The Scarlet Letter

Part 5 out of 5

matron in town, most eminent for rigid morality, could not have
held such intercourse with less result of scandal than herself.

"So, mistress," said the mariner, "I must bid the steward make
ready one more berth than you bargained for! No fear of scurvy
or ship fever this voyage. What with the ship's surgeon and this
other doctor, our only danger will be from drug or pill; more by
token, as there is a lot of apothecary's stuff aboard, which I
traded for with a Spanish vessel."

"What mean you?" inquired Hester, startled more than she
permitted to appear. "Have you another passenger?"

"Why, know you not," cried the shipmaster, "that this physician
here--Chillingworth he calls himself--is minded to try my
cabin-fare with you? Ay, ay, you must have known it; for he
tells me he is of your party, and a close friend to the gentleman you
spoke of--he that is in peril from these sour old Puritan rulers."

"They know each other well, indeed," replied Hester, with a mien
of calmness, though in the utmost consternation. "They have long
dwelt together."

Nothing further passed between the mariner and Hester Prynne.
But at that instant she beheld old Roger Chillingworth himself,
standing in the remotest comer of the market-place and smiling on
her; a smile which--across the wide and bustling square, and
through all the talk and laughter, and various thoughts, moods,
and interests of the crowd--conveyed secret and fearful


Before Hester Prynne could call together her thoughts, and
consider what was practicable to be done in this new and
startling aspect of affairs, the sound of military music was
heard approaching along a contiguous street. It denoted the
advance of the procession of magistrates and citizens on its way
towards the meeting-house: where, in compliance with a custom
thus early established, and ever since observed, the Reverend Mr.
Dimmesdale was to deliver an Election Sermon.

Soon the head of the procession showed itself, with a slow and
stately march, turning a corner, and making its way across the
market-place. First came the music. It comprised a variety of
instruments, perhaps imperfectly adapted to one another, and
played with no great skill; but yet attaining the great object
for which the harmony of drum and clarion addresses itself to the
multitude--that of imparting a higher and more heroic air to
the scene of life that passes before the eye. Little Pearl at
first clapped her hands, but then lost for an instant the
restless agitation that had kept her in a continual effervescence
throughout the morning; she gazed silently, and seemed to be
borne upward like a floating sea-bird on the long heaves and swells
of sound. But she was brought back to her former mood by the shimmer
of the sunshine on the weapons and bright armour of the military
company, which followed after the music, and formed the honorary
escort of the procession. This body of soldiery--which still
sustains a corporate existence, and marches down from past ages
with an ancient and honourable fame--was composed of no
mercenary materials. Its ranks were filled with gentlemen who
felt the stirrings of martial impulse, and sought to establish a
kind of College of Arms, where, as in an association of Knights
Templars, they might learn the science, and, so far as peaceful
exercise would teach them, the practices of war. The high
estimation then placed upon the military character might be seen
in the lofty port of each individual member of the company. Some
of them, indeed, by their services in the Low Countries and on
other fields of European warfare, had fairly won their title to
assume the name and pomp of soldiership. The entire array,
moreover, clad in burnished steel, and with plumage nodding over
their bright morions, had a brilliancy of effect which no modern
display can aspire to equal.

And yet the men of civil eminence, who came immediately behind
the military escort, were better worth a thoughtful observer's
eye. Even in outward demeanour they showed a stamp of majesty
that made the warrior's haughty stride look vulgar, if not
absurd. It was an age when what we call talent had far less
consideration than now, but the massive materials which produce
stability and dignity of character a great deal more. The people
possessed by hereditary right the quality of reverence, which, in their
descendants, if it survive at all, exists in smaller proportion,
and with a vastly diminished force in the selection and estimate
of public men. The change may be for good or ill, and is partly,
perhaps, for both. In that old day the English settler on these
rude shores--having left king, nobles, and all degrees of awful
rank behind, while still the faculty and necessity of reverence
was strong in him--bestowed it on the white hair and venerable
brow of age--on long-tried integrity--on solid wisdom and
sad-coloured experience--on endowments of that grave and
weighty order which gave the idea of permanence, and comes under
the general definition of respectability. These primitive
statesmen, therefore--Bradstreet, Endicott, Dudley, Bellingham,
and their compeers--who were elevated to power by the early
choice of the people, seem to have been not often brilliant, but
distinguished by a ponderous sobriety, rather than activity of
intellect. They had fortitude and self-reliance, and in time of
difficulty or peril stood up for the welfare of the state like a
line of cliffs against a tempestuous tide. The traits of
character here indicated were well represented in the square cast
of countenance and large physical development of the new colonial
magistrates. So far as a demeanour of natural authority was
concerned, the mother country need not have been ashamed to see
these foremost men of an actual democracy adopted into the House
of Peers, or make the Privy Council of the Sovereign.

Next in order to the magistrates came the young and eminently
distinguished divine, from whose lips the religious discourse of
the anniversary was expected. His was
the profession at that era in which intellectual ability
displayed itself far more than in political life; for--leaving
a higher motive out of the question it offered inducements
powerful enough in the almost worshipping respect of the
community, to win the most aspiring ambition into its service.
Even political power--as in the case of Increase Mather--was
within the grasp of a successful priest.

It was the observation of those who beheld him now, that never,
since Mr. Dimmesdale first set his foot on the New England
shore, had he exhibited such energy as was seen in the gait and
air with which he kept his pace in the procession. There was no
feebleness of step as at other times; his frame was not bent, nor
did his hand rest ominously upon his heart. Yet, if the
clergyman were rightly viewed, his strength seemed not of the
body. It might be spiritual and imparted to him by angelical
ministrations. It might be the exhilaration of that potent
cordial which is distilled only in the furnace-glow of earnest
and long-continued thought. Or perchance his sensitive
temperament was invigorated by the loud and piercing music that
swelled heaven-ward, and uplifted him on its ascending wave.
Nevertheless, so abstracted was his look, it might be questioned
whether Mr. Dimmesdale ever heard the music. There was his
body, moving onward, and with an unaccustomed force. But where
was his mind? Far and deep in its own region, busying itself,
with preternatural activity, to marshal a procession of stately
thoughts that were soon to issue thence; and so he saw nothing,
heard nothing, knew nothing of what was around him;
but the spiritual element took up the feeble frame and
carried it along, unconscious of the burden, and
converting it to spirit like itself. Men of uncommon intellect,
who have grown morbid, possess this occasional power of mighty
effort, into which they throw the life of many days and then are
lifeless for as many more.

Hester Prynne, gazing steadfastly at the clergyman, felt a dreary
influence come over her, but wherefore or whence she knew not,
unless that he seemed so remote from her own sphere, and utterly
beyond her reach. One glance of recognition she had imagined
must needs pass between them. She thought of the dim forest,
with its little dell of solitude, and love, and anguish, and the
mossy tree-trunk, where, sitting hand-in-hand, they had mingled
their sad and passionate talk with the melancholy murmur of the
brook. How deeply had they known each other then! And was this
the man? She hardly knew him now! He, moving proudly past,
enveloped as it were, in the rich music, with the procession of
majestic and venerable fathers; he, so unattainable in his
worldly position, and still more so in that far vista of his
unsympathizing thoughts, through which she now beheld him! Her
spirit sank with the idea that all must have been a delusion, and
that, vividly as she had dreamed it, there could be no real bond
betwixt the clergyman and herself. And thus much of woman was
there in Hester, that she could scarcely forgive him--least of
all now, when the heavy footstep of their approaching Fate
might be heard, nearer, nearer, nearer!--for
being able so completely to withdraw himself from their mutual
world--while she groped darkly, and stretched forth her cold
hands, and found him not.

Pearl either saw and responded to her mother's feelings, or
herself felt the remoteness and intangibility that had fallen
around the minister. While the procession passed, the child was
uneasy, fluttering up and down, like a bird on the point of
taking flight. When the whole had gone by, she looked up into
Hester's face--

"Mother," said she, "was that the same minister that kissed me by
the brook?"

"Hold thy peace, dear little Pearl!" whispered her mother. "We
must not always talk in the marketplace of what happens to us in
the forest."

"I could not be sure that it was he--so strange he looked,"
continued the child. "Else I would have run to him, and bid him
kiss me now, before all the people, even as he did yonder among
the dark old trees. What would the minister have said, mother?
Would he have clapped his hand over his heart, and scowled on me,
and bid me begone?"

"What should he say, Pearl," answered Hester, "save that it was
no time to kiss, and that kisses are not to be given in the
market-place? Well for thee, foolish child, that thou didst not
speak to him!"

Another shade of the same sentiment, in reference to Mr.
Dimmesdale, was expressed by a person whose
eccentricities--insanity, as we should term it--led her to
do what few of the townspeople would have
ventured on--to begin a conversation with the wearer of the
scarlet letter in public. It was Mistress Hibbins, who, arrayed
in great magnificence, with a triple ruff, a broidered stomacher,
a gown of rich velvet, and a gold-headed cane, had come forth to
see the procession. As this ancient lady had the renown (which
subsequently cost her no less a price than her life) of being a
principal actor in all the works of necromancy that were
continually going forward, the crowd gave way before her, and
seemed to fear the touch of her garment, as if it carried the
plague among its gorgeous folds. Seen in conjunction with Hester
Prynne--kindly as so many now felt towards the latter--the
dread inspired by Mistress Hibbins had doubled, and caused a
general movement from that part of the market-place in which the
two women stood.

"Now, what mortal imagination could conceive it?" whispered the
old lady confidentially to Hester. "Yonder divine man! That
saint on earth, as the people uphold him to be, and as--I must
needs say--he really looks! Who, now, that saw him pass in the
procession, would think how little while it is since he went
forth out of his study--chewing a Hebrew text of Scripture in
his mouth, I warrant--to take an airing in the forest! Aha!
we know what that means, Hester Prynne! But truly, forsooth, I
find it hard to believe him the same man. Many a church member
saw I, walking behind the music, that has danced in the same
measure with me, when Somebody was fiddler, and, it might be, an
Indian powwow or a Lapland wizard changing hands with
us! That is but a trifle, when a woman knows the world. But
this minister. Couldst thou surely tell, Hester, whether he was
the same man that encountered thee on the forest path?"

"Madam, I know not of what you speak," answered Hester Prynne,
feeling Mistress Hibbins to be of infirm mind; yet strangely
startled and awe-stricken by the confidence with which she
affirmed a personal connexion between so many persons (herself
among them) and the Evil One. "It is not for me to talk lightly
of a learned and pious minister of the Word, like the Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale."

"Fie, woman--fie!" cried the old lady, shaking her finger at
Hester. "Dost thou think I have been to the forest so many
times, and have yet no skill to judge who else has been there?
Yea, though no leaf of the wild garlands which they wore while
they danced be left in their hair! I know thee, Hester, for I
behold the token. We may all see it in the sunshine! and it
glows like a red flame in the dark. Thou wearest it openly, so
there need be no question about that. But this minister! Let me
tell thee in thine ear! When the Black Man sees one of his own
servants, signed and sealed, so shy of owning to the bond as is
the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, he hath a way of ordering matters
so that the mark shall be disclosed, in open daylight, to the
eyes of all the world! What is that the minister seeks to hide,
with his hand always over his heart? Ha, Hester Prynne?"

"What is it, good Mistress Hibbins?" eagerly asked little Pearl.
"Hast thou seen it?"

"No matter, darling!" responded Mistress Hibbins, making Pearl a
profound reverence. "Thou thyself wilt see it, one time or
another. They say, child, thou art of the lineage of the Prince
of Air! Wilt thou ride with me some fine night to see thy
father? Then thou shalt know wherefore the minister keeps his
hand over his heart!"

Laughing so shrilly that all the market-place could hear her, the
weird old gentlewoman took her departure.

By this time the preliminary prayer had been offered in the
meeting-house, and the accents of the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale
were heard commencing his discourse. An irresistible feeling
kept Hester near the spot. As the sacred edifice was too much
thronged to admit another auditor, she took up her position close
beside the scaffold of the pillory. It was in sufficient
proximity to bring the whole sermon to her ears, in the shape of
an indistinct but varied murmur and flow of the minister's very
peculiar voice.

This vocal organ was in itself a rich endowment, insomuch that a
listener, comprehending nothing of the language in which the
preacher spoke, might still have been swayed to and fro by the
mere tone and cadence. Like all other music, it breathed passion
and pathos, and emotions high or tender, in a tongue native to
the human heart, wherever educated. Muffled as the sound was by
its passage through the church walls, Hester Prynne listened with
such intenseness, and sympathized so intimately, that the sermon
had throughout a meaning for her, entirely apart from its
indistinguishable words. These, perhaps, if more distinctly heard, might
have been only a grosser medium, and have clogged the spiritual sense.
Now she caught the low undertone, as of the wind sinking down to
repose itself; then ascended with it, as it rose through
progressive gradations of sweetness and power, until its volume
seemed to envelop her with an atmosphere of awe and solemn
grandeur. And yet, majestic as the voice sometimes became, there
was for ever in it an essential character of plaintiveness. A
loud or low expression of anguish--the whisper, or the shriek,
as it might be conceived, of suffering humanity, that touched a
sensibility in every bosom! At times this deep strain of pathos
was all that could be heard, and scarcely heard sighing amid a
desolate silence. But even when the minister's voice grew high
and commanding--when it gushed irrepressibly upward--when it
assumed its utmost breadth and power, so overfilling the church
as to burst its way through the solid walls, and diffuse itself
in the open air--still, if the auditor listened intently, and
for the purpose, he could detect the same cry of pain. What was
it? The complaint of a human heart, sorrow-laden, perchance
guilty, telling its secret, whether of guilt or sorrow, to the
great heart of mankind; beseeching its sympathy or forgiveness,--at
every moment,--in each accent,--and never in vain! It
was this profound and continual undertone that gave the clergyman
his most appropriate power.

During all this time, Hester stood, statue-like, at the foot of
the scaffold. If the minister's voice had not kept her there,
there would, nevertheless, have been an inevitable magnetism in
that spot, whence she dated the first hour of her life of ignominy.
There was a sense within her--too ill-defined to be made a thought,
but weighing heavily on her mind--that her whole orb of life, both
before and after, was connected with this spot, as with the one point
that gave it unity.

Little Pearl, meanwhile, had quitted her mother's side, and was
playing at her own will about the market-place. She made the
sombre crowd cheerful by her erratic and glistening ray, even as
a bird of bright plumage illuminates a whole tree of dusky
foliage by darting to and fro, half seen and half concealed amid
the twilight of the clustering leaves. She had an undulating,
but oftentimes a sharp and irregular movement. It indicated the
restless vivacity of her spirit, which to-day was doubly
indefatigable in its tip-toe dance, because it was played upon
and vibrated with her mother's disquietude. Whenever Pearl saw
anything to excite her ever active and wandering curiosity, she
flew thitherward, and, as we might say, seized upon that man or
thing as her own property, so far as she desired it, but without
yielding the minutest degree of control over her motions in
requital. The Puritans looked on, and, if they smiled, were none
the less inclined to pronounce the child a demon offspring, from
the indescribable charm of beauty and eccentricity that shone
through her little figure, and sparkled with its activity. She
ran and looked the wild Indian in the face, and he grew conscious
of a nature wilder than his own. Thence, with native audacity,
but still with a reserve as characteristic, she flew into the
midst of a group of mariners, the swarthy-cheeked wild men of the
ocean, as the Indians were of the land; and they gazed
wonderingly and admiringly at Pearl, as if a flake of the
sea-foam had taken the shape of a little maid, and were gifted
with a soul of the sea-fire, that flashes beneath the prow in the

One of these seafaring men the shipmaster, indeed, who had spoken
to Hester Prynne was so smitten with Pearl's aspect, that he
attempted to lay hands upon her, with purpose to snatch a kiss.
Finding it as impossible to touch her as to catch a humming-bird
in the air, he took from his hat the gold chain that was twisted
about it, and threw it to the child. Pearl immediately twined it
around her neck and waist with such happy skill, that, once seen
there, it became a part of her, and it was difficult to imagine
her without it.

"Thy mother is yonder woman with the scarlet letter," said the
seaman, "Wilt thou carry her a message from me?"

"If the message pleases me, I will," answered Pearl.

"Then tell her," rejoined he, "that I spake again with the
black-a-visaged, hump shouldered old doctor, and he engages to
bring his friend, the gentleman she wots of, aboard with him. So
let thy mother take no thought, save for herself and thee. Wilt
thou tell her this, thou witch-baby?"

"Mistress Hibbins says my father is the Prince of the Air!" cried
Pearl, with a naughty smile. "If thou callest me that ill-name,
I shall tell him of thee, and he will chase thy ship with a

Pursuing a zigzag course across the marketplace, the child
returned to her mother, and communicated what the mariner had
said. Hester's strong, calm steadfastly-enduring spirit almost
sank, at last, on beholding this dark and grim countenance of an
inevitable doom, which at the moment when a passage seemed to
open for the minister and herself out of their labyrinth of
misery--showed itself with an unrelenting smile, right in the
midst of their path.

With her mind harassed by the terrible perplexity in which the
shipmaster's intelligence involved her, she was also subjected to
another trial. There were many people present from the country
round about, who had often heard of the scarlet letter, and to
whom it had been made terrific by a hundred false or exaggerated
rumours, but who had never beheld it with their own bodily eyes.
These, after exhausting other modes of amusement, now thronged
about Hester Prynne with rude and boorish intrusiveness.
Unscrupulous as it was, however, it could not bring them nearer
than a circuit of several yards. At that distance they
accordingly stood, fixed there by the centrifugal force of the
repugnance which the mystic symbol inspired. The whole gang of
sailors, likewise, observing the press of spectators, and
learning the purport of the scarlet letter, came and thrust their
sunburnt and desperado-looking faces into the ring. Even the
Indians were affected by a sort of cold shadow of the white man's
curiosity and, gliding through the crowd, fastened their
snake-like black eyes on Hester's bosom, conceiving, perhaps,
that the wearer of this brilliantly embroidered badge must
needs be a personage of high dignity among her people. Lastly, the
inhabitants of the town (their own interest in this worn-out
subject languidly reviving itself, by sympathy with what they saw
others feel) lounged idly to the same quarter, and tormented
Hester Prynne, perhaps more than all the rest, with their cool,
well-acquainted gaze at her familiar shame. Hester saw and
recognized the selfsame faces of that group of matrons, who had
awaited her forthcoming from the prison-door seven years ago; all
save one, the youngest and only compassionate among them, whose
burial-robe she had since made. At the final hour, when she was
so soon to fling aside the burning letter, it had strangely
become the centre of more remark and excitement, and was thus
made to sear her breast more painfully, than at any time since
the first day she put it on.

While Hester stood in that magic circle of ignominy, where the
cunning cruelty of her sentence seemed to have fixed her for
ever, the admirable preacher was looking down from the sacred
pulpit upon an audience whose very inmost spirits had yielded to
his control. The sainted minister in the church! The woman of
the scarlet letter in the marketplace! What imagination would
have been irreverent enough to surmise that the same scorching
stigma was on them both!


The eloquent voice, on which the souls of the listening audience
had been borne aloft as on the swelling waves of the sea, at
length came to a pause. There was a momentary silence, profound
as what should follow the utterance of oracles. Then ensued a
murmur and half-hushed tumult, as if the auditors, released from
the high spell that had transported them into the region of
another's mind, were returning into themselves, with all their
awe and wonder still heavy on them. In a moment more the crowd
began to gush forth from the doors of the church. Now that there
was an end, they needed more breath, more fit to support the
gross and earthly life into which they relapsed, than that
atmosphere which the preacher had converted into words of flame,
and had burdened with the rich fragrance of his thought.

In the open air their rapture broke into speech. The street and
the market-place absolutely babbled, from side to side, with
applauses of the minister. His hearers could not rest until they
had told one another of what each knew better than he could tell
or hear.

According to their united testimony, never had man spoken in so
wise, so high, and so holy a spirit, as he that spake this day;
nor had inspiration ever breathed through mortal lips more
evidently than it did through his. Its influence could be seen,
as it were, descending upon him, and possessing him, and
continually lifting him out of the written discourse that lay
before him, and filling him with ideas that must have been as
marvellous to himself as to his audience. His subject, it
appeared, had been the relation between the Deity and the
communities of mankind, with a special reference to the New
England which they were here planting in the wilderness. And, as
he drew towards the close, a spirit as of prophecy had come upon
him, constraining him to its purpose as mightily as the old
prophets of Israel were constrained, only with this difference,
that, whereas the Jewish seers had denounced judgments and ruin
on their country, it was his mission to foretell a high and
glorious destiny for the newly gathered people of the Lord. But,
throughout it all, and through the whole discourse, there had
been a certain deep, sad undertone of pathos, which could not be
interpreted otherwise than as the natural regret of one soon to
pass away. Yes; their minister whom they so loved--and who so
loved them all, that he could not depart heavenward without a
sigh--had the foreboding of untimely death upon him, and would
soon leave them in their tears. This idea of his transitory stay
on earth gave the last emphasis to the effect which the preacher
had produced; it was if an angel, in his passage to the skies,
had shaken his bright wings over the people for an instant--at
once a shadow and a splendour--and had shed down a shower
of golden truths upon them.

Thus, there had come to the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale--as to
most men, in their various spheres, though seldom recognised
until they see it far behind them--an epoch of life more
brilliant and full of triumph than any previous one, or than any
which could hereafter be. He stood, at this moment, on the very
proudest eminence of superiority, to which the gifts or
intellect, rich lore, prevailing eloquence, and a reputation of
whitest sanctity, could exalt a clergyman in New England's
earliest days, when the professional character was of itself a
lofty pedestal. Such was the position which the minister
occupied, as he bowed his head forward on the cushions of the
pulpit at the close of his Election Sermon. Meanwhile Hester
Prynne was standing beside the scaffold of the pillory, with the
scarlet letter still burning on her breast!

Now was heard again the clamour of the music, and the measured
tramp of the military escort issuing from the church door. The
procession was to be marshalled thence to the town hall, where a
solemn banquet would complete the ceremonies of the day.

Once more, therefore, the train of venerable and majestic fathers
were seen moving through a broad pathway of the people, who drew
back reverently, on either side, as the Governor and magistrates,
the old and wise men, the holy ministers, and all that were
eminent and renowned, advanced into the midst of them. When they
were fairly in the marketplace, their presence was greeted by a
shout. This--though doubtless it might acquire additional
force and volume from the child-like loyalty which the age awarded to its
rulers--was felt to be an irrepressible outburst of enthusiasm
kindled in the auditors by that high strain of eloquence which
was yet reverberating in their ears. Each felt the impulse in
himself, and in the same breath, caught it from his neighbour.
Within the church, it had hardly been kept down; beneath the sky
it pealed upward to the zenith. There were human beings enough,
and enough of highly wrought and symphonious feeling to produce
that more impressive sound than the organ tones of the blast, or
the thunder, or the roar of the sea; even that mighty swell of
many voices, blended into one great voice by the universal
impulse which makes likewise one vast heart out of the many.
Never, from the soil of New England had gone up such a shout!
Never, on New England soil had stood the man so honoured by his
mortal brethren as the preacher!

How fared it with him, then? Were there not the brilliant
particles of a halo in the air about his head? So etherealised
by spirit as he was, and so apotheosised by worshipping admirers,
did his footsteps, in the procession, really tread upon the dust
of earth?

As the ranks of military men and civil fathers moved onward, all
eyes were turned towards the point where the minister was seen to
approach among them. The shout died into a murmur, as one
portion of the crowd after another obtained a glimpse of him.
How feeble and pale he looked, amid all his triumph! The
energy--or say, rather, the inspiration which had held him up, until
he should have delivered the sacred message that had brought its own
strength along with it from heaven--was withdrawn, now that it had so
faithfully performed its office. The glow, which they had just
before beheld burning on his cheek, was extinguished, like a
flame that sinks down hopelessly among the late decaying embers.
It seemed hardly the face of a man alive, with such a death-like
hue: it was hardly a man with life in him, that tottered on his
path so nervously, yet tottered, and did not fall!

One of his clerical brethren--it was the venerable John
Wilson--observing the state in which Mr. Dimmesdale was left
by the retiring wave of intellect and sensibility, stepped forward
hastily to offer his support. The minister tremulously, but
decidedly, repelled the old man's arm. He still walked onward,
if that movement could be so described, which rather resembled
the wavering effort of an infant, with its mother's arms in view,
outstretched to tempt him forward. And now, almost imperceptible
as were the latter steps of his progress, he had come opposite
the well-remembered and weather-darkened scaffold, where, long
since, with all that dreary lapse of time between, Hester Prynne
had encountered the world's ignominious stare. There stood
Hester, holding little Pearl by the hand! And there was the
scarlet letter on her breast! The minister here made a pause;
although the music still played the stately and rejoicing march
to which the procession moved. It summoned him onward--inward
to the festival!--but here he made a pause.

Bellingham, for the last few moments, had kept an anxious eye
upon him. He now left his own place in the procession, and
advanced to give assistance judging, from Mr.
Dimmesdale's aspect that he must otherwise inevitably fall. But
there was something in the latter's expression that warned back
the magistrate, although a man not readily obeying the vague
intimations that pass from one spirit to another. The crowd,
meanwhile, looked on with awe and wonder. This earthly
faintness, was, in their view, only another phase of the
minister's celestial strength; nor would it have seemed a miracle
too high to be wrought for one so holy, had he ascended before
their eyes, waxing dimmer and brighter, and fading at last into
the light of heaven!

He turned towards the scaffold, and stretched forth his arms.

"Hester," said he, "come hither! Come, my little Pearl!"

It was a ghastly look with which he regarded them; but there was
something at once tender and strangely triumphant in it. The
child, with the bird-like motion, which was one of her
characteristics, flew to him, and clasped her arms about his
knees. Hester Prynne--slowly, as if impelled by inevitable
fate, and against her strongest will--likewise drew near, but
paused before she reached him. At this instant old Roger
Chillingworth thrust himself through the crowd--or, perhaps, so
dark, disturbed, and evil was his look, he rose up out of some
nether region--to snatch back his victim from what he sought to
do! Be that as it might, the old man rushed forward, and caught
the minister by the arm.

"Madman, hold! what is your purpose?" whispered he.
"Wave back that woman! Cast off this child All shall be
well! Do not blacken your fame, and perish in dishonour! I can
yet save you! Would you bring infamy on your sacred profession?"

"Ha, tempter! Methinks thou art too late!" answered the
minister, encountering his eye, fearfully, but firmly. "Thy
power is not what it was! With God's help, I shall escape thee

He again extended his hand to the woman of the scarlet letter.

"Hester Prynne," cried he, with a piercing earnestness, "in the
name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace, at
this last moment, to do what--for my own heavy sin and
miserable agony--I withheld myself from doing seven years ago,
come hither now, and twine thy strength about me! Thy strength,
Hester; but let it be guided by the will which God hath granted
me! This wretched and wronged old man is opposing it with all
his might!--with all his own might, and the fiend's! Come,
Hester--come! Support me up yonder scaffold."

The crowd was in a tumult. The men of rank and dignity, who
stood more immediately around the clergyman, were so taken by
surprise, and so perplexed as to the purport of what they
saw--unable to receive the explanation which most readily presented
itself, or to imagine any other--that they remained silent and
inactive spectators of the judgement which Providence seemed
about to work. They beheld the minister, leaning on Hester's
shoulder, and supported by her arm around him, approach the
scaffold, and ascend its steps; while still the little
hand of the sin-born child was clasped in his. Old Roger
Chillingworth followed, as one intimately connected with the
drama of guilt and sorrow in which they had all been actors, and
well entitled, therefore to be present at its closing scene.

"Hadst thou sought the whole earth over," said he looking darkly
at the clergyman, "there was no one place so secret--no high
place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me--save
on this very scaffold!"

"Thanks be to Him who hath led me hither!" answered the minister.

Yet he trembled, and turned to Hester, with an expression of
doubt and anxiety in his eyes, not the less evidently betrayed,
that there was a feeble smile upon his lips.

"Is not this better," murmured he, "than what we dreamed of in
the forest?"

"I know not! I know not!" she hurriedly replied "Better? Yea; so
we may both die, and little Pearl die with us!"

"For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order," said the
minister; "and God is merciful! Let me now do the will which He
hath made plain before my sight. For, Hester, I am a dying man.
So let me make haste to take my shame upon me!"

Partly supported by Hester Prynne, and holding one hand of little
Pearl's, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale turned to the dignified and
venerable rulers; to the holy ministers, who were his brethren;
to the people, whose great heart was thoroughly appalled yet
overflowing with tearful sympathy, as knowing that some deep
life-matter--which, if full of sin, was full of anguish and repentance
likewise--was now to be laid open to them. The sun, but little past
its meridian, shone down upon the clergyman, and gave a
distinctness to his figure, as he stood out from all the earth, to put
in his plea of guilty at the bar of Eternal Justice.

"People of New England!" cried he, with a voice that rose over
them, high, solemn, and majestic--yet had always a tremor
through it, and sometimes a shriek, struggling up out of a
fathomless depth of remorse and woe--"ye, that have loved me!--ye,
that have deemed me holy!--behold me here, the one
sinner of the world! At last--at last!--I stand upon the
spot where, seven years since, I should have stood, here, with
this woman, whose arm, more than the little strength wherewith I
have crept hitherward, sustains me at this dreadful moment, from
grovelling down upon my face! Lo, the scarlet letter which
Hester wears! Ye have all shuddered at it! Wherever her walk
hath been--wherever, so miserably burdened, she may have hoped
to find repose--it hath cast a lurid gleam of awe and horrible
repugnance round about her. But there stood one in the midst of
you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!"

It seemed, at this point, as if the minister must leave the
remainder of his secret undisclosed. But he fought back the
bodily weakness--and, still more, the faintness of heart--that
was striving for the mastery with him. He threw off all
assistance, and stepped passionately forward a pace before the
woman and the children.

"It was on him!" he continued, with a kind of
fierceness; so determined was he to speak out tile whole. "God's
eye beheld it! The angels were for ever pointing at it! (The
Devil knew it well, and fretted it continually with the touch of
his burning finger!) But he hid it cunningly from men, and walked
among you with the mien of a spirit, mournful, because so pure in
a sinful world! --and sad, because he missed his heavenly
kindred! Now, at the death-hour, he stands up before you! He
bids you look again at Hester's scarlet letter! He tells you,
that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of
what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red
stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost
heart! Stand any here that question God's judgment on a sinner!
Behold! Behold, a dreadful witness of it!"

With a convulsive motion, he tore away the ministerial band from
before his breast. It was revealed! But it were irreverent to
describe that revelation. For an instant, the gaze of the
horror-stricken multitude was concentrated on the ghastly
miracle; while the minister stood, with a flush of triumph in his
face, as one who, in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a
victory. Then, down he sank upon the scaffold! Hester partly
raised him, and supported his head against her bosom. Old Roger
Chillingworth knelt down beside him, with a blank, dull
countenance, out of which the life seemed to have departed,

"Thou hast escaped me!" he repeated more than once. "Thou hast
escaped me!"

"May God forgive thee!" said the minister. "Thou, too, hast
deeply sinned!"

He withdrew his dying eyes from the old man, and fixed them on
the woman and the child.

"My little Pearl," said he, feebly and there was a sweet and
gentle smile over his face, as of a spirit sinking into deep
repose; nay, now that the burden was removed, it seemed almost as
if he would be sportive with the child--"dear little Pearl,
wilt thou kiss me now? Thou wouldst not, yonder, in the forest!
But now thou wilt?"

Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of
grief, in which the wild infant bore a part had developed all her
sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they
were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow,
nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it.
Towards her mother, too, Pearl's errand as a messenger of anguish
was fulfilled.

"Hester," said the clergyman, "farewell!"

"Shall we not meet again?" whispered she, bending her face down
close to his. "Shall we not spend our immortal life together?
Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe!
Thou lookest far into eternity, with those bright dying eyes!
Then tell me what thou seest!"

"Hush, Hester--hush!" said he, with tremulous solemnity. "The
law we broke I--the sin here awfully revealed!--let these
alone be in thy thoughts! I fear! I fear! It may be, that,
when we forgot our God--when we violated our reverence each for
the other's soul--it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could
meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion. God knows;
and He is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my
afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast!
By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture
always at red-heat! By bringing me hither, to die this death of
triumphant ignominy before the people! Had either of these
agonies been wanting, I had been lost for ever! Praised be His
name! His will be done! Farewell!"

That final word came forth with the minister's expiring breath.
The multitude, silent till then, broke out in a strange, deep
voice of awe and wonder, which could not as yet find utterance,
save in this murmur that rolled so heavily after the departed


After many days, when time sufficed for the people to arrange
their thoughts in reference to the foregoing scene, there was
more than one account of what had been witnessed on the scaffold.

Most of the spectators testified to having seen, on the breast of
the unhappy minister, a SCARLET LETTER--the very semblance of
that worn by Hester Prynne--imprinted in the flesh. As
regarded its origin there were various explanations, all of which
must necessarily have been conjectural. Some affirmed that the
Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, on the very day when Hester Prynne
first wore her ignominious badge, had begun a course of
penance--which he afterwards, in so many futile methods, followed
out--by inflicting a hideous torture on himself. Others contended
that the stigma had not been produced until a long time
subsequent, when old Roger Chillingworth, being a potent
necromancer, had caused it to appear, through the agency of magic
and poisonous drugs. Others, again and those best able to
appreciate the minister's peculiar sensibility, and the wonderful
operation of his spirit upon the body--whispered their belief,
that the awful symbol was the effect of the ever-active
tooth of remorse, gnawing from the inmost heart outwardly, and at
last manifesting Heaven's dreadful judgment by the visible
presence of the letter. The reader may choose among these
theories. We have thrown all the light we could acquire upon the
portent, and would gladly, now that it has done its office, erase
its deep print out of our own brain, where long meditation has
fixed it in very undesirable distinctness.

It is singular, nevertheless, that certain persons, who were
spectators of the whole scene, and professed never once to have
removed their eyes from the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, denied that
there was any mark whatever on his breast, more than on a
new-born infant's. Neither, by their report, had his dying words
acknowledged, nor even remotely implied, any--the
slightest--connexion on his part, with the guilt for which Hester Prynne had
so long worn the scarlet letter. According to these
highly-respectable witnesses, the minister, conscious that he was
dying--conscious, also, that the reverence of the multitude
placed him already among saints and angels--had desired, by
yielding up his breath in the arms of that fallen woman, to
express to the world how utterly nugatory is the choicest of
man's own righteousness. After exhausting life in his efforts
for mankind's spiritual good, he had made the manner of his death
a parable, in order to impress on his admirers the mighty and
mournful lesson, that, in the view of Infinite Purity, we are
sinners all alike. It was to teach them, that the holiest
amongst us has but attained so far above his fellows as to
discern more clearly the Mercy which
looks down, and repudiate more utterly the phantom of human
merit, which would look aspiringly upward. Without disputing a
truth so momentous, we must be allowed to consider this version
of Mr. Dimmesdale's story as only an instance of that stubborn
fidelity with which a man's friends--and especially a
clergyman's--will sometimes uphold his character, when proofs,
clear as the mid-day sunshine on the scarlet letter, establish
him a false and sin-stained creature of the dust.

The authority which we have chiefly followed--a manuscript of
old date, drawn up from the verbal testimony of individuals, some
of whom had known Hester Prynne, while others had heard the tale
from contemporary witnesses fully confirms the view taken in the
foregoing pages. Among many morals which press upon us from the
poor minister's miserable experience, we put only this into a
sentence:--"Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the
world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be

Nothing was more remarkable than the change which took place,
almost immediately after Mr. Dimmesdale's death, in the
appearance and demeanour of the old man known as Roger
Chillingworth. All his strength and energy--all his vital and
intellectual force--seemed at once to desert him, insomuch that
he positively withered up, shrivelled away and almost vanished
from mortal sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the
sun. This unhappy man had made the very principle of his life to
consist in the pursuit and systematic exercise revenge; and when,
by its completest triumph consummation that evil principle was left
with no further material to support it--when, in short, there was no
more Devil's work on earth for him to do, it only remained for the
unhumanised mortal to betake himself whither his master would
find him tasks enough, and pay him his wages duly. But, to all
these shadowy beings, so long our near acquaintances--as well
Roger Chillingworth as his companions we would fain be merciful.
It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry, whether
hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom. Each, in its
utmost development, supposes a high degree of intimacy and
heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent for the
food of his affections and spiritual fife upon another: each
leaves the passionate lover, or the no less passionate hater,
forlorn and desolate by the withdrawal of his subject.
Philosophically considered, therefore, the two passions seem
essentially the same, except that one happens to be seen in a
celestial radiance, and the other in a dusky and lurid glow. In
the spiritual world, the old physician and the minister--mutual
victims as they have been--may, unawares, have found their
earthly stock of hatred and antipathy transmuted into golden

Leaving this discussion apart, we have a matter of business to
communicate to the reader. At old Roger Chillingworth's decease,
(which took place within the year), and by his last will and
testament, of which Governor Bellingham and the Reverend Mr.
Wilson were executors, he bequeathed a very considerable amount
of property, both here and in England to little Pearl, the
daughter of Hester Prynne.

So Pearl--the elf child--the demon offspring, as some people
up to that epoch persisted in considering her--became the
richest heiress of her day in the New World. Not improbably this
circumstance wrought a very material change in the public
estimation; and had the mother and child remained here, little
Pearl at a marriageable period of life might have mingled her
wild blood with the lineage of the devoutest Puritan among them
all. But, in no long time after the physician's death, the
wearer of the scarlet letter disappeared, and Pearl along with
her. For many years, though a vague report would now and then
find its way across the sea--like a shapeless piece of
driftwood tossed ashore with the initials of a name upon it--yet
no tidings of them unquestionably authentic were received.
The story of the scarlet letter grew into a legend. Its spell,
however, was still potent, and kept the scaffold awful where the
poor minister had died, and likewise the cottage by the sea-shore
where Hester Prynne had dwelt. Near this latter spot, one
afternoon some children were at play, when they beheld a tall
woman in a gray robe approach the cottage-door. In all those
years it had never once been opened; but either she unlocked it
or the decaying wood and iron yielded to her hand, or she glided
shadow-like through these impediments--and, at all events, went

On the threshold she paused--turned partly round--for
perchance the idea of entering alone and all so changed, the home
of so intense a former life, was more dreary and desolate than
even she could bear. But her hesitation was only for an instant,
though long enough to display a scarlet letter on her breast.

And Hester Prynne had returned, and taken up her long-forsaken
shame! But where was little Pearl? If still alive she must now
have been in the flush and bloom of early womanhood. None
knew--nor ever learned with the fulness of perfect certainty--whether
the elf-child had gone thus untimely to a maiden grave;
or whether her wild, rich nature had been softened and subdued
and made capable of a woman's gentle happiness. But through the
remainder of Hester's life there were indications that the
recluse of the scarlet letter was the object of love and interest
with some inhabitant of another land. Letters came, with
armorial seals upon them, though of bearings unknown to English
heraldry. In the cottage there were articles of comfort and
luxury such as Hester never cared to use, but which only wealth
could have purchased and affection have imagined for her. There
were trifles too, little ornaments, beautiful tokens of a
continual remembrance, that must have been wrought by delicate
fingers at the impulse of a fond heart. And once Hester was seen
embroidering a baby-garment with such a lavish richness of golden
fancy as would have raised a public tumult had any infant thus
apparelled, been shown to our sober-hued community.

In fine, the gossips of that day believed--and Mr. Surveyor
Pue, who made investigations a century later, believed--and one
of his recent successors in office, moreover, faithfully believes--that
Pearl was not only alive, but married, and happy, and
mindful of her mother; and that she would most joyfully have
entertained that sad and lonely mother at her fireside.

But there was a more real life for Hester Prynne, here, in New
England, that in that unknown region where Pearl had found a
home. Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet
to be her penitence. She had returned, therefore, and resumed of
her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron
period would have imposed it--resumed the symbol of which we
have related so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her
bosom. But, in the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, and
self-devoted years that made up Hester's life, the scarlet letter
ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world's scorn and
bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over,
and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too. And, as Hester
Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own
profit and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and
perplexities, and besought her counsel, as one who had herself
gone through a mighty trouble. Women, more especially--in the
continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged,
misplaced, or erring and sinful passion--or with the dreary
burden of a heart unyielded, because unvalued and unsought came
to Hester's cottage, demanding why they were so wretched, and
what the remedy! Hester comforted and counselled them, as best
she might. She assured them, too, of her firm belief that, at
some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for
it, in Heaven's own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order
to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer
ground of mutual happiness. Earlier in life, Hester had vainly
imagined that she herself might be the destined
prophetess, but had long since recognised the impossibility that
any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to
a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened
with a life-long sorrow. The angel and apostle of the coming
revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and
beautiful, and wise; moreover, not through dusky grief, but the
ethereal medium of joy; and showing how sacred love should make
us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end.

So said Hester Prynne, and glanced her sad eyes downward at the
scarlet letter. And, after many, many years, a new grave was
delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial-ground beside
which King's Chapel has since been built. It was near that old
and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the
two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tomb-stone served
for both. All around, there were monuments carved with armorial
bearings; and on this simple slab of slate--as the curious
investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the
purport--there appeared the semblance of an engraved
escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald's wording of which may
serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded
legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing
point of light gloomier than the shadow: --



Back to Full Books