledged shame, without the momentary relief
of being self-deceived. He had spoken the very truth, and
transformed it into the veriest falsehood. And yet, by the
constitution of his nature, he loved the truth, and loathed the lie,
as few men ever did. Therefore, above all things else, he loathed
his miserable self!
His inward trouble drove him to practices more in accordance with
the old, corrupted faith of Rome, than with the better light of the
Church in which he had been born and bred. In Mr. Dimmesdale's
secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge.
Oftentimes, this Protestant and Puritan divine had plied it on his own
shoulders; laughing bitterly at himself the while, and smiting so much
the more pitilessly because of that bitter laugh. It was his custom,
too, as it has been that of many other pious Puritans, to fast- not,
however, like them, in order to purify the body and render it the
fitter medium of celestial illumination, but rigorously, and until his
knees trembled beneath him, as an act of penance. He kept vigils,
likewise, night after night, sometimes in utter darkness; sometimes
with a glimmering lamp; and sometimes, viewing his own face in a
looking-glass, by the most powerful light which he could throw upon
it. He thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured,
but could not purify, himself. In these lengthened vigils, his brain
often reeled, and visions seemed to flit before him; perhaps seen
doubtfully, and by a faint light of their own, in the remote dimness
of the chamber, or more vividly, and close beside him, within the
looking-glass. Now it was a herd of diabolic shapes, that grinned
and mocked at the pale minister, and beckoned him away with them;
now a group of shining angels, who flew upward heavily, as
sorrow-laden, but grew more ethereal as they rose. Now came the dead
friends of his youth, and his white-bearded father, with a
saint-like frown, and his mother, turning her face away as she
passed by. Ghost of a mother- thinnest fantasy of a mother- methinks
she might yet have thrown a pitying glance towards her son! And now,
through the chamber which these spectral thoughts had made so ghastly,
glided Hester Prynne, leading along little Pearl, in her scarlet garb,
and pointing her forefinger, first at the scarlet letter on her bosom,
and then at the clergyman's own breast.
None of these visions ever quite deluded him. At any moment, by an
effort of his will, he could discern substances through their misty
lack of substance, and convince himself that they were not solid in
their nature, like yonder table of carved oak, or that big, square,
leathern-bound and brazen-clasped volume of divinity. But, for all
that, they were, in one sense, the truest and most substantial
things which the poor minister now dealt with. It is the unspeakable
misery of a life so false as his, that it steals the pith and
substance out of whatever realities there are around us, and which
were meant by Heaven to be the spirit's joy and nutriment. To the
untrue man, the whole universe is false- it is impalpable- it shrinks
to nothing within his grasp. And he himself, in so far as he shows
himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to
exist. The only truth that continued to give Mr. Dimmesdale a real
existence on this earth, was the anguish in his inmost soul, and the
undissembled expression of it in his aspect. Had he once found power
to smile, and wear a face of gaiety, there would have been no such
man!
On one of those ugly nights, which we have faintly hinted at, but
forborne to picture forth, the minister started from his chair. A
new thought had struck him. There might be a moment's peace in it.
Attiring himself with as much care as if it had been for public
worship, and precisely in the same manner, he stole softly down the
staircase, undid the door, and issued forth.
XII.
THE MINISTER'S VIGIL.

WALKING in the shadow of a dream, as it were, and perhaps actually
under the influence of a species of somnambulism, Mr Dimmesdale
reached the spot, where, now so long since, Hester Prynne had lived
through her first hours of public ignominy. The same platform or
scaffold, black and weather-stained with the storm or sunshine of
seven long years, and foot-worn, too, with the tread of many
culprits who had since ascended it, remained standing beneath the
balcony of the meeting-house. The minister went up the steps.
It was an obscure night of early May. An unvaried pall of cloud
muffled the whole expanse of sky from zenith to horizon. If the same
multitude which had stood as eye-witnesses while Hester Prynne
sustained her punishment could now have been summoned forth, they
would have discerned no face above the platform, nor hardly the
outline of a human shape, in the dark grey of the midnight. But the
town was all asleep. There was no peril of discovery. The minister
might stand there, if it so pleased him, until morning should redden
in the east, without other risk than that the dank and chill night-air
would creep into his frame, and stiffen his joints with rheumatism,
and clog his throat with catarrh and cough; thereby defrauding the
expectant audience of to-morrow's prayer and sermon. No eye could
see him, save that ever-wakeful one which had seen him in his
closet, wielding the bloody scourge. Why, then, had he come hither?
Was it but the mockery of penitence? A mockery, indeed, but in which
his soul trifled with itself! A mockery at which angels blushed and
wept, while fiends rejoiced, with jeering laughter! He had been driven
hither by the impulse of that Remorse which dogged him everywhere, and
whose own sister and closely linked companion was that Cowardice which
invariably drew him back, with her tremulous gripe, just when the
other impulse had hurried him to the verge of a disclosure. Poor,
miserable man! what right had infirmity like his to burden itself with
crime? Crime is for the iron-nerved, who have their choice either to
endure it, or, if it press too hard, to exert their fierce and
savage strength for a good purpose, and fling it off at once! This
feeble and most sensitive of spirits could do neither, yet continually
did one thing or another, which intertwined, in the same
inextricable knot, the agony of heaven-defying guilt and vain
repentance.
And thus, while standing on the scaffold, in this vain show of
expiation, Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with a great horror of mind, as
if the universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast,
right over his heart. On that spot, in very truth, there was, and
there had long been, the gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain.
Without any effort of his will, or power to restrain himself, he
shrieked aloud; an outcry that went pealing through the night, and was
beaten back from one house to another, and reverberated from the hills
in the background; as if a company of devils, detecting so much misery
and terror in it, had made a plaything of the sound, and were bandying
it to and fro.
"It is done!" muttered the minister, covering his face with his
hands. "The whole town will awake, and hurry forth, and find me here!"
But it was not so. The shriek had perhaps sounded with a far
greater power, to his own startled ears, than it actually possessed.
The town did not awake; or, if it did, the drowsy slumberers mistook
the cry either for something frightful in a dream, or for the noise of
witches; whose voices, at that period, were often heard to pass over
the settlements or lonely cottages, as they rode with Satan through
the air. The clergyman, therefore, hearing no symptoms of disturbance,
uncovered his eyes and looked about him. At one of the chamber-windows
of Governor Bellingham's mansion, which stood at some distance, on the
line of another street, he beheld the appearance of the old magistrate
himself, with a lamp in his hand, a white night-cap on his head, and a
long white gown enveloping his figure. He looked like a ghost,
evoked unseasonably from the grave. The cry had evidently startled
him. At another window of the same house, moreover, appeared old
Mistress Hibbins, the Governor's sister, also with a lamp, which, even
thus far off, revealed the expression of her sour and discontented
face. She thrust forth her head from the lattice, and looked anxiously
upward. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, this venerable witch-lady had
heard Mr. Dimmesdale's outcry, and interpreted it, with its
multitudinous echoes and reverberations, as the clamour of the
fiends and night-hags, with whom she was well known to make excursions
into the forest.
Detecting the gleam of Governor Bellingham's lamp, the old lady
quickly extinguished her own, and vanished. Possibly, she went up
among the clouds. The minister saw nothing further of her motions. The
magistrate, after a wary observation of the darkness- into which,
nevertheless, he could see but little farther than he might into a
mill-stone- retired from the window.
The minister grew comparatively calm. His eyes, however, were soon
greeted by a little, glimmering light, which, at first a long way off,
was approaching up the street. It threw a gleam of recognition on here
a post, and there a garden-fence, and here a latticed windowpane,
and there a pump, with its full trough of water, and here, again, an
arched door of oak, with an iron knocker, and a rough log for the
door-step. The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale noted all these minute
particulars, even while firmly convinced that the doom of his
existence was stealing onward, in the footsteps which he now heard;
and that the gleam of the lantern would fall upon him, in a few
moments more, and reveal his long-hidden secret. As the light grew
nearer, he beheld, within its illuminated circle, his brother
clergyman- or, to speak more accurately, his professional father, as
well as highly valued friend- the Reverend Mr. Wilson; who, as Mr.
Dimmesdale now conjectured, had been praying at the bedside of some
dying man. And so he had. The good old minister came freshly from
the death-chamber of Governor Winthrop, who had passed from earth to
heaven within that very hour. And now, surrounded, like the saint-like
personages of olden times, with a radiant halo, that glorified him
amid this gloomy night of sin- as if the departed Governor had left
him an inheritance of his glory, or as if he had caught upon himself
the distant shine of the celestial city, while looking thitherward
to see the triumphant pilgrim pass within its gates- now, in short,
good Father Wilson was moving homeward, aiding his footsteps with a
lighted lantern! The glimmer of this luminary suggested the above
conceits to Mr. Dimmesdale, who smiled- nay, almost laughed at them-
and then wondered if he were going mad.
As the Reverend Mr. Wilson passed beside the scaffold, closely
muffling his Geneva cloak about him with one arm, and holding the
lantern before his breast with the other, the minister could hardly
restrain himself from speaking.
"A good evening to you, venerable Father Wilson! Come up hither, I
pray you, and pass a pleasant hour with me!"
Good heavens! Had Mr. Dimmesdale actually spoken? For one instant,
he believed that these words had passed his lips. But they were
uttered only within his imagination. The venerable Father Wilson
continued to step slowly onward, looking carefully at the muddy
pathway before his feet, and never once turning his head toward the
guilty platform. When the light of the glimmering lantern had faded
quite away, the minister discovered, by the faintness which came
over him, that the last few moments had been a crisis of terrible
anxiety; although his mind had made an involuntary effort to relieve
itself by a kind of lurid playfulness.
Shortly afterwards, the like grisly sense of the humorous again
stole in among the solemn phantoms of his thought. He felt his limbs
growing stiff with the unaccustomed chilliness of the night, and
doubted whether he should be able to descend the steps of the
scaffold. Morning would break, and find him there. The neighbourhood
would begin to rouse itself. The earliest riser, coming forth in the
dim twilight, would perceive a vaguely defined figure aloft on the
place of shame; and, half crazed betwixt alarm and curiosity, would
go, knocking from door to door, summoning all the people to behold the
ghost- as he needs must think it- of some defunct transgressor. A
dusky tumult would flap its wings from one house to another. Then- the
morning light still waxing stronger- old patriarchs would rise up in
great haste, each in his flannel gown, and matronly dames, without
pausing to put off their night-gear. The whole tribe of decorous
personages, who had never heretofore been seen with a single hair of
their heads awry, would start into public view, with the disorder of a
nightmare in their aspects. Old Governor Bellingham would come
grimly forth, with his King James ruff fastened askew; and Mistress
Hibbins, with some twigs of the forest clinging to her skirts, and
looking sourer than ever, as having hardly got a wink of sleep after
her night ride; and good Father Wilson, too, after spending half the
night at a death-bed, and liking ill to be disturbed, thus early,
out of his dreams about the glorified saints. Hither, likewise,
would come the elders and deacons of Mr Dimmesdale's church, and the
young virgins who so idolised their minister, and had made a shrine
for him in their white bosoms; which now, by-the-bye, in their hurry
and confusion, they would scantily have given themselves time to cover
with their kerchiefs. All people, in a word, would come stumbling over
their thresholds, and turning up their amazed and horror-stricken
visages around the scaffold. Whom would they discern there, with the
red eastern light upon his brow? Whom, but the Reverend Arthur
Dimmesdale, half frozen to death, overwhelmed with shame, and standing
where Hester Prynne had stood!
Carried away by the grotesque horror of this picture, the
minister, unawares, and to his own infinite alarm, burst into a
great peal of laughter. It was immediately responded to by a light,
airy, childish laugh, in which, with a thrill of the heart- but he
knew not whether of exquisite pain, or pleasure as acute- he
recognised the tones of little Pearl.
"Pearl! Little Pearl!" cried he, after a moment's pause; then,
suppressing his voice- "Hester! Hester Prynne! Are you there?"
"Yes; it is Hester Prynne!" she replied, in a tone of surprise;
and the minister heard her footsteps approaching from the sidewalk,
along which she had been passing. "It is I, and my little Pearl."
"Whence come you, Hester?" asked the minister. "What sent you
hither?"
"I have been watching at a death-bed," answered Hester Prynne- "at
Governor Winthrop's death-bed, and have taken his measure for a
robe, and am now going homeward to my dwelling."
"Come up hither, Hester, thou and little Pearl," said the Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale. "Ye have both been here before, but I was not with
you. Come up hither once again, and we will stand all three together!"
She silently ascended the steps, and stood on the platform,
holding little Pearl by the hand. The minister felt for the child's
other hand, and took it. The moment that he did so, there came what
seemed a tumultuous rush of new life, other life than his own, pouring
like a torrent into his heart, and hurrying through all his veins,
as if the mother and the child were communicating their vital warmth
to his half-torpid system. The three formed an electric chain.
"Minister!" whispered little Pearl.
"What wouldst thou say, child?" asked Mr. Dimmesdale.
"Wilt thou stand here with mother and me, to-morrow noontide?"
inquired Pearl.
"Nay; not so, my little Pearl," answered the minister; for, with the
new energy of the moment, all the dread of public exposure, that had
so long been the anguish of his life, had returned upon him; and he
was already trembling at the conjunction in which- with a strange joy,
nevertheless- he now found himself. "Not so, my child. I shall,
indeed, stand with thy mother and thee one other day, but not
to-morrow."
Pearl laughed, and attempted to pull away her hand. But the minister
held it fast.
"A moment longer, my child!" said he.
"But wilt thou promise," asked Pearl, "to take my hand, and mother's
hand, to-morrow noontide?"
"Not then, Pearl," said the minister, "but another time."
"And what other time?" persisted the child.
"At the great judgment day," whispered the minister- and,
strangely enough, the sense that he was a professional teacher of
the truth impelled him to answer the child so. "Then, and there,
before the judgment-seat, thy mother, and thou, and I, must stand
together. But the daylight of this world shall not see our meeting!"
Pearl laughed again.
But, before Mr. Dimmesdale had done speaking, a light gleamed far
and wide over all the muffled sky. It was doubtless caused by one of
those meteors which the night-watcher may so often observe burning out
to waste, in the vacant regions of the atmosphere. So powerful was its
radiance, that it thoroughly illuminated the dense medium of cloud
betwixt the sky and earth. The great vault brightened, like the dome
of an immense lamp. It showed the familiar scene of the street, with
the distinctness of mid-day, but also with the awfulness that is
always imparted to familiar objects by an unaccustomed light. The
wooden houses, with their jutting stories and quaint gable-peaks;
the door-steps and thresholds, with the early grass springing up about
them; the garden-plots, black with freshly turned earth; the
wheel-track, little worn, and, even in the market-place, margined with
green on either side all- were visible, but with a singularity of
aspect that seemed to give another moral interpretation to the
things of this world than they had ever borne before. And there
stood the minister, with his hand over his heart; and Hester Prynne,
with the embroidered letter glimmering on her bosom; and little Pearl,
herself a symbol, and the connecting link between those two. They
stood in the noon of that strange and solemn splendour, as if it
were the light that is to reveal all secrets, and the daybreak that
shall unite all who belong to one another.
There was witchcraft in little Pearl's eyes; and her face, as she
glanced upward at the minister, wore that naughty smile which made its
expression frequently so elvish. She withdrew her hand from Mr.
Dimmesdale's, and pointed across the street. But he clasped both his
hands over his breast, and cast his eyes towards the zenith.
Nothing was more common, in those days, than to interpret all
meteoric appearances, and other natural phenomena, that occurred
with less regularity than the rise and set of sun and moon, as so many
revelations from a supernatural source. Thus, a blazing spear, a sword
of flame, a bow, or a sheaf of arrows, seen in the midnight sky,
prefigured Indian warfare. Pestilence was known to have been foreboded
by a shower of crimson light. We doubt whether any marked event, for
good or evil, ever befell New England, from its settlement down to
Revolutionary times, of which the inhabitants had not been
previously warned by some spectacle of this nature. Not seldom, it had
been seen by multitudes. Oftener, however, its credibility rested on
the faith of some lonely eye-witness, who beheld the wonder through
the coloured, magnifying, and distorting medium of his imagination,
and shaped it more distinctly in his afterthought. It was, indeed, a
majestic idea, that the destiny of nations should be revealed, in
these awful hieroglyphics, on the cope of heaven. A scroll so wide
might not be deemed too expansive for Providence to write a people's
doom upon. The belief was a favourite one with our forefathers, as
betokening that their infant commonwealth was under a celestial
guardianship of peculiar intimacy and strictness. But what shall we
say, when an individual discovers a revelation, addressed to himself
alone, on the same vast sheet of record! In such a case, it could only
be the symptom of a highly disordered mental state, when a man,
rendered morbidly self-contemplative by long, intense, and secret
pain, had extended his egotism over the whole expanse of nature, until
the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting page for his
soul's history and fate!
We impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own eye and
heart, that the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there
the appearance of an immense letter- the letter A- marked out in lines
of dull red light. Not but the meteor may have shown itself at that
point, burning duskily through a veil of cloud; but with no such shape
as his guilty imagination gave it; or, at least, with so little
definiteness, that another's guilt might have seen another symbol in
it.
There was a singular circumstance that characterised Mr.
Dimmesdale's psychological state at this moment. All the time that
he gazed upward to the zenith, he was, nevertheless, perfectly aware
that little Pearl was pointing her finger towards old Roger
Chillingworth, who stood at no great distance from the scaffold. The
minister appeared to see him, with the same glance that discerned
the miraculous letter. To his features, as to all other objects, the
meteoric light imparted a new expression; or it might well be that the
physician was not careful then, as at all other times, to hide the
malevolence with which he looked upon his victim. Certainly, if the
meteor kindled up the sky, and disclosed the earth, with an
awfulness that admonished Hester Prynne and the clergyman of the day
of judgment, then might Roger Chillingworth have passed with them
for the arch-fiend, standing there with a smile and scowl, to claim
his own. So vivid was the expression, or so intense the minister's
perception of it, that it seemed still to remain painted on the
darkness, after the meteor had vanished, with an effect as if the
street and all things else were at once annihilated.
"Who is that man, Hester?" gasped Mr. Dimmesdale, overcome with
terror. "I shiver at him! Dost thou know the man? I hate him, Hester!"
She remembered her oath, and was silent.
"I tell thee, my soul shivers at him!" muttered the minister
again. "Who is he? Who is he? Canst thou do nothing for me? I have a
nameless horror of the man!"
"Minister," said little Pearl, "I can tell thee who he is!"
"Quickly, then, child!" said the minister, bending his ear close
to her lips. "Quickly!- and as low as thou canst whisper."
Pearl mumbled something into his ear, that sounded, indeed, like
human language, but was only such gibberish as children may be heard
amusing themselves with, by the hour together. At all events, if it
involved any secret information in regard to old Roger
Chillingworth, it was in a tongue unknown to the erudite clergyman,
and did but increase the bewilderment of his mind. The elvish child
then laughed aloud.
"Dost thou mock me now?" said the minister.
"Thou wast not bold!- thou wast not true!" answered the child. "Thou
wouldst not promise to take my hand, and mother's hand, to-morrow
noontide!"
"Worthy sir," answered the physician, who had now advanced to the
foot of the platform. "Pious Master Dimmesdale! can this be you? Well,
well, indeed! We men of study, whose heads are in our books, have need
to be straitly looked after! We dream in our waking moments, and
walk in our sleep. Come, good sir, and my dear friend, I pray you, let
me lead you home!"
"How knewest thou that I was here?" asked the minister fearfully.
"Verily, and in good faith," answered Roger Chillingworth, "I knew
nothing of the matter. I had spent the better part of the night at the
bedside of the worshipful Governor Winthrop, doing what my poor
skill might to give him ease. He going home to a better world, I,
likewise, was on my way homeward, when this strange light shone out.
Come with me, I beseech you, reverend sir; else you will be poorly
able to do Sabbath duty to-morrow. Aha! see now, how they trouble
the brain- these books!- these books! You should study less, good sir,
and take a little pastime; or these night-whimseys will grow upon
you."
"I will go home with you," said Mr. Dimmesdale.
With a chill despondency, like one awaking, all nerveless, from an
ugly dream, be yielded himself to the physician, and was led away.
The next day, however, being the Sabbath, he preached a discourse
which was held to be the richest and most powerful, and the most
replete with heavenly influences, that had ever proceeded from his
lips. Souls, it is said, more souls than one, were brought to the
truth by the efficacy of that sermon, and vowed within themselves to
cherish a holy gratitude towards Mr. Dimmesdale throughout the long
hereafter. But, as he came down the pulpit steps, the grey-bearded
sexton met him, holding up a black glove, which the minister
recognised as his own.
"It was found," said the sexton, "this morning, on the scaffold
where evil-doers are set up to public shame. Satan dropped it there, I
take it, intending a scurrilous jest against your reverence. But,
indeed, he was blind and foolish, as he ever and always is. A pure
hand needs no glove to cover it!"
"Thank you, my good friend," said the minister gravely, but startled
at heart; for, so confused was his remembrance, that he had almost
brought himself to look at the events of the past night as
visionary. "Yes, it seems to be my glove, indeed!"
"And, since Satan saw fit to steal it, your reverence must needs
handle him without gloves, henceforward," remarked the old sexton,
grimly smiling. "But did your reverence hear of the portent that was
seen last night?- a great red letter in the sky- the letter A, which
we interpret to stand for Angel. For, as our good Governor Winthrop
was made an angel this past night, it was doubtless held fit that
there should be some notice thereof!"
"No," answered the minister, "I had not heard of it."
XIII.
ANOTHER VIEW OF HESTER.

IN her late singular interview with Mr. Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne
was shocked at the condition to which she found the clergyman reduced.
His nerve seemed absolutely destroyed. His moral force was abased into
more than childish weakness. It grovelled helpless on the ground, even
while his intellectual faculties retained their pristine strength,
or had perhaps acquired a morbid energy, which disease only could have
given them. With her knowledge of a train of circumstances hidden from
all others, she could readily infer that, besides the legitimate
action of his own conscience, a terrible machinery had been brought to
bear, and was still operating, on Mr. Dimmesdale's well-being and
repose. Knowing what this poor fallen man had once been, her whole
soul was moved by the shuddering terror with which he had appealed
to her- the outcast woman- for support against his instinctively
discovered enemy. She decided, moreover, that he had a right to her
utmost aid. Little accustomed, in her long seclusion from society,
to measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard external to
herself, Hester saw- or seemed to see- that there lay a
responsibility upon her, in reference to the clergyman, which she owed
to no other, nor to the whole world besides. The links that united her
to the rest of human kind- links of flowers, or silk, or gold, or
whatever the material- had all been broken. Here was the iron link
of mutual crime, which neither he nor she could break. Like all
other ties, it brought along with it its obligations.
Hester Prynne did not now occupy precisely the same position in
which we beheld her during the earlier periods of her ignominy.
Years had come and gone. Pearl was now seven years old. Her mother,
with the scarlet letter on her breast, glittering in its fantastic
embroidery, had long been a familiar object to the townspeople. As
is apt to be the case when a person stands out in any prominence
before the community, and, at the same time, interferes neither with
public nor individual interests and convenience, a species of
general regard had ultimately grown up in reference to Hester
Prynne. It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its
selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates.
Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to
love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation
of the original feeling of hostility. In this matter of Hester Prynne,
there was neither irritation nor irksomeness. She never battled with
the public, but submitted, uncomplainingly, to its worst usage; she
made no claim upon it, in requital for what she suffered; she did
not weigh upon its sympathies. Then, also, the blameless purity of her
life during all these years in which she had been set apart to infamy,
was reckoned largely in her favour. With nothing now to lose, in the
sight of mankind, and with no hope, and seemingly no wish, of
gaining anything, it could only be a genuine regard for virtue that
had brought back the poor wanderer to its paths.
It was perceived, too, that while Hester never put forward even
the humblest title to share in the world's privileges- further than to
breathe the common air, and earn daily bread for little Pearl and
herself by the faithful labour of her hands- she was quick to
acknowledge her sisterhood with the race of man, whenever benefits
were to be conferred. None so ready as she to give of her little
substance to every demand of poverty; even though the bitter-hearted
pauper threw back a gibe in requital of the food brought regularly
to his door, or the garments wrought for him by the fingers that could
have embroidered a monarch's robe. None so self-devoted as Hester,
when pestilence stalked through the town. In all seasons of
calamity, indeed, whether general or of individuals, the outcast of
society at once found her place. She came, not as a guest, but as a
rightful inmate into the household that was darkened by trouble; as if
its gloomy twilight were a medium in which she was entitled to hold
intercourse with her fellow-creatures. There glimmered the embroidered
letter, with comfort in its unearthly ray. Elsewhere the token of sin,
it was the taper of the sick-chamber. It had even thrown its gleam, in
the sufferer's hard extremity, across the verge of time. It had
shown him where to set his foot, while the light of earth was fast
becoming dim, and ere the light of futurity could reach him. In such
emergencies, Hester's nature showed itself warm and rich; a
well-spring of human tenderness, unfailing to every real demand, and
inexhaustible by the largest. Her breast, with its badge of shame, was
but the softer pillow for the head that needed one. She was
self-ordained a Sister of Mercy; or, we may rather say, the world's
heavy hand had so ordained her, when neither the world nor she
looked forward to this result. The letter was the symbol of her
calling. Such helpfulness was found in her- so much power to do, and
power to sympathise- that many people refused to interpret the scarlet
A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so
strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength.
It was only the darkened house that could contain her. When sunshine
came again, she was not there. Her shadow had faded across the
threshold. The helpful inmate had departed, without one backward
glance to gather up the meed of gratitude, if any were in the hearts
of those whom she had served so zealously. Meeting them in the street,
she never raised her head to receive their greeting. If they were
resolute to accost her, she laid her finger on the scarlet letter
and passed on. This might be pride, but was so like humility, that
it produced all the softening influence of the latter quality on the
public mind. The public is despotic in its temper; it is capable of
denying common justice, when too strenuously demanded as a right;
but quite as frequently it awards more than justice when the appeal is
made, as despots love to have it made, entirely to its generosity.
Interpreting Hester Prynne's deportment as an appeal of this nature,
society was inclined to show its former victim a more benign
countenance than she cared to be favoured with, or, perchance, than
she deserved.
The rulers, and the wise and learned men of the community, were
longer in acknowledging the influence of Hester's good qualities
than the people. The prejudices which they shared in common with the
latter were fortified in themselves by an iron framework of reasoning,
that made it a far tougher labour to expel them. Day by day,
nevertheless, their sour and rigid wrinkles were relaxing into
something which, in the due course of years, might grow to be an
expression of almost benevolence. Thus it was with the men of rank, on
whom their eminent position imposed the guardianship of the public
morals. Individuals in private life, meanwhile, had quite forgiven
Hester Prynne for her frailty; nay, more, they had begun to look
upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin, for which
she had borne so long and dreary a penance, but of her many good deeds
since. "Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge?" they
would say to strangers. "It is our Hester- the town's own Hester-
who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable
to the afflicted!" Then, it is true, the propensity of human nature to
tell the very worst of itself, when embodied in the person of another,
would constrain them to whisper the black scandal of bygone years.
It was none the less a fact, however, that, in the eyes of the very
men who spoke thus, the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross
on a nun's bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness,
which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril. Had she fallen
among thieves, it would have kept her safe. It was reported, and
believed by many, that an Indian had drawn his arrow against the
badge, and that the missile struck it, but fell harmless to the
ground.
The effect of the symbol- or, rather, of the position in respect
to society that was indicated by it- on the mind of Hester Prynne
herself, was powerful and peculiar. All the light and graceful foliage
of her character had been withered up by this red-hot brand, and had
long ago fallen away, leaving a bare and harsh outline, which might
have been repulsive, had she possessed friends or companions to be
repelled by it. Even the attractiveness of her person had undergone
a similar change. It might be partly owing to the studied austerity of
her dress, and partly to the lack of demonstration in her manners.
It was a sad transformation, too, that her rich and luxuriant hair had
either been cut off, or was so completely hidden by a cap, that not
a shining lock of it ever once gushed into the sunshine. It was due in
part to all these causes, but still more to something else, that there
seemed to be no longer anything in Hester's face for Love to dwell
upon; nothing in Hester's form, though majestic and statue-like,
that Passion would ever dream of clasping in its embrace; nothing in
Hester's bosom, to make it ever again the pillow of Affection. Some
attribute had departed from her, the permanence of which had been
essential to keep her a woman. Such is frequently the fate, and such
the stern development, of the feminine character and person, when
the woman has encountered, and lived through, an experience of
peculiar severity. If she be all tenderness, she will die. If she
survive, the tenderness will either be crushed out of her, or- and the
outward semblance is the same- crushed so deeply into her heart that
it can never show itself more. The latter is perhaps the truest
theory. She who has once been woman, and ceased to be so, might at any
moment become a woman again, if there were only the magic touch to
effect the transfiguration. We shall see whether Hester Prynne were
afterwards so touched, and so transfigured.
Much of the marble coldness of Hester's impression was to be
attributed to the circumstance, that her life had turned, in a great
measure, from passion and feeling, to thought. Standing alone in the
world- alone, as to any dependence on society, and with little Pearl
to be guided and protected- alone, and hopeless of retrieving her
position, even had she not scorned to consider it desirable- she
cast away the fragments of a broken chain. The world's law was no
law for her mind. It was an age in which the human intellect, newly
emancipated, had taken a more active and a wider range than for many
centuries before. Men of the sword had overthrown nobles and kings.
Men bolder than these had overthrown and rearranged- not actually, but
within the sphere of theory, which was their most real abode- the
whole system of ancient prejudice, wherewith was linked much of
ancient principle. Hester Prynne imbibed this spirit. She assumed a
freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the
Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known it, would have
held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatised by the scarlet
letter. In her lonesome cottage by the seashore, thoughts visited her,
such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England; shadowy
guests, that would have been as perilous as demons to their
entertainer could they have been seen so much as knocking at her door.
It is remarkable, that persons who speculate the most boldly often
conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations
of society. The thought suffices them, without investing itself in the
flesh and blood of action. So it seemed to be with Hester. Yet, had
little Pearl never come to her from the spiritual world, it might have
been far otherwise. Then, she might have come down to us in history,
hand in hand with Ann Hutchinson, as the foundress of a religious
sect. She might, in one of her phases, have been a prophetess. She
might, and not improbably would, have suffered death from the stern
tribunals of the period, for attempting to undermine the foundations
of the Puritan establishment. But, in the education of her child,
the mother's enthusiasm of thought had something to wreak itself upon.
Providence, in the person of this little girl, had assigned to
Hester's charge the germ and blossom of womanhood, to be cherished and
developed amid a host of difficulties. Everything was against her. The
world was hostile. The child's own nature had something wrong in it,
which continually betokened that she had been born amiss- the
effluence of her mother's lawless passion- and often impelled Hester
to ask, in bitterness of heart, whether it were for ill or good that
the poor little creature had been born at all.
Indeed, the same dark question often rose into her mind, with
reference to the whole race of womanhood. Was existence worth
accepting, even to the happiest among them? As concerned her own
individual existence, she had long ago decided in the negative, and
dismissed the point as settled. A tendency to speculation, though it
may keep woman quiet, as it does man, yet makes her sad. She discerns,
it may be, such a hopeless task before her. As a first step, the whole
system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew. Then, the
very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which
has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman
can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position.
Finally, all other difficulties being obviated, woman cannot take
advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself shall have
undergone a still mightier change; in which, perhaps, the ethereal
essence, wherein she has her truest life, will be found to have
evaporated. A woman never overcomes these problems by any exercise
of thought. They are not to be solved, or only in one way. If her
heart chance to come uppermost, they vanish. Thus, Hester Prynne,
whose heart had lost its regular and healthy throb, wandered without a
clew in the dark labyrinth of mind; now turned aside by an
insurmountable precipice; now starting back from a deep chasm. There
was wild and ghastly scenery all around her, and a home and comfort
nowhere. At times, a fearful doubt strove to possess her soul, whether
it were not better to send Pearl at once to heaven, and go herself
to such futurity as Eternal Justice should provide.
The scarlet letter had not done its office.
Now, however, her interview with the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, on the
night of his vigil, had given her a new theme of reflection, and
held up to her an object that appeared worthy of any exertion and
sacrifice for its attainment. She had witnessed the intense misery
beneath which the minister struggled, or, to speak more accurately,
had ceased to struggle. She saw that he stood on the verge of
lunacy, if he had not already stepped across it. It was impossible
to doubt, that, whatever painful efficacy there might be in the secret
sting of remorse, a deadlier venom had been infused into it by the
hand that proffered relief. A secret enemy had been continually by his
side, under the semblance of a friend and helper, and had availed
himself of the opportunities thus afforded for tampering with the
delicate springs of Mr. Dimmesdale's nature. Hester could not but
ask herself, whether there had not originally been a defect of
truth, courage, and loyalty, on her own part, in allowing the minister
to be thrown into a position where so much evil was to be foreboded,
and nothing auspicious to be hoped. Her only justification lay in
the fact, that she had been able to discern no method of rescuing
him from a blacker ruin than had overwhelmed herself, except by
acquiescing in Roger Chillingworth's scheme of disguise. Under that
impulse, she had made her choice, and had chosen, as it now
appeared, the more wretched alternative of the two. She determined
to redeem her error, so far as it might yet be possible.
Strengthened by years of hard and solemn trial, she felt herself no
longer so inadequate to cope with Roger Chillingworth as on that
night, abased by sin, and half maddened by the ignominy that was still
new, when they had talked together in the prison-chamber. She had
climbed her way, since then, to a higher point. The old man, on the
other hand, had brought himself nearer to her level, or perhaps
below it, by the revenge which he had stooped for.
In fine, Hester Prynne resolved to meet her former husband, and do
what might be in her power for the rescue of the victim on whom he had
so evidently set his gripe. The occasion was not long to seek. One
afternoon, walking with Pearl in a retired part of the peninsula,
she beheld the old physician, with a basket on one arm, and a staff in
the other hand, stooping along the ground, in quest of roots and herbs
to concoct his medicines withal.
XIV.
HESTER AND THE PHYSICIAN.

HESTER bade little Pearl run down to the margin of the water, and
play with the shells and tangled seaweed, until she should have talked
awhile with yonder gatherer of herbs. So the child flew away like a
bird, and, making bare her small white feet, went pattering along
the moist margin of the sea. Here and there she came to a full stop,
and peeped curiously into a pool, left by the retiring tide as a
mirror for Pearl to see her face in. Forth peeped at her, out of the
pool, with dark, glistening curls around her head, and an elf-smile in
her eyes, the image of a little maid, whom Pearl, having no other
playmate, invited to take her hand, and run a race with her. But the
visionary little maid, on her part, beckoned likewise, as if to say,
"This is a better place! Come thou into the pool!" And Pearl, stepping
in, mid-leg deep, beheld her own white feet at the bottom; while,
out of a still lower depth, came the gleam of a kind of fragmentary
smile, floating to and fro in the agitated water.
Meanwhile, her mother had accosted the physician.
"I would speak a word with you," said she- "a word that concerns
us much."
"Aha! and is it Mistress Hester that has a word for old Roger
Chillingworth?" answered he, raising himself from his stooping
posture. "With all my heart! Why, mistress, I hear good tidings of
you, on all hands! No longer ago than yester-eve, a magistrate, a wise
and godly man, was discoursing of your affairs, Mistress Hester, and
whispered me that there had been question concerning you in the
council. It was debated whether or no, with safety to the common weal,
yonder scarlet letter might be taken off your bosom. On my life,
Hester, I made my entreaty to the worshipful magistrate that it
might be done forthwith!"
"It lies not in the pleasure of the magistrates to take off this
badge." calmly replied Hester. "Were I worthy to be quit of it, it
would fall away of its own nature, or be transformed into something
that should speak a different purport."
"Nay, then, wear it, if it suit you better," rejoined he. "A woman
must needs follow her own fancy touching the adornment of her
person. The letter is gaily embroidered, and shows right bravely on
your bosom!"
All this while, Hester had been looking steadily at the old man, and
was shocked, as well as wonder-smitten, to discern what a change had
been wrought upon him within the past seven years. It was not so
much that he had grown older; for though the traces of advancing
life were visible, he bore his age well, and seemed to retain a wiry
vigour and alertness. But the former aspect of an intellectual and
studious man, calm and quiet, which was what she best remembered in
him, had altogether vanished, and been succeeded by an eager,
searching, almost fierce, yet carefully guarded look. It seemed to
be his wish and purpose to mask this expression with a smile; but
the latter played him false, and flickered over his visage so
derisively, that the spectator could see his blackness all the
better for it. Ever and anon, too, there came a glare of red light out
of his eyes; as if the old man's soul were on fire, and kept on
smouldering duskily within his breast, until, by some casual puff of
passion, it was blown into a momentary flame. This he repressed, as
speedily as possible, and strove to look as if nothing of the kind had
happened.
In a word, old Roger Chillingworth was a striking evidence of
man's faculty of transforming himself into a devil, if he will only,
for a reasonable space of time, undertake a devil's office. This
unhappy person had effected such a transformation, by devoting
himself, for seven years, to the constant analysis of a heart full
of torture, and deriving his enjoyment thence, and adding fuel to
those fiery tortures which he analysed and gloated over.
The scarlet letter burned on Hester Prynne's bosom. Here was another
ruin, the responsibility of which came partly home to her.
"What see you in my face," asked the physician, "that you look at it
so earnestly?"
"Something that would make me weep, if there were any tears bitter
enough for it," answered she. "But let it pass! It is of yonder
miserable man that I would speak."
"And what of him?" cried Roger Chillingworth eagerly, as if he loved
the topic, and were glad of an opportunity to discuss it with the only
person of whom he could make a confidant. "Not to hide the truth,
Mistress Hester, my thoughts happen just now to be busy with the
gentleman. So speak freely; and I will make answer."
"When we last spake together," said Hester, "now seven years ago, it
was your pleasure to extort a promise of secrecy, as touching the
former relation betwixt yourself and me. As the life and good fame
of yonder man were in your hands, there seemed no choice to me, save
to be silent, in accordance with your behest. Yet it was not without
heavy misgivings that I thus bound myself; for, having cast off all
duty towards other human beings, there remained a duty towards him;
and something whispered me that I was betraying it, in pledging myself
to keep your counsel. Since that day, no man is so near to him as you.
You tread behind his every footstep. You are beside him, sleeping
and waking. You search his thoughts. You burrow and rankle in his
heart! Your clutch is on his life, and you cause him to die daily a
living death; and still he knows you not. In permitting this, I have
surely acted a false part by the only man to whom the power was left
me to be true!"
"What choice had you?" asked Roger Chillingworth. "My finger,
pointed at this man, would have hurled him from his pulpit into a
dungeon- thence, peradventure, to the gallows!"
"It had been better so!" said Hester Prynne.
"What evil have I done the man?" asked Roger Chillingworth again. "I
tell thee, Hester Prynne, the richest fee that ever physician earned
from monarch could not have bought such care as I have wasted on
this miserable priest! But for my aid, his life would have burned away
in torments, within the first two years after the perpetration of
his crime and thine. For, Hester, his spirit lacked the strength
that could have borne up, as thine has, beneath a burden like thy
scarlet letter. Oh, I could reveal a goodly secret! But enough! What
art can do, I have exhausted on him. That he now breathes, and
creeps upon earth, is owing all to me!"
"Better he had died at once!" said Hester Prynne.
"Yea, woman, thou sayest truly!" cried old Roger Chillingworth,
letting the lurid fire of his heart blaze out before her eyes. "Better
had he died at once! Never did mortal suffer what this man has
suffered. And all, all, in the sight of his worst enemy! He has been
conscious of me. He has felt an influence dwelling always upon him
like a curse. He knew, by some spiritual sense- for the Creator never
made another being so sensitive as this- he knew that no friendly hand
was pulling at his heart-strings, and that an eye was looking
curiously into him, which sought only evil, and found it. But he
knew not that the eye and hand were mine! With the superstition common
to his brotherhood, he fancied himself given over to a fiend, to be
tortured with frightful dreams, and desperate thoughts, the sting of
remorse, and despair of pardon; as a foretaste of what awaits him
beyond the grave. But it was the constant shadow of my presence!-
the closest propinquity of the man whom he had most vilely wronged!-
and who had grown to exist only by this perpetual poison of the direst
revenge! Yea, indeed!- he did not err!- there was a fiend at his
elbow! A mortal man, with once a human heart, has become a fiend for
his especial torment!"
The unfortunate physician, while uttering these words, lifted his
hands with a look of horror, as if he had beheld some frightful shape,
which he could not recognise, usurping the place of his own image in a
glass. It was one of those moments- which sometimes occur only at
the interval of years- when a man's moral aspect is faithfully
revealed to his mind's eye. Not improbably, he had never before viewed
himself as he did now.
"Hast thou not tortured him enough?" said Hester, noticing the old
man's look. "Has he not paid thee all?"
"No!- no!- he has but increased the debt!" answered the physician;
and as he proceeded, his manner lost its fiercer characteristics,
and subsided into gloom. "Dost thou remember me, Hester, as I was nine
years agone? Even then, I was in the autumn of my days, nor was it the
early autumn. But all my life had been made up of earnest, studious,
thoughtful, quiet years, bestowed faithfully for the increase of
mine own knowledge, and faithfully, too, though this latter object was
but casual to the other- faithfully for the advancement of human
welfare. No life had been more peaceful and innocent than mine; few
lives so rich with benefits conferred. Dost thou remember me? Was I
not, though you might deem me cold, nevertheless a man thoughtful
for others, craving little for himself- kind, true, just, and of
constant, if not warm affections? Was I not all this?"
"All this, and more," said Hester.
"And what am I now?" demanded he, looking into her face, and
permitting the whole evil within him to be written on his features. "I
have already told thee what I am! A fiend! Who made me so?"
"It was myself!" cried Hester, shuddering. "It was I, not less
than he. Why hast thou not avenged thyself on me?"
"I have left thee to the scarlet letter," replied Roger
Chillingworth. "If that have not avenged me, I can do no more!"
He laid his finger on it, with a smile.
"It has avenged thee!" answered Hester Prynne.
"I judged no less," said the physician. "And now, what wouldst
thou with me touching this man?"
"I must reveal the secret," answered Hester firmly. "He must discern
thee in thy true character. What may be the result, I know not. But
this long debt of confidence, due from me to him, whose bane and
ruin I have been, shall at length be paid. So far as concerns the
overthrow or preservation of his fair fame and his earthly state,
and perchance his life, he is in thy hands. Nor do I- whom the scarlet
letter has disciplined to truth, though it be the truth of red-hot
iron, entering into the soul- nor do I perceive such advantage in
his living any longer a life of ghastly emptiness, that I shall
stoop to implore thy mercy. Do with him as thou wilt! There is no good
for him- no good for me- no good for thee! There is no good for little
Pearl! There is no path to guide us out of this dismal maze."
"Woman, I could well-nigh pity thee!" said Roger Chillingworth,
unable to restrain a thrill of admiration too; for there was a quality
almost majestic in the despair which she expressed. "Thou hadst
great elements. Peradventure, hadst thou met earlier with a better
love than mine, this evil had not been. I pity thee, for the good that
has been wasted in thy nature!"
"And I thee," answered Hester Prynne, "for the hatred that has
transformed a wise and just man to a fiend! Wilt thou yet purge it out
of thee, and be once more human? If not for his sake, then doubly
for thine own! Forgive, and leave his further retribution to the Power
that claims it! I said, but now, that there could be no good event for
him, or thee, or me, who are here wandering together in this gloomy
maze of evil, and stumbling, at every step, over the guilt wherewith
we have strewn our path. It is not so! There might be good for thee,
and thee alone, since thou hast been deeply wronged, and hast it at
thy will to pardon. Wilt thou give up that only privilege? Wilt thou
reject that priceless benefit?"
"Peace, Hester, peace!" replied the old man, with gloomy
sternness. "It is not granted me to pardon. I have no such power as
thou tellest me of. My old faith, long forgotten, comes back to me,
and explains all that we do, and all we suffer. By thy first step
awry, thou didst plant the germ of evil; but since that moment, it has
all been a dark necessity. Ye that have wronged me are not sinful,
save in a kind of typical illusion; neither am I fiend-like, who
have snatched a fiend's office from his hands. It is our fate. Let the
black flower blossom as it may! Now go thy ways, and deal as thou wilt
with yonder man."
He waved his hand and betook himself again to his employment of
gathering herbs.
XV.
HESTER AND PEARL.

SO Roger Chillingworth- a deformed old figure, with a face that
haunted men's memories longer than they liked- took leave of Hester
Prynne, and went stooping away along the earth. He gathered here and
there an herb, or grubbed up a root, and put it into the basket on his
arm. His grey beard almost touched the ground, as he crept onward.
Hester gazed after him a little while, looking with a half fantastic
curiosity to see whether the tender grass of early spring would not be
blighted beneath him, and show the wavering track of his footsteps,
sere and brown, across its cheerful verdure. She wondered what sort of
herbs they were, which the old man was so sedulous to gather. Would
not the earth, quickened to an evil purpose by the sympathy of his
eye, greet him with poisonous shrubs, of species hitherto unknown,
that would start up under his fingers? Or might it suffice him, that
every wholesome growth should be converted into something
deleterious and malignant at his touch? Did the sun, which shone so
brightly everywhere else, really fall upon him? Or was there, as it
rather seemed, a circle of ominous shadow moving along with his
deformity, whichever way he turned himself? And whither was he now
going? Would he not suddenly sink into the earth, leaving a barren and
blasted spot, where, in due course of time, would be seen deadly
nightshade, dogwood, henbane, and whatever else of vegetable
wickedness the climate could produce, all flourishing with hideous
luxuriance? Or would he spread bat's wings and flee away, looking so
much the uglier, the higher he rose towards heaven?
"Be it sin or no," said Hester Prynne bitterly, as she still gazed
after him, "I hate the man!"
She upbraided herself for the sentiment, but could not overcome or
lessen it. Attempting to do so, she thought of those long-past days,
in a distant land, when he used to emerge at eventide from the
seclusion of his study, and sit down in the firelight of their home,
and in the light of her nuptial smile. He needed to bask himself in
that smile, he said, in order that the chill of so many lonely hours
among his books might be taken off the scholar's heart. Such scenes
had once appeared not otherwise than happy, but now, as viewed through
the dismal medium of her subsequent life, they classed themselves
among her ugliest remembrances. She marvelled how such scenes could
have been! She marvelled how she could ever have been wrought upon
to marry him! She deemed it her crime most to be repented of, that she
had ever endured, and reciprocated, the lukewarm grasp of his hand,
and had suffered the smile of her lips and eyes to mingle and melt
into his own. And it seemed a fouler offence committed by Roger
Chillingworth, than any which had since been done him, that, in the
time when her heart knew no better, he had persuaded her to fancy
herself happy by his side.
"Yes, I hate him!" repeated Hester, more bitterly than before. "He
betrayed me! He has done me worse wrong than I did him!"
Let men tremble to win the hand of woman, unless they win along with
it the utmost passion of her heart! Else it may be their miserable
fortune, as it was Roger Chillingworth's, when some mightier touch
than their own may have awakened all her sensibilities, to be
reproached even for the calm content, the marble image of happiness,
which they will have imposed upon her as the warm reality. But
Hester ought long ago to have done with this injustice. What did it
betoken? Had seven long years, under the torture of the scarlet
letter, inflicted so much of misery, and wrought out no repentance?
The emotions of that brief space, while she stood gazing after the
crooked figure of old Roger Chillingworth, threw a dark light on
Hester's state of mind, revealing much that she might not otherwise
have acknowledged to herself.
He being gone, she summoned back her child.
"Pearl! Little Pearl! Where are you?"
Pearl, whose activity of spirit never flagged, had been at no loss
for amusement while her mother talked with the old gatherer of
herbs. At first, as already told, she had flirted fancifully with
her own image in a pool of water, beckoning the phantom forth, and- as
it declined to venture- seeking a passage for herself into its
sphere of impalpable earth and unattainable sky. Soon finding,
however, that either she or the image was unreal, she turned elsewhere
for better pastime. She made little boats out of birch-bark, and
freighted them with snail-shells, and sent out more ventures on the
mighty deep than any merchant in New England; but the larger part of
them foundered near the shore. She seized a live horse-shoe by the
tail, and made prize of several five-fingers, and laid out a
jelly-fish to melt in the warm sun. Then she took up the white foam,
that streaked the line of the advancing tide, and threw it upon the
breeze, scampering after it, with winged footsteps, to catch the great
snowflakes ere they fell. Perceiving a flock of beach-birds, that
fed and fluttered along the shore, the naughty child picked up her
apron full of pebbles, and, creeping from rock to rock after these
small sea-fowl, displayed remarkable dexterity in pelting them. One
little grey bird, with a white breast, Pearl was almost sure, had been
hit by a pebble, and fluttered away with a broken wing. But then the
elf-child sighed, and gave up her sport; because it grieved her to
have done harm to a little being that was as wild as the sea-breeze,
or as wild as Pearl herself.
Her final employment was to gather sea-weed, of various kinds, and
make herself a scarf, or mantle, and a head-dress, and thus assume the
aspect of a little mermaid. She inherited her mother's gift for
devising drapery and costume. As the last touch to her mermaid garb,
Pearl took some eel-grass, and imitated, as best she could, on her own
bosom, the decoration with which she was so familiar on her
mother's. A letter- the letter A- but freshly green, instead of
scarlet! The child bent her chin upon her breast, and contemplated
this device with strange interest; even as if the one only thing for
which she had been sent into the world was to make out its hidden
import.
"I wonder if mother will ask me what it means?" thought Pearl.
Just then, she heard her mother's voice, and flitting along as
lightly as one of the little sea-birds, appeared before Hester Prynne,
dancing, laughing, and pointing her finger to the ornament upon her
bosom.
"My little Pearl," said Hester, after a moment's silence, "the green
letter, and on thy childish bosom, has no purport. But dost thou know,
my child, what this letter means which thy mother is doomed to wear?"
"Yes, mother," said the child. "It is the great letter A. Thou
hast taught me in the horn-book."
Hester looked steadily into her little face; but, though there was
that singular expression which she had so often remarked in her
black eyes, she could not satisfy herself whether Pearl really
attached any meaning to the symbol. She felt a morbid desire to
ascertain the point.
"Dost thou know, child, wherefore thy mother wears this letter?"
"Truly do I!" answered Pearl, looking brightly into her mother's
face. "It is for the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over
his heart!"
"And what reason is that?" asked Hester, half smiling at the
absurd incongruity of the child's observation; but, on second
thoughts, turning pale. "What has the letter to do with any heart,
save mine?"
"Nay, mother, I have told all I know," said Pearl, more seriously
than she was wont to speak. "Ask yonder old man whom thou hast been
talking with! It may be he can tell. But in good earnest now, mother
dear, what does this scarlet letter mean?- and why dost thou wear it
on thy bosom?- and why does the minister keep his hand over his
heart?"
She took her mother's hand in both her own, and gazed into her
eyes with an earnestness that was seldom seen in her wild and
capricious character. The thought occurred to Hester, that the child
might really be seeking to approach her with childlike confidence, and
doing what she could, and as intelligently as she knew how, to
establish a meeting-point of sympathy. It showed Pearl in an
unwonted aspect. Heretofore, the mother, while loving her child with
the intensity of a soul affection, had schooled herself to hope for
little other return than the waywardness of an April breeze; which
spends its time in airy sport, and has its gusts of inexplicable
passion, and is petulant in its best of moods, and chills oftener than
caresses you, when you take it to your bosom; in requital of which
misdemeanours, it will sometimes, of its own vague purpose, kiss
your cheek with a kind of doubtful tenderness, and play gently with
your hair, and then be gone about its other idle business, leaving a
dreamy pleasure at your heart. And this, moreover, was a mother's
estimate of the child's disposition. Any other observer might have
seen few but unamiable traits, and have given them a far darker
colouring. But now the idea came strongly into Hester's mind, that
Pearl, with her remarkable precocity and acuteness, might already have
approached the age when she could be made a friend, and entrusted with
as much of her mother's sorrows as could be imparted, without
irreverence either to the parent or the child. In the little chaos
of Pearl's character, there might be seen emerging- and could have
been, from the very first- the steadfast principles of an
unflinching courage- an uncontrollable will- a sturdy pride, which
might be disciplined into self-respect- and a bitter scorn of many
things, which, when examined, might be found to have the taint of
falsehood in them. She possessed affections, too, though hitherto
acrid and disagreeable, as are the richest flavours of unripe fruit.
With all these sterling attributes, thought Hester, the evil which she
inherited from her mother must be great indeed, if a noble woman do
not grow out of this elfish child.
Pearl's inevitable tendency to hover about the enigma of the scarlet
letter seemed an innate quality of her being. From the earliest
epoch of her conscious life, she had entered upon this as her
appointed mission. Hester had often fancied that Providence had a
design of justice and retribution, in endowing the child with this
marked propensity; but never, until now, had she bethought herself
to ask, whether, linked with that design, there might not likewise
be a purpose of mercy and beneficence. If little Pearl were
entertained with faith and trust, as a spirit messenger no less than
an earthly child, might it not be her errand to soothe away the sorrow
that lay cold in her mother's heart, and converted it into a tomb?-
and to help her to overcome the passion, once so wild, and even yet
neither dead nor asleep, but only imprisoned within the same tomb-like
heart?
Such were some of the thoughts that now stirred in Hester's mind,
with as much vivacity of impression as if they had actually been
whispered into her ear. And there was little Pearl, all this while,
holding her mother's hand in both her own, and turning her face
upward, while she put these searching questions, once, and again,
and still a third time.
"What does the letter mean, mother?- and why dost thou wear it?- and
why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?"
"What shall I say?" thought Hester to herself. "No! If this be the
price of the child's sympathy, I cannot pay it."
Then she spoke aloud.
"Silly Pearl," said she, "what questions are these? There are many
things in this world that a child must not ask about. What know I of
the minister's heart? And as for the scarlet letter, I wear it for the
sake of its gold thread."
In all the seven bygone years, Hester Prynne had never before been
false to the symbol on her bosom. It may be that it was the talisman
of a stern and severe, but yet a guardian spirit, who now forsook her;
as recognising that, in spite of his strict watch over her heart, some
new evil had crept into it, or some old one had never been expelled.
As for little Pearl, the earnestness soon passed out of her face.
But the child did not see fit to let the matter drop. Two or three
times, as her mother and she went homeward, and as often at
suppertime, and while Hester was putting her to bed, and once after
she seemed to be fairly asleep, Pearl looked up, with mischief
gleaming in her black eyes.
"Mother," said she, "what does the scarlet letter mean?"
And the next morning, the first indication the child gave of being
awake was by popping up her head from the pillow, and making that
other inquiry, which she had so unaccountably connected with her
investigations about the scarlet letter-
"Mother!- mother!- why does the minister keep his hand over his
heart?"
"Hold thy tongue, naughty child!" answered her mother, with an
asperity that she had never permitted to herself before. "Do not tease
me; else I shall shut thee into the dark closet!"
XVI.
A FOREST WALK.

HESTER PRYNNE remained constant in her resolve to make known to
Mr. Dimmesdale, at whatever risk of present pain or ulterior
consequences, the true character of the man who had crept into his
intimacy. For several days, however, she vainly sought an
opportunity of addressing him in some of the meditative walks which
she knew him to be in the habit of taking, along the shores of the
peninsula, or on the wooded hills of the neighbouring country. There
would have been no scandal, indeed, nor peril to the holy whiteness of
the clergyman's good fame, had she visited him in his own study; where
many a penitent, ere now, had confessed sins of perhaps as deep a
dye as the one betokened by the scarlet letter. But, partly that she
dreaded the secret or undisguised interference of old Roger
Chillingworth, and partly that her conscious heart imputed suspicion
where none could have been felt, and partly that both the minister and
she would need the whole wide world to breathe in, while they talked
together- for all these reasons, Hester never though of meeting him in
any narrower privacy than beneath the open sky.
At last, while attending in a sick-chamber, whither the Reverend Mr.
Dimmesdale had been summoned to make a prayer, she learnt that he
had gone, the day before, to visit the Apostle Eliot, among his Indian
converts. He would probably return, by a certain hour, in the
afternoon of the morrow. Betimes, therefore, the next day, Hester took
little Pearl- who was necessarily the companion of all her mother's
expeditions, however inconvenient her presence- and set forth.
The road, after the two wayfarers had crossed from the peninsula
to the mainland, was no other than a footpath. It straggled onward
into the mystery of the primeval forest. This hemmed it in so
narrowly, and stood so black and dense on either side, and disclosed
such imperfect glimpses of the sky above, that, to Hester's mind, it
imaged not amiss the moral wilderness in which she had so long been
wandering. The day was chill and sombre. Overhead was a grey expanse
of cloud, slightly stirred, however, by a breeze; so that a gleam of
flickering sunshine might now and then be seen at its solitary play
along the path. This flitting cheerfulness was always at the farther
extremity of some long vista through the forest. The sportive
sunlight- feebly sportive, at best, in the predominant pensiveness
of the day and scene- withdrew itself as they came nigh, and left
the spots where it had danced the drearier, because they had hoped
to find them bright.
"Mother," said little Pearl, "the sunshine does not love you. It
runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on
your bosom. Now, see! There it is, playing, a good way off. Stand
you here, and let me run and catch it. I am but a child. It will not
flee from me; for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!"
"Nor ever will, my child, I hope," said Hester.
"And why not, mother?" asked Pearl, stopping short just at the
beginning of her race. "Will not it come of its own accord, when I
am a woman grown?"
"Run away, child," answered her mother, "and catch the sunshine!
It will soon be gone."
Pearl set forth, at a great pace, and, as Hester smiled to perceive,
did actually catch the sunshine, and stood laughing in the midst of
it, all brightened by its splendour, and scintillating with the
vivacity excited by rapid motion. The light lingered about the
lonely child, as if glad of such a playmate, until her mother had
drawn almost nigh enough to step into the magic circle too.
"It will go now," said Pearl, shaking her head.
"See!" answered Hester, smiling. "Now I can stretch out my hand, and
grasp some of it."
As she attempted to do so, the sunshine vanished; or, to judge
from the bright expression that was dancing on Pearl's features, her
mother could have fancied that the child had absorbed it into herself,
and would give it forth again, with a gleam about her path, as they
should plunge into some gloomier shade. There was no other attribute
that so much impressed her with a sense of new and untransmitted
vigour in Pearl's nature, as this never-failing vivacity of spirits;
she had not the disease of sadness, which almost all children, in
these latter days, inherit, with the scrofula, from the troubles of
their ancestors. Perhaps this too was a disease, and but the reflex of
the wild energy with which Hester had fought against her sorrows,
before Pearl's birth. It was certainly a doubtful charm, imparting a
hard, metallic lustre to the child's character. She wanted- what
some people want throughout life- a grief that should deeply touch
her, and thus humanise and make her capable of sympathy. But there was
time enough yet for little Pearl.
"Come, my child!" said Hester, looking about her from the spot where
Pearl had stood still in the sunshine. "We will sit down a little
way within the wood, and rest ourselves."
"I am not aweary, mother," replied the little girl. "But you may sit
down, if you will tell me a story meanwhile."
"A story, child!" said Hester. "And about what?"
"Oh, a story about the Black Man," answered Pearl, taking hold of
her mother's gown, and looking up, half earnestly, half mischievously,
into her face. "How he haunts this forest, and carries a book with
him- a big, heavy book, with iron clasps; and how this ugly Black
Man offers his book and an iron pen to everybody that meets him here
among the trees; and they are to write their names with their own
blood. And then he sets his mark on their bosoms! Didst thou ever meet
the Black Man, mother?"
"And who told you this story, Pearl?" asked her mother,
recognising a common superstition of the period.
"It was the old dame in the chimney-corner, at the house where you
watched last night," said the child. "But she fancied me asleep
while she was talking of it. She said that a thousand and a thousand
people had met him here, and had written in his book, and have his
mark on them. And that ugly-tempered lady, old Mistress Hibbins, was
one. And, mother, the old dame said that this scarlet letter was the
Black Man's mark on thee, and that it glows like a red flame when thou
meetest him at midnight, here in the dark wood. Is it true, mother?
And dost thou go to meet him in the night-time?"
"Didst thou ever awake, and find thy mother gone?" asked Hester.
"Not that I remember," said the child. "If thou fearest to leave
me in our cottage, thou mightest take me along with thee. I would very
gladly go! But, mother, tell me now! Is there such a Black Man? And
didst thou ever meet him? And is this his mark?"
"Wilt thou let me be at peace if I once tell thee?" asked her
mother.
"Yes, if thou tellest me all," answered Pearl.
"Once in my life I met the Black Man!" said her mother. "This
scarlet letter is his mark!"
Thus conversing, they entered sufficiently deep into the wood to
secure themselves from the observation of any casual passenger along
the forest track. Here they sat down on a luxuriant heap of moss;
which, at some epoch of the preceding century, had been a gigantic
pine, with its roots and trunk in the darksome shade, and its head
aloft in the upper atmosphere. It was a little dell where they had
seated themselves, with a leaf-strewn bank rising gently on either
side, and a brook flowing through the midst, over a bed of fallen
and drowned leaves. The trees impending over it had flung down great
branches, from time to time, which choked up the current, and
compelled it to form eddies and black depths at some points; while, in
its swifter and livelier passages, there appeared a channel-way of
pebbles, and brown, sparkling sand. Letting the eyes follow along
the course of the stream, they could catch the reflected light from
its water, at some short distance within the forest, but soon lost all
traces of it amid the bewilderment of tree-trunks and underbrush,
and here and there a huge rock covered over with grey lichens. All
these giant trees and boulders of granite seemed intent on making a
mystery of the course of this small brook; fearing, perhaps, that,
with its never-ceasing loquacity, it should whisper tales out of the
heart of the old forest whence it flowed, or mirror its revelations on
the smooth surface of a pool. Continually, indeed, as it stole onward,
the streamlet kept up a babble, kind, quiet, soothing, but melancholy,
like the voice of a young child that was spending its infancy
without playfulness, and knew not how to be merry among sad
acquaintance and events of sombre hue.
"O brook! O foolish and tiresome little brook!" cried Pearl, after
listening awhile to its talk. "Why art thou so sad? Pluck up a spirit,
and do not be all the time sighing and murmuring!"
But the brook, in the course of its little lifetime among the
forest-trees, had gone through so solemn an experience that it could
not help talking about it, and seemed to have nothing else to say.
Pearl resembled the brook inasmuch as the current of her life gushed
from a well-spring as mysterious, and had flowed through scenes
shadowed as heavily with gloom. But, unlike the little stream, she
danced and sparkled, and prattled airily along her course.
"What does this sad little brook say, mother?" inquired she.
"If thou hadst a sorrow of thine own, the brook might tell thee of
it," answered her mother, "even as it is telling me of mine! But
now, Pearl, I hear a footstep along the path, and the noise of one
putting aside the branches. I would have thee betake thyself to
play, and leave me to speak with him that comes yonder."
"Is it the Black Man?" asked Pearl.
"Wilt thou go and play, child?" repeated her mother. "But do not
stray far into the wood. And take heed that thou come at my first
call."
"Yes, mother," answered Pearl. "But if it be the Black Man, wilt
thou not let me stay a moment, and look at him, with his big book
under his arm?"
"Go, silly child!" said her mother impatiently. "It is no Black Man!
Thou canst see him now, through the trees. It is the minister!"
"And so it is!" said the child. "And, mother, he has his hand over
his heart! Is it because, when the minister wrote his name in the
book, the Black Man set his mark in that place? But why does he not
wear it outside his bosom, as thou dost, mother?"
"Go now, child, and thou shalt tease me as thou wilt another
time," cried Hester Prynne. "But do not stray far. Keep where thou
canst hear the babble of the brook."
The child went singing away, following up the current of the
brook, and striving to mingle a more lightsome cadence with its
melancholy voice. But the little stream would not be comforted, and
still kept telling its unintelligible secret of some very mournful
mystery that had happened- or making a prophetic lamentation about
something that was yet to happen- within the verge of the dismal
forest. So Pearl, who had enough of shadow in her own little life,
chose to break off all acquaintance with this repining brook. She
set herself, therefore, to gathering violets and wood-anemones, and
some scarlet columbines that she found growing in the crevices of a
high rock.
When her elf-child had departed, Hester Prynne made a step or two
towards the track that led through the forest, but still remained
under the deep shadow of the trees. She beheld the minister
advancing along the path, entirely alone, and leaning on a staff which
he had cut by the wayside. He looked haggard and feeble, and
betrayed a nerveless despondency in his air, which had never so
remarkably characterised him in his walks about the settlement, nor in
any other situation where he deemed himself liable to notice. Here
it was woefully visible, in this intense seclusion of the forest,
which of itself would have been a heavy trial to the spirits. There
was a listlessness in his gait; as if he saw no reason for taking
one step farther, nor felt any desire to do so, but would have been
glad, could he be glad of anything, to fling himself down at the
root of the nearest tree, and lie there passive, for evermore. The
leaves might bestrew him, and the soil gradually accumulate and form a
little hillock over his frame, no matter whether there were life in it
or no. Death was too definite an object to be wished for, or avoided.
To Hester's eye, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale exhibited no symptom of
positive and vivacious suffering, except that, as little Pearl had
remarked, he kept his hand over his heart.
XVII.
THE PASTOR AND HIS PARISHIONER.

SLOWLY as the minister walked, he had almost gone by, before
Hester Prynne could gather voice enough to attract his observation. At
length, she succeeded.
"Arthur Dimmesdale!" she said, faintly at first; then louder, but
hoarsely: "Arthur Dimmesdale!"
"Who speaks?" answered the minister.
Gathering himself quickly up, he stood more erect, like a man
taken by surprise in a mood to which he was reluctant to have
witnesses. Throwing his eyes anxiously in the direction of the
voice, he indistinctly beheld a form under the trees, clad in garments
so, sombre, and so little relieved from the grey twilight into which
the clouded sky and the heavy foliage had darkened the noontide,
that he knew not whether it were a woman or a shadow. It may be,
that his pathway through life was haunted thus, by a spectre that
had stolen out from among his thoughts.
He made a step nigher, and discovered the scarlet letter.
"Hester! Hester Prynne!" said he. "Is it thou? Art thou in life?"
"Even so!" she answered. "In such life as has been mine these
seven years past! And thou, Arthur Dimmesdale, dost thou yet live?"
It was no wonder that they thus questioned one another's actual
and bodily existence, and even doubted of their own. So strangely
did they meet, in the dim wood, that it was like the first
encounter, in the world beyond the grave, of two spirits who had
been intimately connected in their former life, but now stood coldly
shuddering, in mutual dread; as not yet familiar with their state, nor
wonted to the companionship of disembodied beings. Each a ghost, and
awe-stricken at the other ghost! They were awe-stricken likewise at
themselves; because the crisis flung back to them their consciousness,
and revealed to each heart its history and experience, as life never
does, except at such breathless epochs. The soul beheld its features
in the mirror of the passing moment. It was with fear, and
tremulously, and, as it were, by a slow, reluctant necessity, that
Arthur Dimmesdale put forth his hand, chill as death, and touched
the chill hand of Hester Prynne. The grasp, cold as it was, took
away what was dreariest in the interview. They now felt themselves, at
least, inhabitants of the same sphere.
Without a word more spoken- neither he nor she assuming the
guidance, but with an unexpressed consent- they glided back into the
shadow of the woods, whence Hester had emerged, and sat down on the
heap of moss where she and Pearl had before been sitting. When they
found voice to speak, it was, at first, only to utter remarks and
inquiries such as any two acquaintances might have made, about the
gloomy sky, the threatening storm, and, next, the health of each. Thus
they went onward, not boldly, but step by step, into the themes that
were brooding deepest in their hearts. So long estranged by fate and
circumstances, they needed something slight and casual to run
before, and throw open the doors of intercourse, so that their real
thoughts might be led across the threshold.
After a while, the minister fixed his eyes on Hester Prynne's.
"Hester," said he, "hast thou found peace?"
She smiled drearily, looking down upon her bosom.
"Hast thou?" she asked.
"None!- nothing but despair!" he answered. "What else could I look
for, being what I am, and leading such a life as mine? Were I an
atheist- a man devoid of conscience- a wretch with coarse and brutal
instincts- I might have found peace, long ere now. Nay, I never should
have lost it! But, as matters stand with my soul, whatever of good
capacity there originally was in me, all of God's gifts that were
the choicest have become the ministers of spiritual torment. Hester, I
am most miserable."
"The people reverence thee," said Hester. "And surely thou workest
good among them! Doth this bring thee no comfort?"
"More misery, Hester!- only the more misery!" answered the
clergyman, with a bitter smile. "As concerns the good which I may
appear to do, I have no faith in it. It must needs be a delusion. What
can a ruined soul, like mine, effect towards the redemption of other
souls?- or a polluted soul, towards their purification? And as for the
people's reverence, would that it were turned to scorn and hatred!
Canst thou deem it, Hester, a consolation, that I must stand up in
my pulpit, and meet so many eyes turned upward to my face, as if the
light of heaven were beaming from it!- must see my flock hungry for
the truth, and listening to my words as if a tongue of Pentecost
were speaking!- and then look inward, and discern the black reality of
what they idolise? I have laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart,
at the contrast between what I seem and what I am! And Satan laughs at
it!"
"You wrong yourself in this," said Hester gently. "You have deeply
and sorely repented. Your sin is left behind you, in the days long
past. Your present life is not less holy, in very truth, than it seems
in people's eyes. Is there no reality in the penitence thus sealed and
witnessed by good works? And wherefore should it not bring you peace?"
"No, Hester, no!" replied the clergyman. "There is no substance in
it! It is cold and dead, and can do nothing for me! Of penance, I have
had enough! Of penitence, there has been none! Else, I should long ago
have thrown off these garments of mock holiness, and have shown myself
to mankind as they will see me at the judgment-seat. Happy are you,
Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine
burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief it is, after the
torment of a seven years' cheat, to look into an eye that recognises
me for what I am! Had I one friend- or were it my worst enemy!- to
whom, when sickened with the praises of all other men, I could daily
betake myself, and be known as the vilest of all sinners, methinks
my soul might keep itself alive thereby. Even thus much of truth would
save me! But, now, it is all falsehood!- all emptiness!- all death!"
Hester Prynne looked into his face, but hesitated to speak. Yet,
uttering his long-restrained emotions so vehemently as he did, his
words here offered her the very point of circumstances in which to
interpose what she came to say. She conquered her fears, and spoke.
"Such a friend as thou hast even now wished for," said she, "with
whom to weep over thy sin, thou has in me, the partner of it!" Again
she hesitated, but brought out the words with an effort, "Thou hast
long had such an enemy, and dwellest with him, under the same roof!"
The minister started to his feet, gasping for breath, and
clutching at his heart, as if he would have torn it out of his bosom.
"Ha! What sayest thou!" cried he. "An enemy! And under mine own
roof! What mean you?"
Hester Prynne was now fully sensible of the deep injury for which
she was responsible to this unhappy man, in permitting him to lie
for so many years, or, indeed, for a single moment, at the mercy of
one whose purposes could not be other than malevolent. The very
contiguity of his enemy, beneath whatever mask the latter might
conceal himself, was enough to disturb the magnetic sphere of a
being so sensitive as Arthur Dimmesdale. There had been a period
when Hester was less alive to this consideration; or, perhaps, in
the misanthropy of her own trouble, she left the minister to bear what
she might picture to herself as a more tolerable doom. But of late,
since the night of his vigil, all her sympathies towards him had
been both softened and invigorated. She now read his heart more
accurately. She doubted not, that the continual presence of Roger
Chillingworth the secret poison of his malignity, infecting all the
air about him- and his authorised interference, as a physician, with
the minister's physical and spiritual infirmities- that these bad
opportunities had been turned to a cruel purpose. By means of them,
the sufferer's conscience had been kept in an irritated state, the
tendency of which was, not to cure by wholesome pain, but to
disorganise and corrupt his spiritual being. Its result, on earth,
could hardly fail to be insanity, and hereafter, that eternal
alienation from the Good and True, of which madness is perhaps the
earthly type.
Such was the ruin to which she had brought the man, once- nay, why
should we not speak it?- still so passionately loved! Hester felt that
the sacrifice of the clergyman's good name, and death itself, as she
had already told Roger Chillingworth, would have been infinitely
preferable to the alternative which she had taken upon herself to
choose. And now, rather than have had this grievous wrong to
confess, she would gladly have lain down on the forest-leaves, and
died there, at Arthur Dimmesdale's feet.
"O Arthur," cried she, "forgive me! In all things else, I have
striven to be true! Truth was the one virtue which I might have held
fast, and did hold fast, through all extremity; save when thy good-
thy life thy fame- were put in question! Then I consented to a
deception. But a lie is never good, even though death threaten on
the other side! Dost thou not see what I would say? That old man!- the
physician!- he whom they call Roger Chillingworth!- he was my
husband!"
The minister looked at her, for an instant, with all that violence
of passion, which- intermixed, in more shapes than one, with his
higher, purer, softer qualities- was, in fact, the portion of him
which the Devil claimed, and through which he sought to win the
rest. Never was there a blacker or a fiercer frown than Hester now
encountered. For the brief space that it lasted, it was a dark
transfiguration. But his character had been so much enfeebled by
suffering, that even its lower energies were incapable of more than
a temporary struggle. He sank down on the ground, and buried his
face in his hands.
"I might have known it," murmured he. "I did know it! Was not the
secret told me, in the natural recoil of my heart, at the first
sight of him, and as often as I have seen him since? Why did I not
understand? O Hester Prynne, thou little, little knowest all the
horror of this thing! And the shame!- the indelicacy!- the horrible
ugliness of this exposure of a sick and guilty heart to the very eye
that would gloat over it? Woman, woman, thou are accountable for this!
I cannot forgive thee!"
"Thou shalt forgive me!" cried Hester, flinging herself on the
fallen leaves beside him. "Let God punish! Thou shalt forgive!"
With sudden and desperate tenderness, she threw her arms around him,
and pressed his head against her bosom; little caring though his cheek
rested on the scarlet letter. He would have released himself, but
strove in vain to do so. Hester would not set him free, lest he should
look her sternly in the face. All the world had frowned on her- for
seven long years had it frowned upon this lonely woman- and still
she bore it all, nor ever once turned away her firm, sad eyes. Heaven,
likewise, had frowned upon her, and she had not died. But the frown of
this pale, weak, sinful, and sorrow-stricken man was what Hester could
not bear, and live!
"Wilt thou yet forgive me?" she repeated, over and over again. "Wilt
thou not frown? Wilt thou forgive?"
"I do forgive you, Hester," replied the minister, at length, with
a deep utterance, out of an abyss of sadness, but no anger. "I
freely forgive you now. May God forgive us both! We are not, Hester,
the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the
polluted priest! That old man's revenge has been blacker than my
sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart.
Thou and I, Hester, never did so!"
"Never, never!" whispered she. "What we did had a consecration of
its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other! Hast thou
forgotten it?"
"Hush, Hester!" said Arthur Dimmesdale, rising from the ground. "No;
I have not forgotten!"
They sat down again, side by side, and hand clasped in hand, on
the mossy trunk of the fallen tree. Life had never brought them a
gloomier hour; it was the point whither their pathway had so long been
tending, and darkening ever, as it stole along; and yet it enclosed
a charm that made them linger upon it, and claim another, and another,
and, after all, another moment. The forest was obscure around them,
and creaked with a blast that was passing through it. The boughs
were tossing heavily above their heads; while one solemn old tree
groaned dolefully to another, as if telling the sad story of the
pair that sat beneath, or constrained to forbode evil to come.
And yet they lingered. How dreary looked the forest-track that led
backward to the settlement, where Hester Prynne must take up again the
burden of her ignominy, and the minister the hollow mockery of his
good name! So they lingered an instant longer. No golden light had
ever been so precious as the gloom of this dark forest. Here, seen
only by his eyes, the scarlet letter need not burn into the bosom of
the fallen woman! Here, seen only by her eyes, Arthur Dimmesdale,
false to God and man, might be for one moment true!
He started at a thought that suddenly occurred to him.
"Hester," cried he, "here is a new horror! Roger Chillingworth knows
your purpose to reveal his true character. Will he continue, then,
to keep our secret? What will now be the course of his revenge?"
"There is a strange secrecy in his nature," replied Hester
thoughtfully; "and it has grown upon him by the hidden practices of
his revenge. I deem it not likely that he will betray the secret. He
will doubtless seek other means of satiating his dark passion."
"And I!- how am I to live longer, breathing the same air with this
deadly enemy?" exclaimed Arthur Dimmesdale, shrinking within
himself, and pressing his hand nervously against his heart- a
gesture that had grown involuntary with him. "Think for me, Hester!
Thou art strong. Resolve for me!"
"Thou must dwell no longer with this man," said Hester, slowly and
firmly. "Thy heart must be no longer under his evil eye!"
"It were far worse than death!" replied the minister. "But how to
avoid it? What choice remains to me? Shall I lie down again on these
withered leaves, where I cast myself when thou didst tell me what he
was? Must I sink down there, and die at once?"
"Alas, what a ruin has befallen thee!" said Hester, with the
tears, gushing into her eyes. "Wilt thou die for very weakness?
There is no other cause!"
"The judgment of God is on me," answered the conscience-stricken
priest. "It is too mighty for me to struggle with!"
"Heaven would show mercy," rejoined Hester, "hadst thou but the
strength to take advantage of it."
"Be thou strong for me!" answered he. "Advise me what to do."
"Is the world, then, so narrow?" exclaimed Hester Prynne, fixing her
deep eyes on the minister's, and instinctively exercising a magnetic
power over a spirit so shattered and subdued that it could hardly hold
itself erect. "Doth the universe lie within the compass of yonder
town, which only a little time ago was but a leaf-strewn desert, as
lonely as this around us? Whither leads yonder forest-track?
Backward to the settlement, thou sayest! Yes; but onward, too!
Deeper it goes, and deeper, into the wilderness, less plainly to be
seen at every step; until, some few miles hence, the yellow leaves
will show no vestige of the white man's tread. There thou art free! So
brief a journey would bring thee from a world where thou hast been
most wretched, to one where thou mayest still be happy! Is there not
shade enough in all this boundless forest to hide thy heart from the
gaze of Roger Chillingworth?"
"Yes, Hester; but only under the fallen leaves!" replied the
minister, with a sad smile.
"Then there is the broad pathway of the sea!" continued Hester.
"It brought thee hither. If thou so choose, it will bear thee back
again. In our native land, whether in some remote rural village or
in vast London- or, surely, in Germany, in France, in pleasant
Italy- thou wouldst be beyond his power and knowledge! And what hast
thou to do with all these iron men, and their opinions? They have kept
thy better part in bondage too long already!"
"It cannot be!" answered the minister, listening as if he were
called upon to realise a dream. "I am powerless to go! Wretched and
sinful as I am, I have had no other thought than to drag on my earthly
existence in the sphere where Providence hath placed me. Lost as my
own soul is, I would still do what I may for other human souls! I dare
not quit my post, though an unfaithful sentinel, whose sure reward
is death and dishonour, when his dreary watch shall come to an end!"
"Thou art crushed under this seven years' weight of misery," replied
Hester, fervently resolved to buoy him up with her own energy. "But
thou shalt leave it all behind thee! It shall not cumber thy steps, as
thou treadest along the forest-path; neither shalt thou freight the
ship with it, if thou prefer to cross the sea. Leave this wreck and
ruin here where it hath happened. Meddle no more with it! Begin all
anew! Hast thou exhausted possibility in the failure of this one
trial? Not so! The future is yet full of trial and success. There is
happiness to be enjoyed! There is good to be done! Exchange this false
life of thine for a true one. Be, if thy spirit summon thee to such
a mission, the teacher and apostle of the red men. Or- as is more
thy nature- be a scholar and a sage among the wisest and the most
renowned of the cultivated world. Preach! Write! Act! Do anything,
save to lie down and die! Give up this name of Arthur Dimmesdale,
and make thyself another, and a high one, such as thou canst wear
without fear or shame. Why wouldst thou tarry so much as one other day
in the torments that have so gnawed into thy life!- that have made
thee feeble to will and to do!- that will leave thee powerless even to
repent! Up, and away!"
"O Hester!" cried Arthur Dimmesdale, in whose eyes a fitful light,
kindled by her enthusiasm, flashed up and died away, "thou tellest
of running a race to a man whose knees are tottering beneath him! I
must die here! There is not the strength or courage left me to venture
into the wide, strange, difficult world, alone!"
It was the last expression of the despondency of a broken spirit. He
lacked energy to grasp the better fortune that seemed within his
reach.
He repeated the word.
"Alone, Hester!"
"Thou shalt not go alone!" answered she, in a deep whisper.
Then, all was spoken!
XVIII.
A FLOOD OF SUNSHINE.

ARTHUR DIMMESDALE gazed into Hester's face with a look in which hope
and joy shone out, indeed, but with fear betwixt them, and a kind of
horror at her boldness, who had spoken what he vaguely hinted at,
but dared not speak.
But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and
for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed, from society,
had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as was
altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without rule or
guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as
the untamed forest, amid the gloom of which they were now holding a
colloquy that was to decide their fate. Her intellect and heart had
their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely
as the wild Indian in his woods. For years past she had looked from
this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever
priests or legislators had established; criticising all with hardly
more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the
judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the
church. The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her
free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other
women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her
teachers- stern and wild ones- and they had made her strong, but
taught her much amiss.
The minister, on the other hand, had never gone through an
experience calculated to lead him beyond the scope of generally
received laws; although, in a single instance, he had so fearfully
transgressed one of the most sacred of them. But this had been a sin
of passion, not of principle, nor even purpose. Since that wretched
epoch, he had watched, with morbid zeal and minuteness, not his
acts- for those it was easy to arrange- but each breath of emotion,
and his every thought. At the head of the social system, as the
clergyman of that day stood, he was only the more trammelled by its
regulations, its principles, and even its prejudices. As a priest, the
framework of his order inevitably hemmed him in. As a man who had once
sinned, but who kept his conscience all alive and painfully
sensitive by the fretting of an unhealed wound, he might have been
supposed safer within the line of virtue than if he had never sinned
at all.
Thus, we seem to see that, as regarded Hester Prynne, the whole
seven years of outlaw and ignominy had been little other than a
preparation for this very hour. But Arthur Dimmesdale! Were such a man
once more to fall, what plea could be urged in extenuation of his
crime? None; unless it avail him somewhat, that he was broken down
by long and exquisite suffering; that his mind was darkened and
confused by the very remorse which harrowed it; that, between
fleeing as an avowed criminal, and remaining as a hypocrite,
conscience might find it hard to strike the balance; that it was human
to avoid the peril of death and infamy, and the inscrutable
machinations of an enemy; that, finally, to this poor pilgrim, on
his dreary and desert path, faint, sick, miserable, there appeared a
glimpse of human affection and sympathy, a new life, and a true one,
in exchange for the heavy doom which he was now expiating. And be
the stern and sad truth spoken, that the breach which guilt has once
made into the human soul is never, in this mortal state, repaired.
It may be watched and guarded; so that the enemy shall not force his
way again into the citadel, and might even, in his subsequent
assaults, select some other avenue, in preference to that where he had
formerly succeeded. But there is still the ruined wall, and, near
it, the stealthy tread of the foe that would win over again his
unforgotten triumph.
The struggle, if there were one, need not be described. Let it
suffice, that the clergyman resolved to flee, and not alone.
"If, in all these past seven years," thought he, "I could recall one
instant of peace or hope, I would yet endure, for the sake of that
earnest of Heaven's mercy. But now- since I am irrevocably doomed-
wherefore should I not snatch the solace allowed to the condemned
culprit before his execution? Or, if this be the path to a better
life, as Hester would persuade me, I surely give up no fairer prospect
by pursuing it! Neither can I any longer live without her
companionship; so powerful is she to sustain- so tender to soothe! O
Thou to whom I dare not lift mine eyes, wilt Thou yet pardon me!"
"Thou wilt go!" said Hester calmly, as he met her glance.
The decision once made, a glow of strange enjoyment threw its
flickering brightness over the trouble of his breast. It was the
exhilarating effect- upon a prisoner just escaped from the dungeon
of his own heart- of breathing the wild, free atmosphere of an
unredeemed, unchristianised, lawless region. His spirit rose, as it
were, with a bound, and attained a nearer prospect of the sky, than
throughout all the misery which had kept him grovelling on the
earth. Of a deeply religious temperament, there was inevitably a tinge
of the devotional in his mind.
"Do I feel joy again?" cried he, wondering at himself. "Methought
the germ of it was dead in me! O Hester, thou art my better angel! I
seem to have flung myself- sick, sin-stained, and sorrow-blackened-
down upon these forest-leaves, and to have risen up all made anew, and
with new powers to glorify Him that hath been merciful! This is
already the better life! Why did we not find it sooner?"
"Let us not look back," answered Hester Prynne. "the past is gone!
Wherefore should we linger upon it now? See! With this symbol, I
undo it all, and make it as it had never been!"
So speaking, she undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter,
and, taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the
withered leaves. The mystic token alighted on the hither verge of
the stream. With a hand's breadth farther flight it would have
fallen into the water, and have given the little brook another woe
to carry onward, besides the unintelligible tale which it still kept
murmuring about. But there lay the embroidered letter, glittering like
a lost jewel, which some ill-fated wanderer might pick up, and
thenceforth be haunted by strange phantoms of guilt, sinkings of the
heart, and unaccountable misfortune.
The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the
burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. Oh, exquisite
relief! She had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom! By
another impulse, she took off the formal cap that confined her hair;
and down it fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a
shadow and a light in its abundance, and imparting the charm of
softness to her features. There played around her mouth, and beamed
out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile, that seemed gushing
from the very heart of womanhood. A crimson flush was glowing on her
cheek, that had been long so pale. Her sex, her youth, and the whole
richness of the beauty, came back from what men call the irrevocable
past, and clustered themselves, with her maiden hope, and a
happiness before unknown, within the magic circle of this hour. And,
as if the gloom of the earth and sky had been but the effluence of
these two mortal hearts, it vanished with their sorrow. All at once,
as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring
a very flood into the obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf,
transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the
grey trunks of the solemn trees. The objects that had made a shadow
hitherto, embodied the brightness now. The course of the little
brook might be traced by its merry gleam afar into the wood's heart of
mystery, which had become a mystery of joy.
Such was the sympathy of Nature- that wild, heathen Nature of the
forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher
truth- with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly
born, or aroused from a death-like slumber, must always create a
sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows
upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it
would have been bright in Hester's eyes, and bright in Arthur
Dimmesdale's!
Hester looked at him with the thrill of another joy.
"Thou must know Pearl!" said she. "Our little Pearl! Thou hast
seen her- yes, I know it!- but thou wilt see her now with other
eyes. She is a strange child! I hardly comprehend her! But thou wilt
love her dearly, as I do, and wilt advise me how to deal with her."
"Dost thou think the child will be glad to know me?" asked the
minister, somewhat uneasily. "I have long shrunk from children,
because they often show a distrust- a backwardness to be familiar with
me. I have even been afraid of little Pearl!"
"Ah, that was sad!" answered the mother. "But she will love thee
dearly, and thou her. She is not far off. I will call her! Pearl!
Pearl!"
"I see the child," observed the minister. "Yonder she is, standing
in a streak of sunshine, a good way off, on the other side of the
brook, So thou thinkest the child will love me?"
Hester smiled, and again called to Pearl, who was visible, at some
distance, as the minister had described her, like a
bright-apparelled vision, in a sunbeam, which fell down upon her
through an arch of boughs. The ray quivered to and fro, making her
figure dim or distinct- now like a real child, now like a child's
spirit- as the splendour went and came again. She heard her mother's
voice, and approached slowly through the forest.
Pearl had not found the hour pass wearisomely, while her mother
sat talking with the clergyman. The great black forest- stern as it
showed itself to those who brought the guilt and troubles of the world
into its bosom- became the playmate of the lonely infant, as well as
it knew how. Sombre as it was, it put on the kindest of its moods to
welcome her. It offered her the partridge-berries, the growth of the
preceding autumn, but ripening only in the spring, and now red as
drops of blood upon the withered leaves. These Pearl gathered, and was
pleased with their wild flavour. The small denizens of the
wilderness hardly took pains to move out of her path. A partridge,
indeed, with a brood of ten behind her, ran forward threatingly, but
soon repented of her fierceness, and clucked to her young ones not
to be afraid. A pigeon, alone on a low branch, allowed Pearl to come
beneath, and uttered a sound as much of greeting as alarm. A squirrel,
from the lofty depths of his domestic tree, chattered either in
anger or merriment- for a squirrel is such a choleric and humorous
little personage, that it is hard to distinguish between his moods- so
he chattered at the child, and flung down a nut upon her head. It
was a last year's nut, and already gnawed by his sharp tooth. A fox,
startled from his sleep by her light footstep on the leaves, looked
inquisitively at Pearl, as doubting whether it were better to steal
off, or renew his nap on the same spot. A wolf, it is said- but here
the tale has surely lapsed into the improbable- came up, and smelt
of Pearl's robe, and offered his savage head to be patted by her hand.
The truth seems to be, however, that the mother-forest, and these wild
things which it nourished, all recognised a kindred wildness in the
human child.
And she was gentler here than in the grassy-margined streets of
the settlement, or in her mother's cottage. The flowers appeared to
know it; and one and another whispered as she passed, "Adorn thyself
with me, thou beautiful child, adorn thyself with me!"- and, to please
them, Pearl gathered the violets, and anemones, and columbines, and
some twigs of the freshest green, which the old trees held down before
her eyes. With these she decorated her hair, and her young waist,
and became a nymph-child, or an infant dryad, or whatever else was
in closest sympathy with the antique wood. In such guise had Pearl
adorned herself, when she heard her mother's voice, and came slowly
back.
Slowly; for she saw the clergyman!
XIX.
THE CHILD AT THE BROOK-SIDE.

"THOU wilt love her dearly," repeated Hester Prynne, as she and
the minister sat watching little Pearl. "Dost thou not think her
beautiful? And see with what natural skill she has made those simple
flowers adorn her! Had she gathered pearls, and diamonds, and
rubies, in the wood, they could not have become her better. She is a
splendid child! But I know whose brow she has!"
"Dost thou know, Hester," said Arthur Dimmesdale, with an unquiet
smile, "that this dear child, tripping about always at thy side,
hath caused me many an alarm? Methought- O Hester, what a thought is
that, and how terrible to dread it!- that my own features were
partly repeated in her face, and so strikingly that the world might
see them! But she is mostly thine!"
"No, no! Not mostly!" answered the mother, with a tender smile. "A
little longer and thou needest not be afraid to trace whose child
she is. But how strangely beautiful she looks, with those wild flowers
in her hair! It is as if one of the fairies, whom we left in our
dear old England, had decked her out to meet us."
It was with a feeling which neither of them had ever before
experienced, that they sat and watched Pearl's slow advance. In her
was visible the tie that united them. She had been offered to the
world, these seven years past, as the living hieroglyphic, in which
was revealed the secret they so darkly sought to hide- all written
in this symbol- all plainly manifest- had there been a prophet or
magician skilled to read the character of flame! And Pearl was the
oneness of their being. Be the foregone evil what it might, how
could they doubt that their earthly lives and future destinies were
conjoined, when they beheld at once the material union, and the
spiritual idea, in whom they met, and were to dwell immortally
together? Thoughts like these- and perhaps other thoughts, which
they did not acknowledge or define- threw an awe about the child, as
she came onward.
"Let her see nothing strange- no passion nor eagerness- in thy way
of accosting her," whispered Hester. "Our Pearl is a fitful and
fantastic little elf, sometimes. Especially, she is seldom tolerant of
emotion, when she does not fully comprehend the why and wherefore. But
the child hath strong affections! She loves me, and will love thee!"
"Thou canst not think," said the minister, glancing aside at
Hester Prynne, "how my heart dreads this interview, and yearns for it!
But, in truth, as I already told thee, children are not readily won to
be familiar with me. They will not climb my knee, nor prattle in my
ear, nor answer to my smile; but stand apart, and eye me strangely.
Even little babes, when I take them in my arms, weep bitterly. Yet
Pearl, twice in her little lifetime, hath been kind to me! The first
time- thou knowest it well! The last was when thou ledst her with thee
to the house of yonder stern old Governor."
"And thou didst plead so bravely in her behalf and mine!" answered
the mother. "I remember it; and so shall little Pearl. Fear nothing!
She may be strange and shy at first, but will soon learn to love
thee!"
By this time Pearl had reached the margin of the brook, and stood on
the farther side, gazing silently at Hester and the clergyman, who
still sat together on the mossy tree-trunk, waiting to receive her.
Just where she had paused, the brook chanced to form a pool, so smooth
and quiet that it reflected a perfect image of her little figure, with
all the brilliant picturesqueness of her beauty, in its adornment of
flowers and wreathed foliage, but more refined and spiritualised
than the reality. This image, so nearly identical with the living
Pearl, seemed to communicate somewhat of its own shadowy and
intangible quality to the child herself. It was strange, the way in
which Pearl stood, looking so steadfastly at them through the dim
medium of the forest-gloom; herself, meanwhile, all glorified with a
ray of sunshine, that was attracted thitherward as by a certain
sympathy. In the brook beneath stood another child- another and the
same- with likewise its ray of golden light. Hester felt herself, in
some indistinct and tantalising manner, estranged from Pearl; as if
the child, in her lonely, ramble through the forest, had strayed out
of the sphere in which she and her mother dwelt together, and was
now vainly seeking to return to it.
There was both truth and error in the impression; the child and
mother were estranged, but through Hester's fault, not Pearl's.
Since the latter rambled from her side, another inmate had been
admitted within the circle of the mother's feelings, and so modified
the aspect of them all, that Pearl, the returning wanderer, could
not find her wonted place, and hardly knew where she was.
"I have a strange fancy," observed the sensitive minister, "that
this brook is the boundary between two worlds, and that thou canst
never meet thy Pearl again. Or is she an elfish spirit, who, as the
legends of our childhood taught us, is forbidden to cross a running
stream? Pray hasten her; for this delay has already imparted a
tremor to my nerves."
"Come, dearest child!" said Hester encouragingly, and stretching out
both her arms. "How slow thou art! When hast thou been so sluggish
before now? Here is a friend of mine, who must be thy friend also.
Thou wilt have twice as much love, henceforward, as thy mother alone
could give thee! Leap across the brook, and come to us. Thou canst
leap like a young deer!"
Pearl, without responding in any manner to these honey-sweet
expressions, remained on the other side of the brook. Now she fixed
her bright, wild eyes on her mother, now on the minister, and now
included them both in the same glance; as if to detect and explain
to herself the relation which they bore to one another. For some
unaccountable reason, as Arthur Dimmesdale felt the child's eyes
upon himself, his hand- with that gesture so habitual as to have
become involuntary- stole over his heart. At length, assuming a
singular air of authority, Pearl stretched out her hand, with the
small forefinger extended, and pointing evidently towards her mother's
breast. And beneath, in the mirror of the brook, there was the
flower-girdled and sunny image of little Pearl, pointing her small
forefinger too.
"Thou strange child, why dost thou not come to me?" exclaimed
Hester.
Pearl still pointed with her forefinger; and a frown gathered on her
brow; the more impressive from the childish, the almost baby-like
aspect of the features that conveyed it. As her mother still kept
beckoning to her, and arraying her face in a holiday suit of
unaccustomed smiles, the child stamped her foot with a yet more
imperious look and gesture. In the brook, again, was the fantastic
beauty of the image, with its reflected frown, its pointed finger, and
imperious gesture, giving emphasis to the aspect of little Pearl.
"Hasten, Pearl; or I shall be angry with thee!" cried Hester Prynne,
who, however inured to such behaviour on the elf-child's part at other
seasons, was naturally anxious for a more seemly deportment now. "Leap
across the brook, naughty child, and run hither! Else I must come to
thee!"
But Pearl, not a whit startled at her mother's threats, any more
than mollified by her entreaties, now suddenly burst into a fit of
passion, gesticulating violently, and throwing her small figure into
the most extravagant contortions. She accompanied this wild outbreak
with piercing shrieks, which the woods reverberated on all sides; so
that, alone as she was in her childish and unreasonable wrath, it
seemed as if a hidden multitude were lending her their sympathy and
encouragement. Seen in the brook, once more, was the shadowy wraith of
Pearl's image, crowned and girdled with flowers, but stamping its
foot, wildly gesticulating, and, in the midst of all, still pointing
its small forefinger at Hester's bosom!
"I see what ails the child," whispered Hester to the clergyman,
and turning pale in spite of a strong effort to conceal her trouble
and annoyance. "Children will not abide any, the slightest, change
in the accustomed aspect of things that are daily before their eyes.
Pearl misses something which she has always seen me wear!"
"I pray you," answered the minister, "if thou hast any means of
pacifying the child, do it forthwith! Save it were the cankered
wrath of an old witch, like Mistress Hibbins," added he, attempting to
smile, "I know nothing that I would not sooner encounter than this
passion in a child. In Pearl's young beauty, as in the wrinkled witch,
it has a preternatural effect. Pacify her, if thou lovest me!"
Hester turned again towards Pearl, with a crimson blush upon her
cheek, a conscious glance aside at the clergyman, and then a heavy
sigh; while, even before she had time to speak, the blush yielded to a
deadly pallor.
"Pearl," said she sadly, "look down at thy feet! There- before
thee!- the hither side of the brook!"
The child turned her eyes to the point indicated; and there lay
the scarlet letter, so close upon the margin of the stream, that the
gold embroidery was reflected in it.
"Bring it hither!" said Hester.
"Come thou and take it up!" answered Pearl.
"Was ever such a child!" observed Hester, aside to the minister.
"Oh, I have much to tell thee about her! But, in very truth, she is
right as regards this hateful token. I must bear its torture yet a
little longer- only a few days longer- until we shall have left this
region, and look back hither as to a land which we have dreamed of.
The forest cannot hide it! The mid-ocean shall take it from my hand,
and swallow it up for ever!"
With these words, she advanced to the margin of the brook, took up
the scarlet letter, and fastened it again into her bosom. Hopefully,
but a moment ago, as Hester had spoken of drowning it in the deep sea,
there was a sense of inevitable doom upon her, as she thus received
back this deadly symbol from the hand of fate. She had flung it into
infinite space!- she had drawn an hour's free breath!- and here
again was the scarlet misery, glittering on the old spot! So it ever
is, whether thus typified or no, that an evil deed invests itself with
the character of doom. Hester next gathered up the heavy tresses of
her hair, and confined them beneath her cap. As if there were a
withering spell in the sad letter, her beauty, the warmth and richness
of her womanhood, departed, like fading sunshine; and a grey shadow
seemed to fall across her.
When the dreary change was wrought, she extended her hand to Pearl.
"Dost thou know thy mother now, child?" asked she reproachfully, but
with a subdued tone. "Wilt thou come across the brook, and own thy
mother, now that she has her shame upon her- now that she is sad?"
"Yes; now I will!" answered the child, bounding across the brook,
and clasping Hester in her arms. "Now thou art my mother indeed! And I
am thy little Pearl!"
In a mood of tenderness that was not usual with her, she drew down
her mother's head, and kissed her brow and both her cheeks. But
then- by a kind of necessity that always impelled this child to
alloy whatever comfort she might chance to give with a throb of
anguish- Pearl put up her mouth, and kissed the scarlet letter too!
"That was not kind!" said Hester. "When thou hast shown me a
little love, thou mockest me!"
"Why doth the minister sit yonder?" asked Pearl.
"He waits to welcome thee," replied her mother. "Come thou, and
entreat his blessing! He loves thee, my little Pearl, and loves thy
mother too. Wilt thou not love him? Come! he longs to greet thee!"
"Doth he love us?" said Pearl, looking up, with acute
intelligence, into her mother's face. "Will he go back with us, hand
in hand, we three together into the town?"
"Not now, dear child," answered Hester. "But in days to come he will
walk hand in hand with us. We will have a home and fireside of our
own; and thou shalt sit upon his knee; and he will teach thee many
things, and love thee dearly. Thou wilt love him; wilt thou not?"
"And will he always keep his hand over his heart?" inquired Pearl.
"Foolish child, what a question is that!" exclaimed her mother.
"Come and ask his blessing!"
But, whether influenced by the jealousy that seems instinctive
with every petted child towards a dangerous rival, or from whatever
caprice of her freakish nature, Pearl would show no favour to the
clergyman. It was only by an exertion of force that her mother brought
her up to him, hanging back, and manifesting her reluctance by odd
grimaces; of which, ever since her babyhood, she had possessed a
singular variety, and could transform her mobile physiognomy into a
series of different aspects, with a new mischief in them, each and
all. The minister- painfully embarrassed, but hoping that a kiss might
prove a talisman to admit him into the child's kindlier regards-
bent forward, and impressed one on her brow. Hereupon, Pearl broke
away from her mother, and, running to the brook, stooped over it,
and bathed her forehead, until the unwelcome kiss was quite washed
off, and diffused through a long lapse of the gliding water. She
then remained apart, silently watching Hester and the clergyman: while
they talked together, and made such arrangements as were suggested
by their new position, and the purposes soon to be fulfilled.
And now this fateful interview had come to a close. The dell was
to be left a solitude among its dark, old trees, which, with their
multitudinous tongues, would whisper long of what had passed there,
and no mortal be the wiser. And the melancholy brook would add this
other tale to the mystery with which its little heart was already
overburdened, and whereof it still kept up a murmuring babble, with
not a whit more cheerfulness of tone than for ages heretofore.
XX.
THE MINISTER IN A MAZE.

AS the minister departed, in advance of Hester Prynne and little
Pearl, he threw a backward glance; half expecting that he should
discover only some faintly traced features or outline of the mother
and the child, slowly fading into the twilight of the woods. So
great a vicissitude in his life could not at once be received as real.
But there was Hester, clad in her grey robe, still standing beside the
tree-trunk, which some blast had overthrown a long antiquity ago,
and which time had ever since been covering with moss, so that these
two fated ones, with earth's heaviest burden on them, might there
sit down together, and find a single hour's rest and solace. And there
was Pearl, too, lightly dancing from the margin of the brook- now that
the intrusive third person was gone- and taking her old place by her
mother's side. So the minister had not fallen asleep, and dreamed!
In order to free his mind from this indistinctness and duplicity
of impression, which vexed it with a strange disquietude, he
recalled and more thoroughly defined the plans which Hester and
himself had sketched for their departure. It had been determined
between them, that the Old World, with its crowds and cities,
offered them a more eligible shelter and concealment than the wilds of
New England, or all America, with its alternatives of an Indian
wigwam, or the few settlements of Europeans, scattered thinly along
the seaboard. Not to speak of the clergyman's health, so inadequate to
sustain the hardships of a forest life, his native gifts, his culture,
and his entire development, would secure him a home only in the
midst of civilisation and refinement; the higher the state, the more
delicately adapted to it the man. In furtherance of this choice, it so
happened that a ship lay in the harbour; one of those questionable
cruisers, frequent at that day, which, without being absolutely
outlaws of the deep, yet roamed over its surface with a remarkable
irresponsibility of character. This vessel had recently arrived from
the Spanish Main, and, within three days' time, would sail for
Bristol. Hester Prynne- whose vocation, as a self-enlisted Sister of
Charity, had brought her acquainted with the captain and crew- could
take upon herself to secure the passage of two individuals and a
child, with all the secrecy which circumstances rendered more than
desirable.
The minister had inquired of Hester, with no little interest, the
precise time at which the vessel might be expected to depart. It would
probably be on the fourth day from the present. "That is most
fortunate!" he had then said to himself. Now, why the Reverend Mr.
Dimmesdale considered it so very fortunate, we hesitate to reveal.
Nevertheless- to hold nothing back from the reader- it was because, on
the third day from the present, he was to preach the Election
Sermon; and, as such an occasion formed an honourable epoch in the
life of a New England clergyman, he could not have chanced upon a more
suitable mode and time of terminating his professional career. "At
least, they shall say of me," thought this exemplary man, "that I
leave no public duty unperformed, nor ill performed!" Sad, indeed,
that an introspection so profound and acute as this poor minister's
should be so miserably deceived! We have had, and may still have,
worse things to tell of him; but none, we apprehend, so pitiably weak;
no evidence, at once so slight and irrefragable, of a subtle
disease, that had long since begun to eat into the real substance of
his character. No man, for any considerable period, can wear one
face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally
getting bewildered as to which may be the true.
The excitement of Mr. Dimmesdale's feelings, as he returned from his
interview with Hester, lent him unaccustomed physical energy, and
hurried him townward at a rapid pace. The pathway among the woods
seemed wilder, more uncouth with its rude natural obstacles and less
trodden by the foot of man than he remembered it on his outward
journey. But he leaped across the plashy places, thrust himself
through the clinging underbrush, climbed the ascent, plunged into
the hollow, and overcame, in short, all the difficulties of the track,
with an unweariable activity that astonished him. He could not but
recall how feebly, and with what frequent pauses for breath, he had
toiled over the same ground, only two days before. As he drew near the
town, he took an impression of change from the series of familiar
objects that presented themselves. It seemed not yesterday, not one,
nor two, but many days, or even years ago, since he had quitted
them. There, indeed, was each former trace of the street, as he
remembered it, and all the peculiarities of the houses, with the due
multitude of gable-peaks, and a weather-cock at every point where
his memory suggested one. Not the less, however, came this
importunately obtrusive sense of change. The same was true as regarded
the acquaintances whom he met, and all the well-known shapes of
human life, about the little town. They looked neither older nor
younger now; the beards of the aged were no whiter, nor could the
creeping babe of yesterday walk on his feet to-day; it was
impossible to describe in what respect they differed from the
individuals on whom he had so recently bestowed a parting glance;
and yet the minister's deepest sense seemed to inform him of their
mutability. A similar impression struck him most remarkably, as he
passed under the walls of his own church. The edifice had so very
strange, and yet so familiar, an aspect, that Mr. Dimmesdale's mind
vibrated between two ideas; either that he had seen it only in a dream
hitherto, or that he was merely dreaming about it now.
This phenomenon, in the various shapes which it assumed, indicated
no external change, but so sudden and important a change in the
spectator of the familiar scene, that the intervening space of a
single day had operated on his consciousness like the lapse of
years. The minister's own will, and Hester's will, and the fate that
grew between them, had wrought this transformation. It was the same
town as heretofore; but the same minister returned not from the
forest. He might have said to the friends who greeted him, "I am not
the man for whom you take me! I left him yonder in the forest,
withdrawn into a secret dell, by a mossy tree-trunk, and near a
melancholy brook! Go, seek your minister, and see if his emaciated
figure, his thin cheek, his white, heavy, pain-wrinkled brow, be not
flung down there, like a cast-off garment!" His friends, no doubt,
would still have insisted with him- "Thou art thyself the man!"- but
the error would have been their own, not his.
Before Mr. Dimmesdale reached home, his inner man gave him other
evidences of a revolution in the sphere of thought and feeling. In
truth, nothing short of a total change of dynasty and moral code, in
that interior kingdom, was adequate to account for the impulses now
communicated to the unfortunate and startled minister. At every step
he was incited to do some strange, wild, wicked thing or other, with a
sense that it would be at once involuntary and intentional; in spite
of himself, yet growing out of a profounder self than that which
opposed the impulse. For instance, he met one of his own deacons.
The good old man addressed him with the paternal affection and
patriarchal privilege, which his venerable age, his upright and holy
character, and his station in the Church, entitled him to use; and,
conjoined with this, the deep, almost worshipping respect, which the
minister's professional and private claims alike demanded. Never was
there a more beautiful example of how the majesty of age and wisdom
may comport with the obeisance and respect enjoined upon it, as from a
lower social rank, and inferior order of endowment, towards a
higher. Now, during a conversation of some two or three moments
between the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale and this excellent and
hoary-bearded deacon, it was only by the most careful self-control
that the former could refrain from uttering certain blasphemous
suggestions that rose into his mind, respecting the
communion-supper. He absolutely trembled and turned pale as ashes,
lest his tongue should wag itself, in utterance of these horrible
matters, and plead his own consent for so doing, without his having
fairly given it. And, even with this terror in his heart, he could
hardly avoid laughing, to imagine how the sanctified old patriarchal
deacon would have been petrified by his minister's impiety.
Again, another incident of the same nature. Hurrying along the
street, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale encountered the eldest female
member of his church; a most pious and exemplary old dame; poor,
widowed, lonely, and with a heart as full of reminiscences about her
dead husband and children, and her dead friends of long ago, as a
burial-ground is full of storied gravestones. Yet all this, which
would else have been such heavy sorrow, was made almost a solemn joy
to her devout old soul, by religious consolations and the truths of
Scripture, wherewith she had fed herself continually for more than
thirty years. And, since Mr. Dimmesdale had taken her in charge, the
good grandam's chief earthly comfort- which, unless it had been
likewise a heavenly comfort, could have been none at all- was to
meet her pastor, whether casually, or of set purpose, and be refreshed
with a word of warm, fragrant, heaven-breathing Gospel truth, from his
beloved lips, into her dulled, but rapturously attentive ear. But,
on this occasion, up to the moment of putting his lips to the old
woman's ear, Mr. Dimmesdale, as the great enemy of souls would have
it, could recall no text of Scripture, nor aught else, except a brief,
pithy, and, as it then appeared to him, unanswerable argument
against the immortality of the human soul. The instilment thereof into
her mind would probably have caused this aged sister to drop down
dead, at once, as by the effect of an intensely poisonous infusion.
What he really did whisper, the minister could never afterwards
recollect. There was, perhaps, a fortunate disorder in his
utterance, which failed to impart any distinct idea to the good
widow's comprehension, or which Providence interpreted after a
method of its own. Assuredly, as the minister looked back, he beheld
an expression of divine gratitude and ecstasy that seemed like the
shine of the celestial city on her face, so wrinkled and ashy pale.
Again, a third instance. After parting from the old church-member,
he met the youngest sister of them all. It was a maiden newly won- and
won by the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale's own sermon, on the Sabbath
after his vigil, to barter the transitory pleasures of the world for
the heavenly hope, that was to assume brighter substance as life
grew dark around her, and which would gild the utter gloom with
final glory. She was fair and pure as a lily that had bloomed in
Paradise. The minister knew well that he was himself enshrined
within the stainless sanctity of her heart, which hung its snowy
curtains about his image, imparting to religion the warmth of love,
and to love a religious purity. Satan, that afternoon, had surely
led the poor young girl away from her mother's side, and thrown her
into the pathway of this sorely tempted, or- shall we not rather say?-
this lost and desperate man. As she drew nigh, the arch-fiend
whispered him to condense into small compass and drop into her
tender bosom a germ of evil that would be sure to blossom darkly soon,
and bear black fruit betimes. Such was his sense of power over this
virgin soul, trusting him as she did, that the minister felt potent to
blight all the field of innocence with but one wicked look, and
develop all its opposite with but a word. So- with a mightier struggle
than he had yet sustained- he held his Geneva cloak before his face,
and hurried onward, making no sign of recognition, and leaving the
young sister to digest his rudeness as she might. She ransacked her
conscience- which was full of harmless little matters, like her
pocket, or her workbag- and took herself to task, poor thing! for a
thousand imaginary faults; and went about her household duties with
swollen eyelids the next morning.
Before the minister had time to celebrate his victory over this last
temptation, he was conscious of another impulse, more ludicrous, and
almost as horrible. It was- we blush to tell it- it was to stop
short in the road, and teach some very wicked words to a knot of
little Puritan children who were playing there, and had but just begun
to talk. Denying himself this freak, as unworthy of his cloth, he
met a drunken seaman, one of the ship's crew from the Spanish Main.
And here, since he had so valiantly forborne all other wickedness,
poor Mr. Dimmesdale longed, at least to shake hands with the tarry
blackguard, and recreate himself with a few improper jests, such as
dissolute sailors so abound with, and a volley of good, round,
solid, satisfactory, and heaven-defying oaths! It was not so much a
better principle, as partly his natural good taste, and still more his
buckramed habit of clerical decorum, that carried him safely through
the latter crisis.
"What is it that haunts and tempts me thus?" cried the minister to
himself, at length, pausing in the street, and striking his hand
against his forehead. "Am I mad? or am I given over utterly to the
fiend? Did I make a contract with him in the forest, and sign it
with my blood? And does he now summon me to its fulfilment, by
suggesting the performance of every wickedness which his most foul
imagination can conceive?"
At the moment when the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale thus communed with
himself, and struck his forehead with his hand, old Mistress
Hibbins, the reputed witch-lady, is said to have been passing by.
She made a very grand appearance; having on a high head-dress, a
rich gown of velvet, and a ruff done up with the famous yellow starch,
of which Ann Turner, her especial friend, had taught her the secret,
before this last good lady had been hanged for Sir Thomas Overbury's
murder. Whether the witch had read the minister's thoughts, or no, she
came to a full stop, looked shrewdly into his face, smiled craftily,
and- though little given to converse with clergymen- began a
conversation.
"So, reverend sir, you have made a visit into the forest,"
observed the witch-lady, nodding her high head-dress at him. "The next
time, I pray you to allow me only a fair warning, and I shall be proud
to bear you company. Without taking overmuch upon myself, my good word
will go far towards gaining any strange gentleman a fair reception
from yonder potentate you wot of!"
"I profess, madam," answered the clergyman, with a grave
obeisance, such as the lady's rank demanded, and his own good-breeding
made imperative- "I profess, on my conscience and character, that I
am utterly bewildered as touching the purport of your words! I went
not into the forest to seek a potentate; neither do I, at any future
time, design a visit thither, with a view to gaining the favour of
such personage. My one sufficient object was to greet that pious
friend of mine, the Apostle Eliot, and rejoice with him over the
many precious souls he hath won from heathendom!"
"Ha, ha, ha!" cackled the old witch-lady, still nodding her high
head-dress at the minister. "Well, well, we must needs talk thus in
the daytime! You carry it off like an old hand! But at midnight, and
in the forest, we shall have other talk together!"
She passed on with her aged stateliness, but often turning back
her head and smiling at him, like one willing to recognise a secret
intimacy of connection.
"Have I then sold myself," thought the minister, "to the fiend whom,
if men say true, this yellow-starched and velveted old hag has
chosen for her prince and master!"
The wretched minister! He had made a bargain very like it! Tempted
by a dream of happiness, he had yielded himself, with deliberate
choice, as he had never done before, to what he knew was deadly sin.
And the infectious poison of that sin had been thus rapidly diffused
throughout his moral system. It had stupefied all blessed impulses,
and awakened into vivid life the whole brotherhood of bad ones. Scorn,
bitterness, unprovoked malignity, gratuitous desire of ill, ridicule
of whatever was good and holy, all awoke, to tempt, even while they
frightened him. And his encounter with old Mistress Hibbins, if it
were a real incident, did but show his sympathy and fellowship with
wicked mortals, and the world of perverted spirits.
He had, by this time, reached his dwelling, on the edge of the
burial-ground, and, hastening up the stairs, took refuge in his study.
The minister was glad to have reached this shelter, without first
betraying himself to the world by any of those strange and wicked
eccentricities to which he had been continually impelled while passing
through the streets. He entered the accustomed room, and looked around
him on its books, its windows, its fireplace, and the tapestried
comfort of the walls, with the same perception of strangeness that had
haunted him throughout his walk from the forest-dell into the town,
and thitherward. Here he had studied and written; here, gone through
fast and vigil, and come forth half alive; here striven to pray; here,
borne a hundred thousand agonies! There was the Bible, in its rich old
Hebrew, with Moses and the Prophets speaking to him, and God's voice
through all! There, on the table, with the inky pen beside it, was
an unfinished sermon, with a sentence broken in the midst, where his
thoughts had ceased to gush out upon the page, two days before. He
knew that it was himself, the thin and white-cheeked minister, who had
done and suffered these things, and written thus far into the Election
Sermon! But he seemed to stand apart, and eye this former self with
scornful, pitying, but half-envious curiosity. That self was gone.
Another man had returned out of the forest; a wiser one; with a
knowledge of hidden mysteries which the simplicity of the former never
could have reached. A bitter kind of knowledge that!
While occupied with these reflections, a knock came at the door of
the study, and the minister said, "Come in!"- not wholly devoid of
an idea that he might behold an evil spirit. And so he did! It was old
Roger Chillingworth that entered. The minister stood, white and
speechless, with one hand on the Hebrew Scriptures, and the other
spread upon his breast.
"Welcome home, reverend sir," said the physician. "And how found you
that godly man, the Apostle Eliot? But methinks, dear sir, you look
pale; as if the travel through the wilderness had been too sore for
you. Will not my aid be requisite to put you in heart and strength
to preach your Election Sermon?"
"Nay, I think not so," rejoined the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. "My
journey, and the sight of the holy Apostle yonder, and the free air
which I have breathed, have done me good, after so long confinement in
my study. I think to need no more of your drugs, my kind physician,
good though they be, and administered by a friendly hand."
All this time, Roger Chillingworth was looking at the minister
with the grave and intent regard of a physician towards his patient.
But, in spite of his outward show, the latter was almost convinced
of the old man's knowledge, or, at least, his confident suspicion,
with respect to his own interview with Hester Prynne. The physician
knew then, that, in the minister's regard, he was no longer a
trusted friend, but his bitterest enemy. So much being known, it would
appear natural that a part of it should be expressed. It is
singular, however, how long a time often passes before words embody
things; and with what security two persons, who choose to avoid a
certain subject, may approach its very verge, and retire without
disturbing it. Thus, the minister felt no apprehension that Roger
Chillingworth would touch, in express words, upon the real position
which they sustained towards one another. Yet did the physician, in
his dark way, creep frightfully near the secret.
"Were it not better," said he, "that you use my poor skill to-night?
Verily, dear sir, we must take pains to make you strong and vigorous
for this occasion of the Election discourse. The people look for great
things from you; apprehending that another year may come about, and
find their pastor gone."
"Yea, to another world," replied the minister, with pious
resignation. "Heaven grant it be a better one; for, in good sooth, I
hardly think to tarry with my flock through the flitting seasons of
another year! But, touching your medicine, kind sir, in my present
frame of body, I need it not."
"I joy to hear it," answered the physician. "It may be that my
remedies, so long administered in vain, begin now to take due
effect. Happy man were I, and well deserving of New England's
gratitude, could I achieve this cure!"
"I thank you from my heart, most watchful friend," said the Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale, with a solemn smile. "I thank you, and can but requite
your good deeds with my prayers."
"A good man's prayers are golden recompense!" rejoined old Roger
Chillingworth, as he took his leave. "Yea, they are the current gold
coin of the New Jerusalem, with the King's own mint, mark on them!"
Left alone, the minister summoned a servant of the house, and
requested food, which, being set before him, he ate with ravenous
appetite. Then, flinging the already written pages of the Election
Sermon into the fire, he forthwith began another, which he wrote
with such an impulsive flow of thought and emotion, that he fancied
himself inspired; and only wondered that Heaven should see fit to
transmit the grand and solemn music of its oracles through so foul
an organ-pipe as he. However, leaving that mystery to solve itself, or
go unsolved for ever, he drove his task onward, with earnest haste and
ecstasy. Thus the night fled away, as if it were winged steed, and
he careering on it; morning came, and peeped, blushing, through the
curtains; and at last sunrise threw a golden beam into the study and
laid it right across the minister's bedazzled eyes. There he was, with
the pen still between his fingers, and a vast immeasurable tract of
written space behind him!
XXI.
THE NEW ENGLAND HOLIDAY.

BETIMES in the morning of the day on which the new Governor was to
receive his office at the hands of the people, Hester Prynne and
little Pearl came into the market-place. It was already thronged
with the craftsmen and other plebeian inhabitants of the town, in
considerable numbers; among whom, likewise, were many rough figures,
whose attire of deer-skins marked them as belonging to some of the
forest settlements, which surrounded the little metropolis of the
colony.
On this public holiday, as on all other occasions, for seven years
past, Hester was clad in a garment of coarse grey cloth. Not more by
its hue than by some indescribable peculiarity in its fashion, it
had the effect of making her fade personally out of sight and outline;
while, again, the scarlet letter brought her back from this twilight
indistinctness, and revealed her under the moral aspect of its own
illumination. Her face, so long familiar to the townspeople, showed
the marble quietude which they were accustomed to behold there. It was
like a mask; or, rather, like the frozen calmness of a dead woman's
features; owing this dreary resemblance to the fact that Hester was
actually dead, in respect to any claim of sympathy, and had departed
out of the world with which she still seemed to mingle.
It might be, on this one day, that there was an expression unseen
before, nor, indeed, vivid enough to be detected now; unless some
preternaturally gifted observer should have first read the heart,
and have afterwards sought a corresponding development in the
countenance and mien. Such a spiritual seer might have conceived,
that, after sustaining the gaze of the multitude through seven
miserable years as a necessity, a penance, and something which it
was a stern religion to endure, she now, for one last time more,
encountered it freely and voluntarily, in order to convert what had so
long been agony into a kind of triumph. "Look your last on the scarlet
letter and its wearer!"- the people's victim and life-long bond-slave,
as they fancied her, might say to them. "Yet a little while, and she
will be beyond your reach! A few hours longer, and the deep,
mysterious ocean will quench and hide for ever the symbol which ye
have caused to burn upon her bosom!" Nor were it an inconsistency
too improbable to be assigned to human nature, should we suppose a
feeling of regret in Hester's mind, at the moment when she was about
to win her freedom from the pain which had been thus deeply
incorporated with her being. Might there not be an irresistible desire
to quaff a last, long, breathless draught of the cup of wormwood and
aloes, with which nearly all her years of womanhood had been
perpetually flavoured? The wine of life, henceforth to be presented to
her lips, must be indeed rich, delicious, and exhilarating, in its
chased and golden beaker; or else leave an inevitable and weary
languor, after the lees of bitterness wherewith she had been
drugged, as with a cordial of intensest potency.
Pearl was decked out with airy gaiety. It would have been impossible
to guess that this bright and sunny apparition owed its existence to
the shape of gloomy grey; or that a fancy, at once so gorgeous and
so delicate as must have been requisite to contrive the child's
apparel, was the same that had achieved a task perhaps more difficult,
in imparting so distinct a peculiarity to Hester's simple robe. The
dress, so proper was it to little Pearl, seemed an effluence, or
inevitable development and outward manifestation of her character,
no more to be separated from her than the many-hued brilliancy from
a butterfly's wing, or the painted glory from the leaf of a bright
flower. As with these, so with the child; her garb was all of one idea
with her nature. On this eventful day, moreover, there was a certain
singular inquietude and excitement in her mood, resembling nothing
so much as the shimmer of a diamond, that sparkles and flashes with
the varied throbbings of the breast on which it is displayed. Children
have always a sympathy in the agitations of those connected with them;
always, especially, a sense of any trouble or impending revolution, of
whatever kind, in domestic circumstances; and therefore Pearl, who was
the gem on her mother's unquiet bosom, betrayed, by the very dance
of her spirits, the emotions which none could detect in the marble
passiveness of Hester's brow.
This effervescence made her flit with a birdlike movement, rather
than walk by her mother's side. She broke continually into shouts of a
wild, inarticulate, and sometimes piercing music. When they reached
the market-place, she became still more restless, on perceiving the
stir and bustle that enlivened the spot; for it was usually more
like the broad and lonesome green before a village meetinghouse,
than the centre of a town's business.
"Why, what is this, mother?" cried she. "Wherefore have all the
people left their work to-day? Is it a play-day for the whole world?
See, there is the blacksmith! He has washed his sooty face, and put on
his Sabbath-day clothes, and looks as if he would gladly be merry,
if any kind body would only teach him how! And there is Master
Brackett, the old jailer, nodding and smiling at me. Why does he do
so, mother?"
"He remembers thee a little babe, my child," answered Hester.
"He should not nod and smile at me for all that- the black, grim,
ugly-eyed old man!" said Pearl. "He may nod at thee, if he will; for
thou art clad in grey, and wearest the scarlet letter. But see,
mother, how many faces of strange people, and Indians among them,
and sailors! What have they all come to do, here in the market-place?"
"They wait to see the procession pass," said Hester. "For the
Governor and the magistrates are to go by, and the ministers, and
all the great people and good people, with the music and the
soldiers marching before them."
"And will the minister be there?" asked Pearl. "And will he hold out
both his hands to me, as when thou ledst me to him from the
brook-side?"
"He will be there, child," answered her mother. "But he will not
greet thee to-day; nor must thou greet him."
"What a strange, sad man is he!" said the child, as if speaking
partly to herself. "In the dark night-time he calls us to him, and
holds thy hand and mine, as when we stood with him on the scaffold
yonder! And in the deep forest, where only the old trees can hear, and
the strip of sky see it, he talks with thee, sitting on a heap of
moss! And he kisses my forehead, too, so that the little brook would
hardly wash it off! But here, in the sunny day, and among all the
people, he knows us not; nor must we know him! A strange, sad man is
he, with his hand always over his heart!"
"Be quiet, Pearl! Thou understandest not these things," said her
mother. "Think not now of the minister, but look about thee, and see
how cheery is everybody's face to-day. The children have come from
their schools, and the grown people from their workshops and their
fields, on purpose to be happy. For, to-day, a new man is beginning to
rule over them; and so- as has been the custom of mankind ever since a
nation was first gathered- they make merry and rejoice; as if a good
and golden year were at length to pass over the poor old world!"
It was as Hester said, in regard to the unwonted jollity that
brightened the faces of the people. Into this festal season of the
year- as it already was, and continued to be during the greater part
of two centuries- the Puritans compressed whatever mirth and public
joy they deemed allowable to human infirmity; thereby so far
dispelling the customary cloud, that, for the space of a single
holiday, they appeared scarcely more grave than most other communities
at a period of general affliction.
But we perhaps exaggerate the grey or sable tinge, which undoubtedly
characterised the mood and manners of the age. The persons now in
the market-place of Boston had not been born to an inheritance of
Puritanic gloom. They were native Englishmen, whose fathers had
lived in the sunny richness of the Elizabethan epoch; a time when
the life of England, viewed as one great mass, would appear to have
been as stately, magnificent, and joyous, as the world has ever
witnessed. Had they followed their hereditary taste, the New England
settlers would have illustrated all events of public importance by
bonfires, banquets, pageantries, and processions. Nor would it have
been impracticable, in the observance of majestic ceremonies, to
combine mirthful recreation with solemnity, and give, as it were, a
grotesque and brilliant embroidery to the great robe of state, which a
nation, at such festivals, puts on. There was some shadow of an
attempt of this kind in the mode of celebrating the day on which the
political year of the colony commenced. The dim reflection of a
remembered splendour, a colourless and manifold diluted repetition
of what they had beheld in proud old London- we will not say at a
royal coronation, but at a Lord Mayor's show- might be traced in the
customs which our forefathers instituted, with reference to the annual
installation of magistrates. The fathers and founders of the
commonwealth- the statesman, the priest, and the soldier- deemed it
a duty then to assume the outward state and majesty, which, in
accordance with antique style, was looked upon as the proper garb of
public or social eminence. All came forth to move in procession before
the people's eye, and thus impart a needed dignity to the simple
framework of a government so newly constructed.
Then, too, the people were countenanced, if not encouraged, in
relaxing the severe and close application to their various modes of
rugged industry, which, at all other times, seemed of the same piece
and material with their religion. Here, it is true, were none of the
appliances which popular merriment would so readily have found in
the England of Elizabeth's time, or that of James- no rude shows of
a theatrical kind; no minstrel, with his harp and legendary ballad,
nor gleeman, with an ape dancing to his music; no juggler, with his
tricks of mimic witchcraft; no Merry Andrew, to stir up the
multitude with jests, perhaps hundreds of years old, but still
effective, by their appeals to the very broadest sources of mirthful
sympathy. All such professors of the several branches of jocularity
would have been sternly repressed, not only by the rigid discipline of
law, but by the general sentiment which gives law its vitality. Not
the less, however, the great, honest face of the people smiled-
grimly, perhaps, but widely too. Nor were sports wanting, such as
the colonists had witnessed, and shared in, long ago, at the country
fairs and on the village-greens of England; and which it was thought
well to keep alive on this new soil, for the sake of the courage and
manliness that were essential in them. Wrestling-matches, in the
different fashions of Cornwall and Devonshire, were seen here and
there about the market-place; in one corner, there was a friendly bout
at quarterstaff; and- what attracted most interest of all- on the
platform of the pillory, already so noted in our pages, two masters of
defence were commencing an exhibition with the buckler and broadsword.
But, much to the disappointment of the crowd, this latter business was
broken off by the interposition of the town beadle, who had no idea of
permitting the majesty of the law to be violated by such an abuse of
one of its consecrated places.
It may not be too much to affirm, on the whole (the people being
then in the first stages of joyless deportment, and the offspring of
sires who had known how to be merry, in their day), that they would
compare favourably, in point of holiday keeping, with their
descendants, even at so long an interval as ourselves. Their immediate
posterity, the generation next to the early emigrants, wore the
blackest shade of Puritanism, and so darkened the national visage with
it, that all the subsequent years have not sufficed to clear it up. We
have yet to learn again the forgotten art of gaiety.
The picture of human life in the market-place, though its general
tint was the sad grey, brown, or black of the English emigrants, was
yet enlivened by some diversity of hue. A party of Indians- in their
savage finery of curiously embroidered deer-skin robes,
wampum-belts, red and yellow ochre, and feathers, and armed with the
bow and arrow and stone-headed spear- stood apart, with countenances
of inflexible gravity, beyond what even the Puritan aspect could
attain. Nor, wild as were these painted barbarians, were they the
wildest feature of the scene. This distinction could more justly be
claimed by some mariners-a part of the crew of the vessel from the
Spanish Main- who had come ashore to see the humours of Election
Day. They were rough-looking desperadoes, with sun-blackened faces,
and an immensity of beard; their wide, short trousers were confined
about the waist by belts, often clasped with a rough plate of gold,
and sustaining always a long knife, and, in some instances, a sword.
From beneath their broad-brimmed hats of palm-leaf, gleamed eyes
which, even in good-nature and merriment, had a kind of animal
ferocity. They transgressed, without fear or scruple, the rules of
behaviour that were binding on all others; smoking tobacco under the
beadle's very nose, although each whiff would have cost a townsman a
shilling; and quaffing, at their pleasure, draughts of wine or
aqua-vitae from pocket-flasks, which they freely tendered to the
gaping crowd around them. It remarkably characterised the incomplete
morality of the age, rigid as we call it, that a license was allowed
the seafaring class, not merely for their freaks on shore, but for far
more desperate deeds on their proper element. The sailor of that day
would go near to be arraigned as a pirate in our own. There could be
little doubt, for instance, that this very ship's crew, though no
unfavourable specimens of the nautical brotherhood, had been guilty,
as we should phrase it, of depredations on the Spanish commerce,
such as would have perilled all their necks in a modern court of
justice.
But the sea in those old times, heaved, swelled, and foamed, very
much at its own will, or subject only to the tempestuous wind, with
hardly any attempts at regulation by human law. The buccaneer on the
wave might relinquish his calling, and become at once, if he chose,
a man of probity and piety on land; nor, even in the full career of
his reckless life, was he regarded as a personage with whom it was
disreputable to traffic, or casually associate. Thus, the Puritan
elders, in their black cloaks, starched bands, and steeple-crowned
hats, smiled not unbenignantly at the clamour and rude deportment of
these jolly seafaring men; and it excited neither surprise nor
anim-adversion, when so reputable a citizen as old Roger
Chillingworth, the physician, was seen to enter the market-place, in
close and familiar talk with the commander of the questionable vessel.
The latter was by far the most showy and gallant figure, so far as
apparel went, anywhere to be seen among the multitude. He wore a
profusion of ribbons on his garment, and gold lace on his hat, which
was also encircled by a gold chain, and surmounted with a feather.
There was a sword at his side, and a sword-cut on his forehead, which,
by the arrangement of his hair, he seemed anxious rather to display
than hide. A landsman could hardly have worn this garb and shown
this face, and worn and shown them both with such a galliard air,
without undergoing stern question before a magistrate, and probably
incurring fine or imprisonment, or perhaps an exhibition in the
stocks. As regarded the shipmaster, however, all was looked upon as
pertaining to the character, as to a fish his glistening scales.
After parting from the physician, the commander of the Bristol
ship strolled idly through the market-place; until, happening to
approach the spot where Hester Prynne was standing, he appeared to
recognise, and did not hesitate to address her. As was usually the
case wherever Hester stood, a small vacant area- a sort of magic
circle- had formed itself about her, into which, though the people
were elbowing one another at a little distance, none ventured, or felt
disposed to intrude. It was a forcible type of the moral solitude in
which the scarlet letter enveloped its fated wearer; partly by her own
reserve, and partly by the instinctive, though no longer so
unkindly, withdrawal of her fellow-creatures. Now, if never before, it
answered a good purpose, by enabling Hester and the seaman to speak
together without the risk of being overheard; and so changed was
Hester Prynne's repute before the public, that the matron in town most
eminent for rigid morality could not have held such intercourse with
less result of scandal than herself.
"So, mistress," said the mariner, "I must bid the steward make ready
one more berth than you bargained for! No fear of scurvy or
ship-fever, this voyage! What with the ship's surgeon and this other
doctor, our only danger will be from drug or pill; more by token, as
there is a lot of apothecary's stuff aboard, which I traded for with a
Spanish vessel."
"What mean you?" inquired Hester, startled more than she permitted
to appear. "Have you another passenger?"
"Why, know you not," cried the shipmaster, "that this physician
here- Chillingworth, he calls himself- is minded to try my
cabin-fare with you? Ay, ay, you must have known it; for he tells me
he is of your party, and a close friend to the gentleman you spoke of-
he that is in peril from these sour old Puritan rulers!"
"They know each other well, indeed," replied Hester, with a mien
of calmness, though in the utmost consternation. "They have long dwelt
together."
Nothing further passed between the mariner and Hester Prynne. But,
at that instant, she beheld old Roger Chillingworth himself,
standing in the remotest corner of the market-place, and smiling on
her; a smile which- across the wide and bustling square, and through
all the talk and laughter, and various thoughts, moods, and
interests of the crowd- conveyed secret and fearful meaning.
XXII.
THE PROCESSION.

BEFORE Hester Prynne could call together her thoughts, and
consider what was practicable to be done in this new and startling
aspect of affairs, the sound of military music was heard approaching
along a contiguous street. It denoted the advance of the procession of
magistrates and citizens, on its way towards the meeting-house; where,
in compliance with a custom thus early established, and ever since
observed, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale was to deliver an Election
Sermon.
Soon the head of the procession showed itself with a slow and
stately march, turning a corner, and making its way across the
market-place. First came the music. It comprised a variety of
instruments, perhaps imperfectly adapted to one another, and played
with no great skill; but yet attaining the great object for which the
harmony of drum and clarion addresses itself to the multitude- that
of imparting a higher and more heroic air to the scene of life that
passes before the eye. Little Pearl at first clapped her hands, but
then lost, for an instant, the restless agitation that had kept her in
a continual effervescence throughout the morning; she gazed
silently, and seemed to be borne upward, like a floating sea-bird,
on the long heaves and swells of sound. But she was brought back to
her former mood by the shimmer of the sunshine on the weapons and
bright armour of the military company, which followed after the music,
and formed the honorary escort of the procession. This body of
soldiery- which still sustains a corporate existence, and marches down
from past ages with an ancient and honourable fame- was composed of no
mercenary materials. Its ranks were filled with gentlemen, who felt
the stirrings of martial impulse, and sought to establish a kind of
College of Arms, where, as in an association of Knights Templars, they
might learn the science, and, so far as peaceful exercise would
teach them, the practices of war. The high estimation then placed upon
the military character might be seen in the lofty port of each
individual member of the company. Some of them, indeed, by their
services in the Low Countries and on other fields of European warfare,
had fairly won their title to assume the name and pomp of soldiership.
The entire array, moreover, clad in burnished steel, and with
plumage nodding over their bright morions, had a brilliancy of
effect which no modern display can aspire to equal.
And yet the men of civil eminence, who came immediately behind the
military escort, were better worth a thoughtful observer's eye. Even
in outward demeanour, they showed a stamp of majesty that made the
warrior's haughty stride look vulgar, if not absurd. It was an age
when what we call talent had far less consideration than now, but
the massive materials which produce stability and dignity of character
a great deal more. The people possessed, by hereditary right, the
quality of reverence; which, in their descendants, if it survive at
all, exists in smaller proportion, and with a vastly diminished force,
in the selection and estimate of public men. The change may be for
good or ill, and is partly, perhaps, for both. In that old day, the
English settler on these rude shores- having left king, nobles, and
all degrees of awful rank behind, while still the faculty and
necessity of reverence were strong in him- bestowed it on the white
hair and venerable brow of age; on long-tried integrity; on solid
wisdom and sad-coloured experience; on endowments of that grave and
weighty order which gives the idea of permanence, and comes under
the general definition of respectability. These primitive statesmen,
therefore- Bradstreet, Endicott, Dudley, Bellingham, and their
compeers- who were elevated to power by the early choice of the
people, seem to have been not often brilliant, but distinguished by
a ponderous sobriety, rather than activity of intellect. They had
fortitude and self-reliance, and, in time of difficulty or peril,
stood up for the welfare of the state like a line of cliffs against
a tempestuous tide. The traits of character here indicated were well
represented in the square cast of countenance and large physical
development of the new colonial magistrates. So far as a demeanour
of natural authority was concerned, the mother country need not have
been ashamed to see these foremost men of an actual democracy
adopted into the House of Peers, or made the Privy Council of the
sovereign.
Next in order to the magistrates came the young and eminently
distinguished divine, from whose lips the religious discourse of the
anniversary was expected. His was the profession, at that era, in
which intellectual ability displayed itself far more than in political
life; for- leaving a higher motive out of the question- it offered
inducements powerful enough, in the almost worshipping respect of
the community, to win the most aspiring ambition into its service.
Even political power- as in the case of Increase Mather- was within
the grasp of a successful priest.
It was the observation of those who beheld him now, that never,
since Mr. Dimmesdale first set his foot on the New England shore,
had he exhibited such energy as was seen in the gait and air with
which he kept his pace in the procession. There was no feebleness of
step, as at other times; his frame was not bent; nor did his hand rest
ominously upon his heart. Yet, if the clergyman were rightly viewed,
his strength seemed not of the body. It might be spiritual, and
imparted to him by angelic ministrations. It might be the exhilaration
of that potent cordial, which is distilled only in the furnace-glow of
earnest and long-continued thought. Or, perchance, his sensitive
temperament was invigorated by the loud and piercing music, that
swelled heavenward, and uplifted him on its ascending wave.
Nevertheless, so abstracted was his look, it might be questioned
whether Mr. Dimmesdale even heard the music. There was his body,
moving onward, and with an unaccustomed force. But where was his mind?
Far and deep in its own region, busying itself, with preternatural
activity, to marshal a procession of stately thoughts that were soon
to issue thence; and so he saw nothing, heard nothing, knew nothing,
of what was around him; but the spiritual element took up the feeble
frame, and carried it along, unconscious of the burden, and converting
it to spirit like himself. Men of uncommon intellect, who have grown
morbid, possess this occasional power of mighty effort, into which
they throw the life of many days, and then are lifeless for as many
more.
Hester Prynne, gazing steadfastly at the clergyman, felt a dreary
influence come over her, but wherefore or whence she knew not;
unless that he seemed so remote from her own sphere, and utterly
beyond her reach. One glance of recognition, she had imagined, must
needs pass between them. She thought of the dim forest, with its
little dell of solitude, and love, and anguish, and the mossy
tree-trunk, where, sitting hand in hand, they had mingled their sad
and passionate talk with the melancholy murmur of the brook. How
deeply had they known each other then! And was this the man? She
hardly knew him now! He, moving proudly past, enveloped, as it were,
in the rich music, with the procession of majestic and venerable
fathers; he, so unattainable in his worldly position, and still more
so in that far vista of his unsympathising thoughts, through which she
now beheld him! Her spirit sank with the idea that all must have
been a delusion, and that, vividly as she had dreamed it, there
could be no real bond betwixt the clergyman and herself. And thus much
of woman was there in Hester, that she could scarcely forgive him-
least of all now, when the heavy footstep of their approaching Fate
might be heard, nearer, nearer, nearer!- for being able so
completely to withdraw himself from their mutual world; while she
groped darkly, and stretched forth her cold hands, and found him not.
Pearl either saw and responded to her mother's feelings, or
herself felt the remoteness and intangibility that had fallen around
the minister. While the procession passed, the child was uneasy,
fluttering up and down, like a bird on the point of taking flight.
When the whole had gone by, she looked up into Hester's face.
"Mother," said she, "was that the same minister that kissed me by
the brook?"
"Hold thy peace, dear little Pearl!" whispered her mother. "We
must not always talk in the market-place of what happens to us in
the forest."
"I could not be sure that it was he; so strange he looked,"
continued the child. "Else I would have run to him, and bid him kiss
me now, before all the people; even as he did yonder among the dark
old trees. What would the minister have said, mother? Would he have
clapped his hand over his heart, and scowled on me, and bid me
begone?"
"What should he say, Pearl?" answered Hester, "save that it was no
time to kiss, and that kisses are not to be given in the market-place?
Well for thee, foolish child, that thou didst not speak to him!"
Another shade of the same sentiment, in reference to Mr. Dimmesdale,
was expressed by a person whose eccentricities- or insanity, as we
should term it- led her to do what few of the townspeople would have
ventured on; to begin a conversation with the wearer of the scarlet
letter, in public. It was Mistress Hibbins, who, arrayed in great
magnificence, with a triple ruff, a broidered stomacher, a gown of
rich velvet, and a gold-headed cane, had come forth to see the
procession. As this ancient lady had the renown (which subsequently
cost her no less a price than her life) of being a principal actor
in all the works of necromancy that were continually going forward,
the crowd gave way before her, and seemed to fear the touch of her
garment, as if it carried the plague among its gorgeous folds. Seen in
conjunction with Hester Prynne- kindly as so many now felt towards the
latter- the dread inspired by Mistress Hibbins was doubled, and caused
a general movement from that part of the market-place in which the two
women stood.
"Now, what mortal imagination could conceive it!" whispered the
old lady, confidentially, to Hester. "Yonder divine man! That saint on
earth, as the people uphold him to be, and as- I must needs say- he
really looks! Who, now, that saw him pass in the procession, would
think how little while it is since he went forth out of his study-
chewing a Hebrew text of Scripture in his mouth, I warrant- to take an
airing in the forest! Aha! we know what that means, Hester Prynne!
But, truly, forsooth, I find it hard to believe him the same man. Many
a church-member saw I, walking behind the music, that has danced in
the same measure with me, when Somebody was fiddler, and, it might be,
an Indian powwow or a Lapland wizard changing hands with us! That is
but a trifle, when a woman knows the world. But this minister! Couldst
thou surely tell, Hester, whether he was the same man that encountered
thee on the forest-path?"
"Madam, I know not of what you speak," answered Hester Prynne,
feeling Mistress Hibbins to be of infirm mind; yet strangely
startled and awe-stricken by the confidence with which she affirmed
a personal connection between so many persons (herself among them) and
the Evil One. "It is not for me to talk lightly of a learned and pious
minister of the Word, like the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale!"
"Fie, woman, fie!" cried the old lady, shaking her finger at Hester.
"Dost thou think I have been to the forest so many times, and have yet
no skill to judge who else has been there? Yea; though no leaf of
the wild garlands, which they wore while they danced, be left in their
hair! I know thee, Hester; for I behold the token. We may all see it
in the sunshine; and it glows like a red flame in the dark. Thou
wearest it openly; so there need be no question about that. But this
minister! Let me tell thee, in thine ear! When the Black Man sees
one of his own servants, signed and sealed, so shy of owning to the
bond as is the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, he hath a way of ordering
matters so that the mark shall be disclosed in open daylight to the
eyes of all the world! What is it that the minister seeks to hide,
with his hand always over his heart? Ha, Hester Prynne!"
"What is it, good Mistress Hibbins?" eagerly asked little Pearl.
"Hast thou seen it?"
"No matter, darling!" responded Mistress Hibbins, making Pearl a
profound reverence. "Thou thyself wilt see it, one time or another.
They say, child, thou art of the lineage of the Prince of the Air!
Wilt thou ride with me, some fine night, to see thy father? Then
thou shalt know wherefore the minister keeps his hand over his heart!"
Laughing so shrilly that all the market-place could hear her, the
weird old gentlewoman took her departure.
By this time the preliminary prayer had been offered in the
meeting-house, and the accents of the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale were
heard commencing his discourse. An irresistible feeling kept Hester
near the spot. As the sacred edifice was too much thronged to admit
another auditor, she took up her position close beside the scaffold of
the pillory. It was in sufficient proximity to bring the whole
sermon to her ears, in the shape of an indistinct, but varied,
murmur and flow of the minister's very peculiar voice.
The vocal organ was in itself a rich endowment; insomuch that a
listener, comprehending nothing of the language in which the
preacher spoke, might still have been swayed to and fro by the mere
tone and cadence. Like all other music, it breathed passion and
pathos, and emotions high or tender, in a tongue native to the human
heart, wherever educated. Muffled as the sound was by its passage
through the church walls, Hester Prynne listened with such intentness,
and sympathised so intimately, that the sermon had throughout a
meaning for her, entirely apart from its indistinguishable words.
These, perhaps, if more distinctly heard, might have been only a
grosser medium, and have clogged the spiritual sense. Now she caught
the low undertone, as of the wind sinking down to repose itself;
then ascended with it, as it rose through progressive gradations of
sweetness and power, until its volume seemed to envelop her with an
atmosphere of awe and solemn grandeur. And yet, majestic as the
voice sometimes became, there was for ever in it an essential
character of plaintiveness; a loud or low expression of anguish- the
whisper, or the shriek, as it might be conceived, of suffering
humanity, that touched a sensibility in every bosom! At times this
deep strain of pathos was all that could be heard, and scarcely heard,
sighing amid a desolate silence. But even when the minister's voice
grew high and commanding- when it gushed irrepressibly upward- when it
assumed its utmost breadth and power, so overfilling the church as
to burst its way through the solid walls, and diffuse itself in the
open air- still, if the auditor listened intently, and for the
purpose, he could detect the same cry of pain. What was it? The
complaint of a human heart, sorrow-laden, perchance guilty, telling
its secret, whether of guilt or sorrow, to the great heart of mankind;
beseeching its sympathy or forgiveness- at every moment- in each
accent- and never in vain! It was this profound and continual
undertone that gave the clergyman his most appropriate power.
During all this time, Hester stood, statue-like, at the foot of
the scaffold. If the minister's voice had not kept her there, there
would nevertheless have been an inevitable magnetism in that spot,
whence she dated the first hour of her life of ignominy. There was a
sense within her- to ill-defined to be made a thought, but weighing
heavily on her mind- that her whole orb of life, both before and
after, was connected with this spot, as with the one point that gave
it unity.
Little Pearl, meanwhile, had quitted her mother's side, and was
playing at her own will about the market-place. She made the sombre
crowd cheerful by her erratic and glistening ray; even as a bird of
bright plumage illuminates a whole tree of dusty foliage, by darting
to and fro, half seen and half concealed amid the twilight of the
clustering leaves. She had an undulating, but, oftentimes, a sharp and
irregular movement. It indicated the restless vivacity of her
spirit, which to-day was doubly indefatigable in its tiptoe dance,
because it was played upon and vibrated with her mother's disquietude.
Whenever Pearl saw anything to excite her ever active and wandering
curiosity, she flew thitherward, and, as we might say, seized upon
that man or thing as her own property, so far as she desired it; but
without yielding the minutest degree of control over her motions in
requital. The Puritans looked on, and, if they smiled, were none the
less inclined to pronounce the child a demon offspring, from the
indescribable charm of beauty and eccentricity that shone through
her little figure, and sparkled with its activity. She ran and
looked the wild Indian in the face; and he grew conscious of a
nature wilder than his own. Thence, with native audacity, but still
with a reserve as characteristic, she flew into the midst of a group
of mariners, the swarthy-cheeked wild men of the ocean, as the Indians
were of the land; and they gazed wonderingly and admiringly at
Pearl, as if a flake of the sea-foam had taken the shape of a little
maid, and were gifted with a soul of the sea-fire, that flashes
beneath the prow in the night-time.
One of these seafaring men- the shipmaster, indeed, who had spoken
to Hester Prynne- was so smitten with Pearl's aspect, that he
attempted to lay hands upon her, with purpose to snatch a kiss.
Finding it as impossible to touch her as to catch a humming-bird in
the air, he took from his hat the gold chain that was twisted about
it, and threw it to the child. Pearl immediately twined it around
her neck and waist, with such happy skill, that, once seen there, it
became a part of her, and it was difficult to imagine her without it.
"Thy mother is yonder woman with the scarlet letter," said the
seaman. "Wilt thou carry her a message from me?"
"If the message pleases me, I will," answered Pearl.
"Then tell her," rejoined he, "that I spake again with the
black-a-visaged, hump-shouldered old doctor, and he engages to bring
his friend, the gentleman she wots of, aboard with him. So let thy
mother take no thought, save for herself and thee. Wilt thou tell
her this, thou witch-baby?"
"Mistress Hibbins says my father is the Prince of the Air!" cried
Pearl, with a naughty smile. "If thou callest me that ill name, I
shall tell him of thee; and he will chase thy ship with a tempest!"
Pursuing a zigzag course across the market-place, the child returned
to her mother, and communicated what the mariner had said. Hester's
strong, calm, steadfastly enduring spirit almost sank, at last, on
beholding this dark and grim countenance of an inevitable doom, which-
at the moment when a passage seemed to open for the minister and
herself out of their labyrinth of misery- showed itself, with an
unrelenting smile, right in the midst of their path.
With her mind harassed by the terrible perplexity in which the
shipmaster's intelligence involved her, she was also subjected to
another trial. There were many people present, from the country
round about, who had often heard scarlet letter, and to whom it had
been made terrific by a hundred false or exaggerated rumours, but
who had never beheld it with their own bodily eyes. These, after
exhausting other modes of amusement, now thronged about Hester
Prynne with rude and boorish intrusiveness. Unscrupulous as it was,
however, it could not bring them nearer than a circuit of several
yards. At that distance they accordingly stood, fixed there by the
centrifugal force of the repugnance which the mystic symbol
inspired. The whole gang of sailors, likewise, observing the press
of spectators, and learning the purport of the scarlet letter, came
and thrust their sunburnt and desperado-looking faces into the ring.
Even the Indians were affected by a sort of cold shadow of the white
man's curiosity, and, gliding through the crowd, fastened their
snake-like black eyes on Hester's bosom; conceiving, perhaps, that the
wearer of this brilliantly embroidered badge must needs be a personage
of high dignity among her people. Lastly the inhabitants of the town
(their own interest in this worn-out subject languidly reviving
itself, by sympathy with what they saw others feel) lounged idly to
the same quarter, and tormented Hester Prynne, perhaps more than all
the rest, with their cool, well-acquainted gaze at her familiar shame.
Hester saw and recognised the self-same faces of that group of
matrons, who had awaited her forthcoming from the prison-door, seven
years ago; all save one, the youngest and only compassionate among
them, whose burial-robe she had since made. At the final hour, when
she was so soon to fling aside the burning letter, it had strangely
become the centre of more remark and excitement, and was thus made
to sear her breast more painfully, than at any time since the first
day she put it on.
While Hester stood in that magic circle of ignominy, where the
cunning cruelty of her sentence seemed to have fixed her for ever, the
admirable preacher was looking down from the sacred pulpit upon an
audience, whose very inmost spirits had yielded to his control. The
sainted minister in the church! The woman of the scarlet letter in the
market-place! What imagination would have been irreverent enough to
surmise that the same scorching stigma was on them both!
XXIII.
THE REVELATION OF THE SCARLET LETTER.

THE eloquent voice, on which the souls of the listening audience had
been borne aloft as on the swelling waves of the sea, at length came
to a pause. There was a momentary silence, profound as what should
follow the utterance of oracles. Then ensued a murmur and
half-hushed tumult; as if the auditors, released from the high spell
that had transported them into the region of another's mind, were
returning into themselves, with all their awe and wonder still heavy
on them. In a moment more, the crowd began to gush forth from the
doors of the church. Now that there was an end, they needed other
breath, more fit to support the gross and earthly life into which they
relapsed, than that atmosphere which the preacher had converted into
words of flame, and had burdened with the rich fragrance of his
thought.
In the open air their rapture broke into speech. The street and
the market-place absolutely babbled, from side to side, with applauses
of the minister. His hearers could not rest until they had told one
another of what each knew better than he could tell or hear. According
to their united testimony, never had man spoken in so wise, so high,
and so holy a spirit, as he that spake this day; nor had inspiration
ever breathed through mortal lips more evidently than it did through
his. Its influence could be seen, as it were, descending upon him, and
possessing him, and continually lifting him out of the written
discourse that lay before him, and filling him with ideas that must
have been as marvellous to himself as to his audience. His subject, it
appeared, had been the relation between the Deity and the
communities of mankind, with a special reference to the New England
which they were here planting in the wilderness. And, as he drew
towards the close, a spirit as of prophecy had come upon him,
constraining him to its purpose as mightily as the old prophets of
Israel were constrained; only with this difference, that, whereas
the Jewish seers had denounced judgments and ruin on their country, it
was his mission to foretell a high and glorious destiny for the
newly gathered people of the Lord. But, throughout it all, and through
the whole discourse, there had been a certain deep, sad undertone of
pathos, which could not be interpreted otherwise than as the natural
regret of one soon to pass away. Yes; their minister whom they so
loved- and who so loved them all, that he could not depart
heavenward without a sigh- had the foreboding of untimely death upon
him, and would soon leave them in their tears! This idea of his
transitory stay on earth gave the last emphasis to the effect which
the preacher had produced; it was as if an angel, in his passage to
the skies, had shaken his bright wings over the people for an instant-
at once a shadow and a splendour- and had shed down a shower of golden
truths upon them.
Thus, there had come to the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale- as to most men,
in their various spheres, though seldom recognised until they see it
far behind them- an epoch of life more brilliant and full of triumph
than any previous one, or that any which could hereafter be. He stood,
at this moment, on the very proudest eminence of superiority, to which
the gifts of intellect, rich lore, prevailing eloquence, and a
reputation of whitest sanctity, could exalt a clergyman in New
England's earliest days, when the professional character was of itself
a lofty pedestal. Such was the position which the minister occupied,
as he bowed his head forward on the cushions of the pulpit, at the
close of his Election Sermon. Meanwhile Hester Prynne was standing
beside the scaffold of the pillory, with the scarlet letter still
burning on her breast!
Now was heard again the clangour of the music, and the measured
tramp of the military escort, issuing from the church-door. The
procession was to be marshalled thence to the town-hall, where a
solemn banquet would complete the ceremonies of the day.
Once more, therefore, the train of venerable and majestic fathers
was seen moving through a broad pathway of the people, who drew back
reverently, on either side, as the Governor and magistrates, the old
and wise men, the holy ministers, and all that were eminent and
renowned, advanced into the midst of them. When they were fairly in
the market-place, their presence was greeted by a shout. This-
though doubtless it might acquire additional force and volume from the
child- like loyalty which the age awarded to its rulers- was felt to
be an irrepressible outburst of enthusiasm kindled in the auditors
by that high strain of eloquence which was yet reverberating in
their ears. Each felt the impulse in himself, and, in the same breath,
caught it from his neighbour. Within the church, it had hardly been
kept down; beneath the sky, it pealed upward to the zenith. There were
human beings enough, and enough of highly wrought and symphonious
feeling, to produce that more impressive sound than the organ tones of
the blast, or the thunder, or the roar of the sea, even that mighty
swell of many voices, blended into one great voice by the universal
impulse which makes likewise one vast heart out of the many. Never,
from the soil of New England, had gone up such a shout! Never, on
New England soil, had stood the man so honoured by his mortal brethren
as the preacher!
How fared it with him then? Were there not the brilliant particles
of a halo in the air about his head! So etherealised by spirit as he
was, and so apotheosised by worshipping admirers, did his footsteps,
in the procession, really tread upon the dust of earth?
As the ranks of military men and civil fathers moved onward, all
eyes were turned towards the point where the minister was seen to
approach among them. The shout died into a murmur, as one portion of
the crowd after another obtained a glimpse of him. How feeble and pale
he looked, amid all his triumph! The energy- or say, rather, the
inspiration which had held him up, until he should have delivered
the sacred message that brought its own strength along with it from
heaven- was withdrawn, now that it had so faithfully performed its
office. The glow, which they had just before beheld burning on his
cheek, was extinguished, like a flame that sinks down hopelessly among
the late-decaying embers. It seemed hardly the face of a man alive,
with such a deathlike hue; it was hardly a man with life in him,
that tottered on his path so nervelessly, yet tottered, and did not
fall!
One of his clerical brethren- it was the venerable John Wilson-
observing the state in which Mr. Dimmesdale was left by the retiring
wave of intellect and sensibility, stepped forward hastily to offer
his support. The minister tremulously, but decidedly, repelled the old
man's arm. He still walked onward, if that movement could be so
described, which rather resembled the wavering effort of an infant,
with its mother's arms in view, outstretched to tempt him forward. And
now, almost imperceptible as were the latter steps of his progress, he
had come opposite the well-remembered and weather-darkened scaffold,
where, long since, with all that dreary lapse of time between,
Hester Prynne had encountered the world's ignominious stare. There
stood Hester, holding little Pearl by the hand! And there was the
scarlet letter on her breast! The minister here made a pause; although
the music still played the stately and rejoicing march to which the
procession moved. It summoned him onward- onward to the festival!- but
here he made a pause.
Bellingham, for the last few moments, had kept an anxious eye upon
him. He now left his own place in the procession, and advanced to give
assistance; judging, from Mr. Dimmesdale's aspect, that he must
otherwise inevitably fall. But there was something in the latter's
expression that warned back the magistrate, although a man not readily
obeying the vague intimations that pass from one spirit to another.
The crowd, meanwhile, looked on with awe and wonder. This earthly
faintness was, in their view, only another phase of the ministers'
celestial strength; nor would it have seemed a miracle too high to
be wrought for one so holy, had he ascended before their eyes,
waxing dimmer and brighter, and fading at last into the light of
heaven!
He turned towards the scaffold, and stretched forth his arms.
"Hester," said he, "come hither! Come, my little Pearl!"
It was a ghastly look with which he regarded them; but there was
something at once tender and strangely triumphant in it. The child,
with the bird-like motion which was one of her characteristics, flew
to him, and clasped her arms about his knees. Hester Prynne- slowly,
as if impelled by inevitable fate, and against her strongest will-
likewise drew near, but paused before she reached him. At this
instant, old Roger Chillingworth thrust himself through the crowd- or,
perhaps, so dark, disturbed, and evil was his look, he rose up out
of some nether region- to snatch back his victim from what he sought
to do! Be that as it might, the old man rushed forward, and caught the
minister by the arm.
"Madman, hold! what is your purpose?" whispered he. "Wave back
that woman! Cast off this child! All shall be well! Do not blacken
your fame, and perish in dishonour. I can yet save you! Would you
bring infamy on your sacred profession?"
"Ha, tempter! Methinks thou art too late!" answered the minister,
encountering his eye, fearfully, but firmly. "Thy power is not what it
was! With God's help, I shall escape thee now!"
He again extended his hand to the woman of the scarlet letter.
"Hester Prynne," cried he, with a piercing earnestness, "in the name
of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace, at this
last moment, to do what- for my own heavy sin and miserable agony- I
withheld myself from doing seven years ago, come hither now, and twine
thy strength about me! Thy strength, Hester; but let it be guided by
the will which God hath granted me! This wretched and wronged old
man is opposing it with all his might!- with all his own might, and
the fiend's! Come, Hester, come! Support me up yonder scaffold!"
The crowd was in a tumult. The men of rank and dignity, who stood
more immediately around the clergyman, were so taken by surprise,
and so perplexed as to the purport of what they saw- unable to receive
the explanation which most readily presented itself, or to imagine any
other- that they remained silent and inactive spectators of the
judgment which Providence seemed about to work. They beheld the
minister, leaning on Hester's shoulder, and supported by her arm
around him, approach the scaffold, and ascend its steps; while still
the little hand of the sin-born child was clasped in his. Old Roger
Chillingworth followed, as one intimately connected with the drama
of guilt and sorrow in which they had all been actors, and well
entitled, therefore, to be present at its closing scene.
"Hadst thou sought the whole earth over," said he, looking darkly at
the clergyman, "there was no one place so secret- no high place nor
lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me- save on this very
scaffold!"
"Thanks be to Him who hath led me hither" answered the minister.
Yet he trembled, and turned to Hester with an expression of doubt
and anxiety in his eyes, not the less evidently betrayed, that there
was a feeble smile upon his lips.
"Is not this better," murmured he, "than what we dreamed of in the
forest?"
"I know not! I know not!" she hurriedly replied. "Better? Yea; so we
may both die, and little Pearl die with us!"
"For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order," said the minister;
"and God is merciful! Let me now do the will which He hath made
plain before my sight. For, Hester, I am a dying man. So let me make
haste to take my shame upon me!"
Partly supported by Hester Prynne, and holding one hand of little
Pearl's, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale turned to the dignified and
venerable rulers; to the holy ministers, who were his brethren; to the
people, whose great heart was thoroughly appalled, yet overflowing
with tearful sympathy, as knowing that some deep life-matter- which,
if full of sin, was full of anguish and repentance likewise- was now
to be laid open to them. The sun, but little past its meridian,
shone down upon the clergyman, and gave a distinctness to his
figure, as he stood out from all the earth, to put in his plea of
guilty at the bar of Eternal Justice.
"People of New England!" cried he, with a voice that rose over them,
high, solemn, and majestic- yet had always a tremor through it, and
sometimes a shriek, struggling up out of a fathomless depth of remorse
and woe- "ye, that have loved me!- ye, that have deemed me holy-
behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last!- at last!- I
stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood;
here, with this woman, whose arm, more than the little strength
wherewith I have crept hitherward, sustains me, at this dreadful
moment, from grovelling down upon my face! Lo, the scarlet letter
which Hester wears! Ye have all shuddered at it! Wherever her walk
hath been- wherever, so miserably burdened, she may have hoped to find
repose- it hath cast a lurid gleam of awe and horrible repugnance
round about her. But there stood one in the midst of you, at whose
brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!"
It seemed, at this point, as if the minister must leave the
remainder of his secret undisclosed. But he fought back the bodily
weakness- and, still more, the faintness of heart- that was striving
for the mastery with him. He threw off all assistance, and stepped
passionately forward a pace before the woman and the child.
"It was on him!" he continued, with a kind of fierceness; so
determined was he to speak out the whole. "God's eye beheld it! The
angels were forever pointing at it! The Devil knew it well, and
fretted it continually with the touch of his burning finger! But he
hid it cunningly from men, and walked among you with the mien of a
spirit, mournful, because so pure in a sinful world!- and sad, because
he missed his heavenly kindred! Now, at the death-hour, he stands up
before you! He bids you look again at Hester's scarlet letter! He
tells you, that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the
shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own
red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost
heart! Stand any here that question God's judgment on a sinner?
Behold! Behold a dreadful witness of it!"
With a convulsive motion, he tore away the ministerial band from
before his breast. It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe
that revelation. For an instant, the gaze of the horror-stricken
multitude was concentred on the ghastly miracle; while the minister
stood, with a flush of triumph in his face, as one who, in the
crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory. Then, down he sank upon the
scaffold! Hester partly raised him, and supported his head against her
bosom. Old Roger Chillingworth knelt down beside him, with a blank,
dull countenance, out of which the life seemed to have departed.
"Thou hast escaped me!" he repeated more than once. "Thou hast
escaped me!"
"May God forgive thee!" said the minister. "Thou, too, hast deeply
sinned!"

 

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