Part 4 out of 5
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 gray
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 seaweed 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's 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 sole 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 have been made a friend, and
intrusted 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--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
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 supper-time, 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 enquiry, which she had so unaccountably
connected with her investigations about the scarlet letter--
"Mother!--Mother!--Why does the minister keep his hand over his
"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 put 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 imparted 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 thought of meeting him in any
narrower privacy than beneath the open sky.
At last, while attending a sick chamber, whither the Rev. 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 foot-path. 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 gray 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 further 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
"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 nighttime?"
"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
"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 underbush, and here and there a huge rock covered
over with gray 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.
"Oh, brook! Oh, 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
"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
"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
"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 crevice 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 wofully 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 further, 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 gray 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
"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 awhile, 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 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 hast 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
"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 disorganize 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 laid down on the
forest leaves, and died there, at Arthur Dimmesdale's feet.
"Oh, 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? Oh, 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 art accountable for this!--I cannot forgive
"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
"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 unclosed 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
"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
"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
"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 shouldst 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!"
"Oh, 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
It was the last expression of the despondency of a broken spirit.
He lacked energy to grasp the better fortune that seemed within
He repeated the word--"Alone, Hester!"
"Thou shall 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 clergymen 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 broker, 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, 1 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
"Do I feel joy again?" cried he, wondering at himself.
"Methought the germ of it was dead in me! Oh, 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 if 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 further
flight, it would have fallen into the water, and have give, 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
The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the
burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. O
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
her 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 gray 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 a 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.
"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 threateningly, 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 the 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 wilderness 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 Bowers 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 BROOKSIDE
"Thou will 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--oh, 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 to 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 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 past years, 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
"Let her see nothing strange--no passion or eagerness--in thy
way of accosting her," whispered Hester. "Our Pearl is a fitful
and fantastic little elf sometimes. Especially she is generally
intolerant 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 further 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 spiritualized 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 tantalizing 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 were 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
"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
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 wrath 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 that 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 clergyman, and then a heavy sigh,
while, even before she had time to speak, the blush yielded to a
"Pearl," said she sadly, "look down at thy feet! There!--before
thee!--on 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 gray shadow seemed to fall
When the dreary change was wrought, she extended her hand to
"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
"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
"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, my 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
"And will he always keep his hand over his heart?" inquired
"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
And now this fateful interview had come to a close. The dell was
to be left in 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 gray 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
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 sea-board. 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
civilization and refinement; the higher the state the more
delicately adapted to it the man. In futherance of this choice,
it so happened that a ship lay in the harbour; one of those
unquestionable 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. "This 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 or 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 underbush,
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, not 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 a 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,
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 widows 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 work-bag--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 black-guard, 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
"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
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 Anne 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
"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 connexion.
"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 its 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
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 this 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 he 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
tonight? 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."
"Yes, 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
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 a 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 gray 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 sneer might have
conceived, that, after sustaining the gaze of the multitude
through several 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 lifelong 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 on 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 gray; 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 bird-like 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 meeting-house, 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 gray, 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 led'st me to him from the
"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 nighttime 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
But we perhaps exaggerate the gray or sable tinge, which
undoubtedly characterized 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--seemed 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 and 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 a hundred
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 give 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 gray, 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 deerskin
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 licence 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
animadversion 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
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 a 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 risk of being overheard; and so
changed was Hester Prynne's repute before the public, that the