THE SCARLET LETTER

 

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

 

EDITOR'S NOTE

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne was already a man of forty-six, and a tale

writer of some twenty-four years' standing, when "The Scarlet

Letter" appeared.  He was born at Salem, Mass., on July 4th, 1804,

son of a sea-captain.  He led there a shy and rather sombre life;

of few artistic encouragements, yet not wholly uncongenial, his

moody, intensely meditative temperament being considered.  Its

colours and shadows are marvelously reflected in his "Twice-Told

Tales" and other short stories, the product of his first literary

period.  Even his college days at Bowdoin did not quite break

through his acquired and inherited reserve; but beneath it all,

his faculty of divining men and women was exercised with almost

uncanny prescience and subtlety.  "The Scarlet Letter," which

explains as much of this unique imaginative art, as is to be

gathered from reading his highest single achievement, yet needs

to be ranged with his other writings, early and late, to have its

last effect.  In the year that saw it published, he began "The

House of the Seven Gables," a later romance or prose-tragedy of

the Puritan-American community as he had himself known it--

defrauded of art and the joy of life, "starving for symbols" as

Emerson has it.  Nathaniel Hawthorne died at Plymouth, New

Hampshire, on May 18th, 1864.

 

The following is the table of his romances,

stories, and other works:

 

Fanshawe, published anonymously, 1826; Twice-Told Tales, 1st

Series, 1837; 2nd Series, 1842; Grandfather's Chair, a history

for youth, 1845: Famous Old People (Grandfather's Chair), 1841

Liberty Tree: with the last words of Grandfather's Chair, 1842;

Biographical Stories for Children, 1842; Mosses from an Old

Manse, 1846; The Scarlet Letter, 1850; The House of the Seven

Gables, 1851: True Stories from History and Biography (the whole

History of Grandfather's Chair), 1851 A Wonder Book for Girls and

Boys, 1851; The Snow Image and other Tales, 1851: The Blithedale

Romance, 1852; Life of Franklin Pierce, 1852; Tanglewood Tales

(2nd Series of the Wonder Book), 1853; A Rill from the Town-Pump,

with remarks, by Telba, 1857; The Marble Faun; or, The Romance of

Monte Beni (4 EDITOR'S NOTE) (published in England under the

title of "Transformation"), 1860, Our Old Home, 1863; Dolliver

Romance (1st Part in "Atlantic Monthly"), 1864; in 3 Parts, 1876;

Pansie, a fragment, Hawthorne' last literary effort, 1864;

American Note-Books, 1868; English Note Books, edited by Sophia

Hawthorne, 1870; French and Italian Note Books, 1871; Septimius

Felton; or, the Elixir of Life (from the "Atlantic Monthly"),

1872; Doctor Grimshawe's Secret, with Preface and Notes by

Julian Hawthorne, 1882.

 

Tales of the White Hills, Legends of New England, Legends of the

Province House, 1877, contain tales which had already been

printed in book form in "Twice-Told Tales" and the "Mosses"

"Sketched and Studies," 1883.

 

Hawthorne's contributions to magazines were numerous, and most of

his tales appeared first in periodicals, chiefly in "The Token,"

1831-1838, "New England Magazine," 1834,1835; "Knickerbocker,"

1837-1839; "Democratic Review," 1838-1846; "Atlantic Monthly,"

1860-1872 (scenes from the Dolliver Romance, Septimius Felton,

and passages from Hawthorne's Note-Books).

 

Works: in 24 volumes, 1879; in 12 volumes, with introductory

notes by Lathrop, Riverside Edition, 1883.

 

Biography, etc.; A. H. Japp (pseud.  H. A. Page), Memoir of N.

Hawthorne, 1872; J. T. Field's "Yesterdays with Authors," 1873 G.

P. Lathrop, "A Study of Hawthorne," 1876; Henry James English Men

of Letters, 1879; Julian Hawthorne, "Nathaniel Hawthorne and his

wife," 1885; Moncure D. Conway, Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne,

1891; Analytical Index of Hawthorne's Works, by E. M. O'Connor

1882.

 

 

CONTENTS

 

    INTRODUCTORY.     THE CUSTOM-HOUSE

 

    CHAPTER I.        THE PRISON-DOOR

 

    CHAPTER II.       THE MARKET-PLACE

 

    CHAPTER III.      THE RECOGNITION

 

    CHAPTER IV.       THE INTERVIEW

 

    CHAPTER V.        HESTER AT HER NEEDLE

 

    CHAPTER VI.       PEARL

 

    CHAPTER VII.      THE GOVERNOR'S HALL

 

    CHAPTER VIII.     THE ELF-CHILD AND THE MINISTER

 

    CHAPTER IX.       THE LEECH

 

    CHAPTER X.        THE LEECH AND HIS PATIENT

 

    CHAPTER XI.       THE INTERIOR OF A HEART

 

    CHAPTER XII.      THE MINISTER'S VIGIL

 

    CHAPTER XIII.     ANOTHER VIEW OF HESTER

 

    CHAPTER XIV.      HESTER AND THE PHYSICIAN

 

    CHAPTER XV.       HESTER AND PEARL

 

    CHAPTER XVI.      A FOREST WALK

 

    CHAPTER XVII.     THE PASTOR AND HIS PARISHIONER

 

    CHAPTER XVIII.    A FLOOD OF SUNSHINE

 

    CHAPTER XIX.      THE CHILD AT THE BROOK-SIDE

 

    CHAPTER XX.       THE MINISTER IN A MAZE

 

    CHAPTER XXI.      THE NEW ENGLAND HOLIDAY

 

    CHAPTER XXII.     THE PROCESSION

 

    CHAPTER XXIII.    THE REVELATION OF THE SCARLET LETTER

 

    CHAPTER XXIV.     CONCLUSION

 

 

 

 

THE CUSTOM-HOUSE

 

INTRODUCTORY TO "THE SCARLET LETTER"

 

 

It is a little remarkable, that--though disinclined to talk

overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my

personal friends--an autobiographical impulse should twice in my

life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public.  The

first time was three or four years since, when I favoured the

reader--inexcusably, and for no earthly reason that either the

indulgent reader or the intrusive author could imagine--with a

description of my way of life in the deep quietude of an Old

Manse.  And now--because, beyond my deserts, I was happy enough

to find a listener or two on the former occasion--I again seize

the public by the button, and talk of my three years' experience

in a Custom-House.  The example of the famous "P. P., Clerk of

this Parish," was never more faithfully followed.  The truth

seems to be, however, that when he casts his leaves forth upon

the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling

aside his volume, or never take it up, but the few who will

understand him better than most of his schoolmates or lifemates.

Some authors, indeed, do far more than this, and indulge

themselves in such confidential depths of revelation as could

fittingly be addressed only and exclusively to the one heart and

mind of perfect sympathy; as if the printed book, thrown at

large on the wide world, were certain to find out the divided

segment of the writer's own nature, and complete his circle of

existence by bringing him into communion with it.  It is scarcely

decorous, however, to speak all, even where we speak

impersonally.  But, as thoughts are frozen and utterance

benumbed, unless the speaker stand in some true relation with

his audience, it may be pardonable to imagine that a friend, a

kind and apprehensive, though not the closest friend, is

listening to our talk; and then, a native reserve being thawed

by this genial consciousness, we may prate of the circumstances

that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the

inmost Me behind its veil.  To this extent, and within these

limits, an author, methinks, may be autobiographical, without

violating either the reader's rights or his own.

 

It will be seen, likewise, that this Custom-House sketch has a

certain propriety, of a kind always recognised in literature, as

explaining how a large portion of the following pages came into

my possession, and as offering proofs of the authenticity of a

narrative therein contained.  This, in fact--a desire to put

myself in my true position as editor, or very little more, of

the most prolix among the tales that make up my volume--this,

and no other, is my true reason for assuming a personal relation

with the public.  In accomplishing the main purpose, it has

appeared allowable, by a few extra touches, to give a faint

representation of a mode of life not heretofore described,

together with some of the characters that move in it, among whom

the author happened to make one.

 

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century

ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf--but

which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and

exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps,

a bark or brig, half-way down its melancholy length, discharging

hides; or, nearer at hand, a Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out

her cargo of firewood--at the head, I say, of this dilapidated

wharf, which the tide often overflows, and along which, at the

base and in the rear of the row of buildings, the track of many

languid years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass--here, with

a view from its front windows adown this not very enlivening

prospect, and thence across the harbour, stands a spacious

edifice of brick.  From the loftiest point of its roof, during

precisely three and a half hours of each forenoon, floats or

droops, in breeze or calm, the banner of the republic; but with

the thirteen stripes turned vertically, instead of horizontally,

and thus indicating that a civil, and not a military, post of

Uncle Sam's government is here established.  Its front is

ornamented with a portico of half-a-dozen wooden pillars,

supporting a balcony, beneath which a flight of wide granite

steps descends towards the street.  Over the entrance hovers an

enormous specimen of the American eagle, with outspread wings, a

shield before her breast, and, if I recollect aright, a bunch of

intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw.  With

the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this

unhappy fowl, she appears by the fierceness of her beak and eye,

and the general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mischief

to the inoffensive community; and especially to warn all

citizens careful of their safety against intruding on the

premises which she overshadows with her wings.  Nevertheless,

vixenly as she looks, many people are seeking at this very

moment to shelter themselves under the wing of the federal

eagle; imagining, I presume, that her bosom has all the softness

and snugness of an eiderdown pillow.  But she has no great

tenderness even in her best of moods, and, sooner or

later--oftener soon than late--is apt to fling off her nestlings

with a scratch of her claw, a dab of her beak, or a rankling

wound from her barbed arrows.

 

The pavement round about the above-described edifice--which we

may as well name at once as the Custom-House of the port--has

grass enough growing in its chinks to show that it has not, of

late days, been worn by any multitudinous resort of business.  In

some months of the year, however, there often chances a forenoon

when affairs move onward with a livelier tread.  Such occasions

might remind the elderly citizen of that period, before the last

war with England, when Salem was a port by itself; not scorned,

as she is now, by her own merchants and ship-owners, who permit

her wharves to crumble to ruin while their ventures go to swell,

needlessly and imperceptibly, the mighty flood of commerce at

New York or Boston.  On some such morning, when three or four

vessels happen to have arrived at once usually from Africa or

South America--or to be on the verge of their departure

thitherward, there is a sound of frequent feet passing briskly

up and down the granite steps.  Here, before his own wife has

greeted him, you may greet the sea-flushed ship-master, just in

port, with his vessel's papers under his arm in a tarnished tin

box.  Here, too, comes his owner, cheerful, sombre, gracious or

in the sulks, accordingly as his scheme of the now accomplished

voyage has been realized in merchandise that will readily be

turned to gold, or has buried him under a bulk of incommodities

such as nobody will care to rid him of.  Here, likewise--the germ

of the wrinkle-browed, grizzly-bearded, careworn merchant--we

have the smart young clerk, who gets the taste of traffic as a

wolf-cub does of blood, and already sends adventures in his

master's ships, when he had better be sailing mimic boats upon a

mill-pond.  Another figure in the scene is the outward-bound

sailor, in quest of a protection; or the recently arrived one,

pale and feeble, seeking a passport to the hospital.  Nor must we

forget the captains of the rusty little schooners that bring

firewood from the British provinces; a rough-looking set of

tarpaulins, without the alertness of the Yankee aspect, but

contributing an item of no slight importance to our decaying

trade.

 

Cluster all these individuals together, as they sometimes were,

with other miscellaneous ones to diversify the group, and, for

the time being, it made the Custom-House a stirring scene.  More

frequently, however, on ascending the steps, you would discern--

in the entry if it were summer time, or in their appropriate

rooms if wintry or inclement weathers--a row of venerable

figures, sitting in old-fashioned chairs, which were tipped on

their hind legs back against the wall.  Oftentimes they were

asleep, but occasionally might be heard talking together, in

voices between a speech and a snore, and with that lack of

energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms-houses, and all

other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on

monopolized labour, or anything else but their own independent

exertions.  These old gentlemen--seated, like Matthew at the

receipt of custom, but not very liable to be summoned thence,

like him, for apostolic errands--were Custom-House officers.

 

Furthermore, on the left hand as you enter the front door, is a

certain room or office, about fifteen feet square, and of a

lofty height, with two of its arched windows commanding a view

of the aforesaid dilapidated wharf, and the third looking across

a narrow lane, and along a portion of Derby Street.  All three

give glimpses of the shops of grocers, block-makers,

slop-sellers, and ship-chandlers, around the doors of which are

generally to be seen, laughing and gossiping, clusters of old

salts, and such other wharf-rats as haunt the Wapping of a

seaport.  The room itself is cobwebbed, and dingy with old paint;

its floor is strewn with grey sand, in a fashion that has

elsewhere fallen into long disuse; and it is easy to conclude,

from the general slovenliness of the place, that this is a

sanctuary into which womankind, with her tools of magic, the

broom and mop, has very infrequent access.  In the way of

furniture, there is a stove with a voluminous funnel; an old

pine desk with a three-legged stool beside it; two or three

wooden-bottom chairs, exceedingly decrepit and infirm; and--not

to forget the library--on some shelves, a score or two of

volumes of the Acts of Congress, and a bulky Digest of the

Revenue laws.  A tin pipe ascends through the ceiling, and forms

a medium of vocal communication with other parts of the edifice.

And here, some six months ago--pacing from corner to corner, or

lounging on the long-legged stool, with his elbow on the desk,

and his eyes wandering up and down the columns of the morning

newspaper--you might have recognised, honoured reader, the same

individual who welcomed you into his cheery little study, where

the sunshine glimmered so pleasantly through the willow branches

on the western side of the Old Manse.  But now, should you go

thither to seek him, you would inquire in vain for the Locofoco

Surveyor.  The besom of reform hath swept him out of office, and

a worthier successor wears his dignity and pockets his

emoluments.

 

This old town of Salem--my native place, though I have dwelt

much away from it both in boyhood and maturer years--possesses,

or did possess, a hold on my affection, the force of which I

have never realized during my seasons of actual residence here.

Indeed, so far as its physical aspect is concerned, with its

flat, unvaried surface, covered chiefly with wooden houses, few

or none of which pretend to architectural beauty--its

irregularity, which is neither picturesque nor quaint, but only

tame--its long and lazy street, lounging wearisomely through the

whole extent of the peninsula, with Gallows Hill and New Guinea

at one end, and a view of the alms-house at the other--such

being the features of my native town, it would be quite as

reasonable to form a sentimental attachment to a disarranged

checker-board.  And yet, though invariably happiest elsewhere,

there is within me a feeling for Old Salem, which, in lack of a

better phrase, I must be content to call affection.  The

sentiment is probably assignable to the deep and aged roots

which my family has stuck into the soil.  It is now nearly two

centuries and a quarter since the original Briton, the earliest

emigrant of my name, made his appearance in the wild and

forest-bordered settlement which has since become a city.  And

here his descendants have been born and died, and have mingled

their earthly substance with the soil, until no small portion of

it must necessarily be akin to the mortal frame wherewith, for a

little while, I walk the streets.  In part, therefore, the

attachment which I speak of is the mere sensuous sympathy of

dust for dust.  Few of my countrymen can know what it is; nor, as

frequent transplantation is perhaps better for the stock, need

they consider it desirable to know.

 

But the sentiment has likewise its moral quality.  The figure of

that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and

dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination as far back

as I can remember.  It still haunts me, and induces a sort of

home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference

to the present phase of the town.  I seem to have a stronger

claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded,

sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned progenitor--who came so

early, with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn street

with such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man

of war and peace--a stronger claim than for myself, whose name

is seldom heard and my face hardly known.  He was a soldier,

legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the

Puritanic traits, both good and evil.  He was likewise a bitter

persecutor; as witness the Quakers, who have remembered him in

their histories, and relate an incident of his hard severity

towards a woman of their sect, which will last longer, it is to

be feared, than any record of his better deeds, although these

were many.  His son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and

made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches,

that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon

him.  So deep a stain, indeed, that his dry old bones, in the

Charter-street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have

not crumbled utterly to dust!  I know not whether these ancestors

of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven

for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the

heavy consequences of them in another state of being.  At all

events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby

take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse

incurred by them--as I have heard, and as the dreary and

unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back,

would argue to exist--may be now and henceforth removed.

 

Doubtless, however, either of these stern and black-browed

Puritans would have thought it quite a sufficient retribution

for his sins that, after so long a lapse of years, the old trunk

of the family tree, with so much venerable moss upon it, should

have borne, as its topmost bough, an idler like myself.  No aim

that I have ever cherished would they recognise as laudable; no

success of mine--if my life, beyond its domestic scope, had ever

been brightened by success--would they deem otherwise than

worthless, if not positively disgraceful.  "What is he?" murmurs

one grey shadow of my forefathers to the other.  "A writer of

story books!  What kind of business in life--what mode of

glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and

generation--may that be?  Why, the degenerate fellow might as

well have been a fiddler!"  Such are the compliments bandied

between my great grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time!

And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their

nature have intertwined themselves with mine.

 

Planted deep, in the town's earliest infancy and childhood, by

these two earnest and energetic men, the race has ever since

subsisted here; always, too, in respectability; never, so far as

I have known, disgraced by a single unworthy member; but seldom

or never, on the other hand, after the first two generations,

performing any memorable deed, or so much as putting forward a

claim to public notice.  Gradually, they have sunk almost out of

sight; as old houses, here and there about the streets, get

covered half-way to the eaves by the accumulation of new soil.

From father to son, for above a hundred years, they followed the

sea; a grey-headed shipmaster, in each generation, retiring from

the quarter-deck to the homestead, while a boy of fourteen took

the hereditary place before the mast, confronting the salt spray

and the gale which had blustered against his sire and grandsire.

The boy, also in due time, passed from the forecastle to the

cabin, spent a tempestuous manhood, and returned from his

world-wanderings, to grow old, and die, and mingle his dust with

the natal earth.  This long connexion of a family with one spot,

as its place of birth and burial, creates a kindred between the

human being and the locality, quite independent of any charm in

the scenery or moral circumstances that surround him.  It is not

love but instinct.  The new inhabitant--who came himself from a

foreign land, or whose father or grandfather came--has little

claim to be called a Salemite; he has no conception of the

oyster-like tenacity with which an old settler, over whom his

third century is creeping, clings to the spot where his

successive generations have been embedded.  It is no matter that

the place is joyless for him; that he is weary of the old wooden

houses, the mud and dust, the dead level of site and sentiment,

the chill east wind, and the chillest of social

atmospheres;--all these, and whatever faults besides he may see

or imagine, are nothing to the purpose.  The spell survives, and

just as powerfully as if the natal spot were an earthly

paradise.  So has it been in my case.  I felt it almost as a

destiny to make Salem my home; so that the mould of features and

cast of character which had all along been familiar here--ever,

as one representative of the race lay down in the grave, another

assuming, as it were, his sentry-march along the main

street--might still in my little day be seen and recognised in

the old town.  Nevertheless, this very sentiment is an evidence

that the connexion, which has become an unhealthy one, should at

last be severed.  Human nature will not flourish, any more than

a potato, if it be planted and re-planted, for too long a series

of generations, in the same worn-out soil.  My children have had

other birth-places, and, so far as their fortunes may be within

my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

 

On emerging from the Old Manse, it was chiefly this strange,

indolent, unjoyous attachment for my native town that brought me

to fill a place in Uncle Sam's brick edifice, when I might as

well, or better, have gone somewhere else.  My doom was on me.  It

was not the first time, nor the second, that I had gone away--as

it seemed, permanently--but yet returned, like the bad

halfpenny, or as if Salem were for me the inevitable centre of

the universe.  So, one fine morning I ascended the flight of

granite steps, with the President's commission in my pocket, and

was introduced to the corps of gentlemen who were to aid me in

my weighty responsibility as chief executive officer of the

Custom-House.

 

I doubt greatly--or, rather, I do not doubt at all--whether any

public functionary of the United States, either in the civil or

military line, has ever had such a patriarchal body of veterans

under his orders as myself.  The whereabouts of the Oldest

Inhabitant was at once settled when I looked at them.  For

upwards of twenty years before this epoch, the independent

position of the Collector had kept the Salem Custom-House out of

the whirlpool of political vicissitude, which makes the tenure

of office generally so fragile.  A soldier--New England's most

distinguished soldier--he stood firmly on the pedestal of his

gallant services; and, himself secure in the wise liberality of

the successive administrations through which he had held office,

he had been the safety of his subordinates in many an hour of

danger and heart-quake.  General Miller was radically

conservative; a man over whose kindly nature habit had no slight

influence; attaching himself strongly to familiar faces, and

with difficulty moved to change, even when change might have

brought unquestionable improvement.  Thus, on taking charge of my

department, I found few but aged men.  They were ancient

sea-captains, for the most part, who, after being tossed on

every sea, and standing up sturdily against life's tempestuous

blast, had finally drifted into this quiet nook, where, with

little to disturb them, except the periodical terrors of a

Presidential election, they one and all acquired a new lease of

existence.  Though by no means less liable than their fellow-men

to age and infirmity, they had evidently some talisman or other

that kept death at bay.  Two or three of their number, as I was

assured, being gouty and rheumatic, or perhaps bed-ridden, never

dreamed of making their appearance at the Custom-House during a

large part of the year; but, after a torpid winter, would creep

out into the warm sunshine of May or June, go lazily about what

they termed duty, and, at their own leisure and convenience,

betake themselves to bed again.  I must plead guilty to the

charge of abbreviating the official breath of more than one of

these venerable servants of the republic.  They were allowed, on

my representation, to rest from their arduous labours, and soon

afterwards--as if their sole principle of life had been zeal for

their country's service--as I verily believe it was--withdrew to

a better world.  It is a pious consolation to me that, through my

interference, a sufficient space was allowed them for repentance

of the evil and corrupt practices into which, as a matter of

course, every Custom-House officer must be supposed to fall.

Neither the front nor the back entrance of the Custom-House

opens on the road to Paradise.

 

The greater part of my officers were Whigs.  It was well for

their venerable brotherhood that the new Surveyor was not a

politician, and though a faithful Democrat in principle, neither

received nor held his office with any reference to political

services.  Had it been otherwise--had an active politician been

put into this influential post, to assume the easy task of

making head against a Whig Collector, whose infirmities withheld

him from the personal administration of his office--hardly a man

of the old corps would have drawn the breath of official life

within a month after the exterminating angel had come up the

Custom-House steps.  According to the received code in such

matters, it would have been nothing short of duty, in a

politician, to bring every one of those white heads under the

axe of the guillotine.  It was plain enough to discern that the

old fellows dreaded some such discourtesy at my hands.  It

pained, and at the same time amused me, to behold the terrors

that attended my advent, to see a furrowed cheek, weather-beaten

by half a century of storm, turn ashy pale at the glance of so

harmless an individual as myself; to detect, as one or another

addressed me, the tremor of a voice which, in long-past days,

had been wont to bellow through a speaking-trumpet, hoarsely

enough to frighten Boreas himself to silence.  They knew, these

excellent old persons, that, by all established rule--and, as

regarded some of them, weighed by their own lack of efficiency

for business--they ought to have given place to younger men,

more orthodox in politics, and altogether fitter than themselves

to serve our common Uncle.  I knew it, too, but could never quite

find in my heart to act upon the knowledge.  Much and deservedly

to my own discredit, therefore, and considerably to the

detriment of my official conscience, they continued, during my

incumbency, to creep about the wharves, and loiter up and down

the Custom-House steps.  They spent a good deal of time, also,

asleep in their accustomed corners, with their chairs tilted

back against the walls; awaking, however, once or twice in the

forenoon, to bore one another with the several thousandth

repetition of old sea-stories and mouldy jokes, that had grown

to be passwords and countersigns among them.

 

The discovery was soon made, I imagine, that the new Surveyor

had no great harm in him.  So, with lightsome hearts and the

happy consciousness of being usefully employed--in their own

behalf at least, if not for our beloved country--these good old

gentlemen went through the various formalities of office.

Sagaciously under their spectacles, did they peep into the holds

of vessels.  Mighty was their fuss about little matters, and

marvellous, sometimes, the obtuseness that allowed greater ones

to slip between their fingers Whenever such a mischance

occurred--when a waggon-load of valuable merchandise had been

smuggled ashore, at noonday, perhaps, and directly beneath their

unsuspicious noses--nothing could exceed the vigilance and

alacrity with which they proceeded to lock, and double-lock, and

secure with tape and sealing-wax, all the avenues of the

delinquent vessel.  Instead of a reprimand for their previous

negligence, the case seemed rather to require an eulogium on

their praiseworthy caution after the mischief had happened; a

grateful recognition of the promptitude of their zeal the moment

that there was no longer any remedy.

 

Unless people are more than commonly disagreeable, it is my

foolish habit to contract a kindness for them.  The better part

of my companion's character, if it have a better part, is that

which usually comes uppermost in my regard, and forms the type

whereby I recognise the man.  As most of these old Custom-House

officers had good traits, and as my position in reference to

them, being paternal and protective, was favourable to the

growth of friendly sentiments, I soon grew to like them all.  It

was pleasant in the summer forenoons--when the fervent heat,

that almost liquefied the rest of the human family, merely

communicated a genial warmth to their half torpid systems--it

was pleasant to hear them chatting in the back entry, a row of

them all tipped against the wall, as usual; while the frozen

witticisms of past generations were thawed out, and came

bubbling with laughter from their lips.  Externally, the jollity

of aged men has much in common with the mirth of children; the

intellect, any more than a deep sense of humour, has little to

do with the matter; it is, with both, a gleam that plays upon

the surface, and imparts a sunny and cheery aspect alike to the

green branch and grey, mouldering trunk.  In one case, however,

it is real sunshine; in the other, it more resembles the

phosphorescent glow of decaying wood.

 

It would be sad injustice, the reader must understand, to

represent all my excellent old friends as in their dotage.  In

the first place, my coadjutors were not invariably old; there

were men among them in their strength and prime, of marked

ability and energy, and altogether superior to the sluggish and

dependent mode of life on which their evil stars had cast them.

Then, moreover, the white locks of age were sometimes found to

be the thatch of an intellectual tenement in good repair.  But,

as respects the majority of my corps of veterans, there will be

no wrong done if I characterize them generally as a set of

wearisome old souls, who had gathered nothing worth preservation

from their varied experience of life.  They seemed to have flung

away all the golden grain of practical wisdom, which they had

enjoyed so many opportunities of harvesting, and most carefully

to have stored their memory with the husks.  They spoke with far

more interest and unction of their morning's breakfast, or

yesterday's, to-day's, or tomorrow's dinner, than of the

shipwreck of forty or fifty years ago, and all the world's

wonders which they had witnessed with their youthful eyes.

 

The father of the Custom-House--the patriarch, not only of this

little squad of officials, but, I am bold to say, of the

respectable body of tide-waiters all over the United States--was

a certain permanent Inspector.  He might truly be termed a

legitimate son of the revenue system, dyed in the wool, or

rather born in the purple; since his sire, a Revolutionary

colonel, and formerly collector of the port, had created an

office for him, and appointed him to fill it, at a period of the

early ages which few living men can now remember.  This

Inspector, when I first knew him, was a man of fourscore years,

or thereabouts, and certainly one of the most wonderful

specimens of winter-green that you would be likely to discover

in a lifetime's search.  With his florid cheek, his compact

figure smartly arrayed in a bright-buttoned blue coat, his brisk

and vigorous step, and his hale and hearty aspect, altogether he

seemed--not young, indeed--but a kind of new contrivance of

Mother Nature in the shape of man, whom age and infirmity had no

business to touch.  His voice and laugh, which perpetually

re-echoed through the Custom-House, had nothing of the tremulous

quaver and cackle of an old man's utterance; they came strutting

out of his lungs, like the crow of a cock, or the blast of a

clarion.  Looking at him merely as an animal--and there was very

little else to look at--he was a most satisfactory object, from

the thorough healthfulness and wholesomeness of his system, and

his capacity, at that extreme age, to enjoy all, or nearly all,

the delights which he had ever aimed at or conceived of.  The

careless security of his life in the Custom-House, on a regular

income, and with but slight and infrequent apprehensions of

removal, had no doubt contributed to make time pass lightly over

him.  The original and more potent causes, however, lay in the

rare perfection of his animal nature, the moderate proportion of

intellect, and the very trifling admixture of moral and

spiritual ingredients; these latter qualities, indeed, being in

barely enough measure to keep the old gentleman from walking on

all-fours.  He possessed no power of thought, no depth of

feeling, no troublesome sensibilities: nothing, in short, but a

few commonplace instincts, which, aided by the cheerful temper

which grew inevitably out of his physical well-being, did duty

very respectably, and to general acceptance, in lieu of a heart.

He had been the husband of three wives, all long since dead; the

father of twenty children, most of whom, at every age of

childhood or maturity, had likewise returned to dust.  Here, one

would suppose, might have been sorrow enough to imbue the

sunniest disposition through and through with a sable tinge.  Not

so with our old Inspector.  One brief sigh sufficed to carry off

the entire burden of these dismal reminiscences.  The next moment

he was as ready for sport as any unbreeched infant: far readier

than the Collector's junior clerk, who at nineteen years was

much the elder and graver man of the two.

 

I used to watch and study this patriarchal personage with, I

think, livelier curiosity than any other form of humanity there

presented to my notice.  He was, in truth, a rare phenomenon; so

perfect, in one point of view; so shallow, so delusive, so

impalpable such an absolute nonentity, in every other.  My

conclusion was that he had no soul, no heart, no mind; nothing,

as I have already said, but instincts; and yet, withal, so

cunningly had the few materials of his character been put

together that there was no painful perception of deficiency,

but, on my part, an entire contentment with what I found in him.

It might be difficult--and it was so--to conceive how he should

exist hereafter, so earthly and sensuous did he seem; but surely

his existence here, admitting that it was to terminate with his

last breath, had been not unkindly given; with no higher moral

responsibilities than the beasts of the field, but with a larger

scope of enjoyment than theirs, and with all their blessed

immunity from the dreariness and duskiness of age.

 

One point in which he had vastly the advantage over his

four-footed brethren was his ability to recollect the good

dinners which it had made no small portion of the happiness of

his life to eat.  His gourmandism was a highly agreeable trait;

and to hear him talk of roast meat was as appetizing as a pickle

or an oyster.  As he possessed no higher attribute, and neither

sacrificed nor vitiated any spiritual endowment by devoting all

his energies and ingenuities to subserve the delight and profit

of his maw, it always pleased and satisfied me to hear him

expatiate on fish, poultry, and butcher's meat, and the most

eligible methods of preparing them for the table.  His

reminiscences of good cheer, however ancient the date of the

actual banquet, seemed to bring the savour of pig or turkey

under one's very nostrils.  There were flavours on his palate

that had lingered there not less than sixty or seventy years,

and were still apparently as fresh as that of the mutton chop

which he had just devoured for his breakfast.  I have heard him

smack his lips over dinners, every guest at which, except

himself, had long been food for worms.  It was marvellous to

observe how the ghosts of bygone meals were continually rising

up before him--not in anger or retribution, but as if grateful

for his former appreciation, and seeking to reduplicate an

endless series of enjoyment, at once shadowy and sensual: a

tenderloin of beef, a hind-quarter of veal, a spare-rib of

pork, a particular chicken, or a remarkably praiseworthy turkey,

which had perhaps adorned his board in the days of the elder

Adams, would be remembered; while all the subsequent experience

of our race, and all the events that brightened or darkened his

individual career, had gone over him with as little permanent

effect as the passing breeze.  The chief tragic event of the old

man's life, so far as I could judge, was his mishap with a

certain goose, which lived and died some twenty or forty years

ago: a goose of most promising figure, but which, at table,

proved so inveterately tough, that the carving-knife would make

no impression on its carcase, and it could only be divided with

an axe and handsaw.

 

But it is time to quit this sketch; on which, however, I should

be glad to dwell at considerably more length, because of all men

whom I have ever known, this individual was fittest to be a

Custom-House officer.  Most persons, owing to causes which I may

not have space to hint at, suffer moral detriment from this

peculiar mode of life.  The old Inspector was incapable of it;

and, were he to continue in office to the end of time, would be

just as good as he was then, and sit down to dinner with just as

good an appetite.

 

There is one likeness, without which my gallery of Custom-House

portraits would be strangely incomplete, but which my

comparatively few opportunities for observation enable me to

sketch only in the merest outline.  It is that of the Collector,

our gallant old General, who, after his brilliant military

service, subsequently to which he had ruled over a wild Western

territory, had come hither, twenty years before, to spend the

decline of his varied and honourable life.

 

The brave soldier had already numbered, nearly or quite, his

three-score years and ten, and was pursuing the remainder of his

earthly march, burdened with infirmities which even the martial

music of his own spirit-stirring recollections could do little

towards lightening.  The step was palsied now, that had been

foremost in the charge.  It was only with the assistance of a

servant, and by leaning his hand heavily on the iron balustrade,

that he could slowly and painfully ascend the Custom-House

steps, and, with a toilsome progress across the floor, attain

his customary chair beside the fireplace.  There he used to sit,

gazing with a somewhat dim serenity of aspect at the figures

that came and went, amid the rustle of papers, the administering

of oaths, the discussion of business, and the casual talk of the

office; all which sounds and circumstances seemed but

indistinctly to impress his senses, and hardly to make their way

into his inner sphere of contemplation.  His countenance, in this

repose, was mild and kindly.  If his notice was sought, an

expression of courtesy and interest gleamed out upon his

features, proving that there was light within him, and that it

was only the outward medium of the intellectual lamp that

obstructed the rays in their passage.  The closer you penetrated

to the substance of his mind, the sounder it appeared.  When no

longer called upon to speak or listen--either of which

operations cost him an evident effort--his face would briefly

subside into its former not uncheerful quietude.  It was not

painful to behold this look; for, though dim, it had not the

imbecility of decaying age.  The framework of his nature,

originally strong and massive, was not yet crumpled into ruin.

 

To observe and define his character, however, under such

disadvantages, was as difficult a task as to trace out and build

up anew, in imagination, an old fortress, like Ticonderoga, from

a view of its grey and broken ruins.  Here and there, perchance,

the walls may remain almost complete; but elsewhere may be only

a shapeless mound, cumbrous with its very strength, and

overgrown, through long years of peace and neglect, with grass

and alien weeds.

 

Nevertheless, looking at the old warrior with affection--for,

slight as was the communication between us, my feeling towards

him, like that of all bipeds and quadrupeds who knew him, might

not improperly be termed so,--I could discern the main points of

his portrait.  It was marked with the noble and heroic qualities

which showed it to be not a mere accident, but of good right,

that he had won a distinguished name.  His spirit could never, I

conceive, have been characterized by an uneasy activity; it

must, at any period of his life, have required an impulse to set

him in motion; but once stirred up, with obstacles to overcome,

and an adequate object to be attained, it was not in the man to

give out or fail.  The heat that had formerly pervaded his

nature, and which was not yet extinct, was never of the kind

that flashes and flickers in a blaze; but rather a deep red

glow, as of iron in a furnace.  Weight, solidity, firmness--this

was the expression of his repose, even in such decay as had

crept untimely over him at the period of which I speak.  But I

could imagine, even then, that, under some excitement which

should go deeply into his consciousness--roused by a trumpet's

peal, loud enough to awaken all of his energies that were not

dead, but only slumbering--he was yet capable of flinging off

his infirmities like a sick man's gown, dropping the staff of

age to seize a battle-sword, and starting up once more a

warrior.  And, in so intense a moment his demeanour would have

still been calm.  Such an exhibition, however, was but to be

pictured in fancy; not to be anticipated, nor desired.  What I

saw in him--as evidently as the indestructible ramparts of Old

Ticonderoga, already cited as the most appropriate simile--was

the features of stubborn and ponderous endurance, which might

well have amounted to obstinacy in his earlier days; of

integrity, that, like most of his other endowments, lay in a

somewhat heavy mass, and was just as unmalleable or unmanageable

as a ton of iron ore; and of benevolence which, fiercely as he

led the bayonets on at Chippewa or Fort Erie, I take to be of

quite as genuine a stamp as what actuates any or all the

polemical philanthropists of the age.  He had slain men with his

own hand, for aught I know--certainly, they had fallen like

blades of grass at the sweep of the scythe before the charge to

which his spirit imparted its triumphant energy--but, be that as

it might, there was never in his heart so much cruelty as would

have brushed the down off a butterfly's wing.  I have not known

the man to whose innate kindliness I would more confidently make

an appeal.

 

Many characteristics--and those, too, which contribute not the

least forcibly to impart resemblance in a sketch--must have

vanished, or been obscured, before I met the General.  All merely

graceful attributes are usually the most evanescent; nor does

nature adorn the human ruin with blossoms of new beauty, that

have their roots and proper nutriment only in the chinks and

crevices of decay, as she sows wall-flowers over the ruined

fortress of Ticonderoga.  Still, even in respect of grace and

beauty, there were points well worth noting.  A ray of humour,

now and then, would make its way through the veil of dim

obstruction, and glimmer pleasantly upon our faces.  A trait of

native elegance, seldom seen in the masculine character after

childhood or early youth, was shown in the General's fondness

for the sight and fragrance of flowers.  An old soldier might be

supposed to prize only the bloody laurel on his brow; but here

was one who seemed to have a young girl's appreciation of the

floral tribe.

 

There, beside the fireplace, the brave old General used to sit;

while the Surveyor--though seldom, when it could be avoided,

taking upon himself the difficult task of engaging him in

conversation--was fond of standing at a distance, and watching

his quiet and almost slumberous countenance.  He seemed away from

us, although we saw him but a few yards off; remote, though we

passed close beside his chair; unattainable, though we might

have stretched forth our hands and touched his own.  It might be

that he lived a more real life within his thoughts than amid the

unappropriate environment of the Collector's office.  The

evolutions of the parade; the tumult of the battle; the flourish

of old heroic music, heard thirty years before--such scenes and

sounds, perhaps, were all alive before his intellectual sense.

Meanwhile, the merchants and ship-masters, the spruce clerks and

uncouth sailors, entered and departed; the bustle of his

commercial and Custom-House life kept up its little murmur round

about him; and neither with the men nor their affairs did the

General appear to sustain the most distant relation.  He was as

much out of place as an old sword--now rusty, but which had

flashed once in the battle's front, and showed still a bright

gleam along its blade--would have been among the inkstands,

paper-folders, and mahogany rulers on the Deputy Collector's

desk.

 

There was one thing that much aided me in renewing and

re-creating the stalwart soldier of the Niagara frontier--the

man of true and simple energy.  It was the recollection of those

memorable words of his--"I'll try, Sir"--spoken on the very

verge of a desperate and heroic enterprise, and breathing the

soul and spirit of New England hardihood, comprehending all

perils, and encountering all.  If, in our country, valour were

rewarded by heraldic honour, this phrase--which it seems so easy

to speak, but which only he, with such a task of danger and

glory before him, has ever spoken--would be the best and fittest

of all mottoes for the General's shield of arms.

 

It contributes greatly towards a man's moral and intellectual

health to be brought into habits of companionship with

individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits,

and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to

appreciate.  The accidents of my life have often afforded me this

advantage, but never with more fulness and variety than during

my continuance in office.  There was one man, especially, the

observation of whose character gave me a new idea of talent.  His

gifts were emphatically those of a man of business; prompt,

acute, clear-minded; with an eye that saw through all

perplexities, and a faculty of arrangement that made them vanish

as by the waving of an enchanter's wand.  Bred up from boyhood in

the Custom-House, it was his proper field of activity; and the

many intricacies of business, so harassing to the interloper,

presented themselves before him with the regularity of a

perfectly comprehended system.  In my contemplation, he stood as

the ideal of his class.  He was, indeed, the Custom-House in

himself; or, at all events, the mainspring that kept its

variously revolving wheels in motion; for, in an institution

like this, where its officers are appointed to subserve their

own profit and convenience, and seldom with a leading reference

to their fitness for the duty to be performed, they must

perforce seek elsewhere the dexterity which is not in them.

Thus, by an inevitable necessity, as a magnet attracts

steel-filings, so did our man of business draw to himself the

difficulties which everybody met with.  With an easy

condescension, and kind forbearance towards our

stupidity--which, to his order of mind, must have seemed little

short of crime--would he forth-with, by the merest touch of his

finger, make the incomprehensible as clear as daylight.  The

merchants valued him not less than we, his esoteric friends.  His

integrity was perfect; it was a law of nature with him, rather

than a choice or a principle; nor can it be otherwise than the

main condition of an intellect so remarkably clear and accurate

as his to be honest and regular in the administration of

affairs.  A stain on his conscience, as to anything that came

within the range of his vocation, would trouble such a man very

much in the same way, though to a far greater degree, than an

error in the balance of an account, or an ink-blot on the fair

page of a book of record.  Here, in a word--and it is a rare

instance in my life--I had met with a person thoroughly adapted

to the situation which he held.

 

Such were some of the people with whom I now found myself

connected.  I took it in good part, at the hands of Providence,

that I was thrown into a position so little akin to my past

habits; and set myself seriously to gather from it whatever

profit was to be had.  After my fellowship of toil and

impracticable schemes with the dreamy brethren of Brook Farm;

after living for three years within the subtle influence of an

intellect like Emerson's; after those wild, free days on the

Assabeth, indulging fantastic speculations, beside our fire of

fallen boughs, with Ellery Channing; after talking with Thoreau

about pine-trees and Indian relics in his hermitage at Walden;

after growing fastidious by sympathy with the classic refinement

of Hillard's culture; after becoming imbued with poetic

sentiment at Longfellow's hearthstone--it was time, at length,

that I should exercise other faculties of my nature, and nourish

myself with food for which I had hitherto had little appetite.

Even the old Inspector was desirable, as a change of diet, to a

man who had known Alcott.  I looked upon it as an evidence, in

some measure, of a system naturally well balanced, and lacking

no essential part of a thorough organization, that, with such

associates to remember, I could mingle at once with men of

altogether different qualities, and never murmur at the change.

 

Literature, its exertions and objects, were now of little moment

in my regard.  I cared not at this period for books; they were

apart from me.  Nature--except it were human nature--the nature

that is developed in earth and sky, was, in one sense, hidden

from me; and all the imaginative delight wherewith it had been

spiritualized passed away out of my mind.  A gift, a faculty, if

it had not been departed, was suspended and inanimate within me.

There would have been something sad, unutterably dreary, in all

this, had I not been conscious that it lay at my own option to

recall whatever was valuable in the past.  It might be true,

indeed, that this was a life which could not, with impunity, be

lived too long; else, it might make me permanently other than I

had been, without transforming me into any shape which it would

be worth my while to take.  But I never considered it as other

than a transitory life.  There was always a prophetic instinct, a

low whisper in my ear, that within no long period, and whenever

a new change of custom should be essential to my good, change

would come.

 

Meanwhile, there I was, a Surveyor of the Revenue and, so far as

I have been able to understand, as good a Surveyor as need be.  A

man of thought, fancy, and sensibility (had he ten times the

Surveyor's proportion of those qualities), may, at any time, be

a man of affairs, if he will only choose to give himself the

trouble.  My fellow-officers, and the merchants and sea-captains

with whom my official duties brought me into any manner of

connection, viewed me in no other light, and probably knew me in

no other character.  None of them, I presume, had ever read a

page of my inditing, or would have cared a fig the more for me

if they had read them all; nor would it have mended the matter,

in the least, had those same unprofitable pages been written

with a pen like that of Burns or of Chaucer, each of whom was a

Custom-House officer in his day, as well as I. It is a good

lesson--though it may often be a hard one--for a man who has

dreamed of literary fame, and of making for himself a rank among

the world's dignitaries by such means, to step aside out of the

narrow circle in which his claims are recognized and to find how

utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that

he achieves, and all he aims at.  I know not that I especially

needed the lesson, either in the way of warning or rebuke; but

at any rate, I learned it thoroughly: nor, it gives me pleasure

to reflect, did the truth, as it came home to my perception,

ever cost me a pang, or require to be thrown off in a sigh.  In

the way of literary talk, it is true, the Naval Officer--an

excellent fellow, who came into the office with me, and went out

only a little later--would often engage me in a discussion about

one or the other of his favourite topics, Napoleon or

Shakespeare.  The Collector's junior clerk, too a young gentleman

who, it was whispered occasionally covered a sheet of Uncle

Sam's letter paper with what (at the distance of a few yards)

looked very much like poetry--used now and then to speak to me

of books, as matters with which I might possibly be conversant.

This was my all of lettered intercourse; and it was quite

sufficient for my necessities.

 

No longer seeking nor caring that my name should be blasoned

abroad on title-pages, I smiled to think that it had now another

kind of vogue.  The Custom-House marker imprinted it, with a

stencil and black paint, on pepper-bags, and baskets of anatto,

and cigar-boxes, and bales of all kinds of dutiable merchandise,

in testimony that these commodities had paid the impost, and

gone regularly through the office.  Borne on such queer vehicle

of fame, a knowledge of my existence, so far as a name conveys

it, was carried where it had never been before, and, I hope,

will never go again.

 

But the past was not dead.  Once in a great while, the thoughts

that had seemed so vital and so active, yet had been put to rest

so quietly, revived again.  One of the most remarkable occasions,

when the habit of bygone days awoke in me, was that which brings

it within the law of literary propriety to offer the public the

sketch which I am now writing.

 

In the second storey of the Custom-House there is a large room,

in which the brick-work and naked rafters have never been

covered with panelling and plaster.  The edifice--originally

projected on a scale adapted to the old commercial enterprise of

the port, and with an idea of subsequent prosperity destined

never to be realized--contains far more space than its occupants

know what to do with.  This airy hall, therefore, over the

Collector's apartments, remains unfinished to this day, and, in

spite of the aged cobwebs that festoon its dusky beams, appears

still to await the labour of the carpenter and mason.  At one end

of the room, in a recess, were a number of barrels piled one

upon another, containing bundles of official documents.  Large

quantities of similar rubbish lay lumbering the floor.  It was

sorrowful to think how many days, and weeks, and months, and

years of toil had been wasted on these musty papers, which were

now only an encumbrance on earth, and were hidden away in this

forgotten corner, never more to be glanced at by human eyes.  But

then, what reams of other manuscripts--filled, not with the

dulness of official formalities, but with the thought of

inventive brains and the rich effusion of deep hearts--had gone

equally to oblivion; and that, moreover, without serving a

purpose in their day, as these heaped-up papers had,

and--saddest of all--without purchasing for their writers the

comfortable livelihood which the clerks of the Custom-House had

gained by these worthless scratchings of the pen.  Yet not

altogether worthless, perhaps, as materials of local history.

Here, no doubt, statistics of the former commerce of Salem might

be discovered, and memorials of her princely merchants--old King

Derby--old Billy Gray--old Simon Forrester--and many another

magnate in his day, whose powdered head, however, was scarcely

in the tomb before his mountain pile of wealth began to dwindle.

The founders of the greater part of the families which now

compose the aristocracy of Salem might here be traced, from the

petty and obscure beginnings of their traffic, at periods

generally much posterior to the Revolution, upward to what their

children look upon as long-established rank,

 

Prior to the Revolution there is a dearth of records; the

earlier documents and archives of the Custom-House having,

probably, been carried off to Halifax, when all the king's

officials accompanied the British army in its flight from

Boston.  It has often been a matter of regret with me; for, going

back, perhaps, to the days of the Protectorate, those papers

must have contained many references to forgotten or remembered

men, and to antique customs, which would have affected me with

the same pleasure as when I used to pick up Indian arrow-heads

in the field near the Old Manse.

 

But, one idle and rainy day, it was my fortune to make a

discovery of some little interest.  Poking and burrowing into the

heaped-up rubbish in the corner, unfolding one and another

document, and reading the names of vessels that had long ago

foundered at sea or rotted at the wharves, and those of

merchants never heard of now on 'Change, nor very readily

decipherable on their mossy tombstones; glancing at such matters

with the saddened, weary, half-reluctant interest which we

bestow on the corpse of dead activity--and exerting my fancy,

sluggish with little use, to raise up from these dry bones an

image of the old town's brighter aspect, when India was a new

region, and only Salem knew the way thither--I chanced to lay my

hand on a small package, carefully done up in a piece of ancient

yellow parchment.  This envelope had the air of an official

record of some period long past, when clerks engrossed their

stiff and formal chirography on more substantial materials than

at present.  There was something about it that quickened an

instinctive curiosity, and made me undo the faded red tape that

tied up the package, with the sense that a treasure would here

be brought to light.  Unbending the rigid folds of the parchment

cover, I found it to be a commission, under the hand and seal of

Governor Shirley, in favour of one Jonathan Pue, as Surveyor of

His Majesty's Customs for the Port of Salem, in the Province of

Massachusetts Bay.  I remembered to have read (probably in Felt's

"Annals") a notice of the decease of Mr. Surveyor Pue, about

fourscore years ago; and likewise, in a newspaper of recent

times, an account of the digging up of his remains in the little

graveyard of St. Peter's Church, during the renewal of that

edifice.  Nothing, if I rightly call to mind, was left of my

respected predecessor, save an imperfect skeleton, and some

fragments of apparel, and a wig of majestic frizzle, which,

unlike the head that it once adorned, was in very satisfactory

preservation.  But, on examining the papers which the parchment

commission served to envelop, I found more traces of Mr. Pue's

mental part, and the internal operations of his head, than the

frizzled wig had contained of the venerable skull itself.

 

They were documents, in short, not official, but of a private

nature, or, at least, written in his private capacity, and

apparently with his own hand.  I could account for their being

included in the heap of Custom-House lumber only by the fact

that Mr. Pue's death had happened suddenly, and that these

papers, which he probably kept in his official desk, had never

come to the knowledge of his heirs, or were supposed to relate

to the business of the revenue.  On the transfer of the archives

to Halifax, this package, proving to be of no public concern,

was left behind, and had remained ever since unopened.

 

The ancient Surveyor--being little molested, I suppose, at that

early day with business pertaining to his office--seems to have

devoted some of his many leisure hours to researches as a local

antiquarian, and other inquisitions of a similar nature.  These

supplied material for petty activity to a mind that would

otherwise have been eaten up with rust.

 

A portion of his facts, by-the-by, did me good service in the

preparation of the article entitled "MAIN STREET," included in

the present volume.  The remainder may perhaps be applied to

purposes equally valuable hereafter, or not impossibly may be

worked up, so far as they go, into a regular history of Salem,

should my veneration for the natal soil ever impel me to so

pious a task.  Meanwhile, they shall be at the command of any

gentleman, inclined and competent, to take the unprofitable

labour off my hands.  As a final disposition I contemplate

depositing them with the Essex Historical Society.  But the

object that most drew my attention to the mysterious package was

a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded, There

were traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was

greatly frayed and defaced, so that none, or very little, of the

glitter was left.  It had been wrought, as was easy to perceive,

with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stitch (as I am

assured by ladies conversant with such mysteries) gives evidence

of a now forgotten art, not to be discovered even by the process

of picking out the threads.  This rag of scarlet cloth--for time,

and wear, and a sacrilegious moth had reduced it to little other

than a rag--on careful examination, assumed the shape of a

letter.

 

It was the capital letter A.  By an accurate measurement, each

limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in

length.  It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an

ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what

rank, honour, and dignity, in by-past times, were signified by

it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the fashions of the

world in these particulars) I saw little hope of solving.  And

yet it strangely interested me.  My eyes fastened themselves upon

the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside.  Certainly

there was some deep meaning in it most worthy of interpretation,

and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol,

subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the

analysis of my mind.

 

When thus perplexed--and cogitating, among other hypotheses,

whether the letter might not have been one of those decorations

which the white men used to contrive in order to take the eyes

of Indians--I happened to place it on my breast.  It seemed to

me--the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word--it seemed

to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether

physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat, and as if the

letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron.  I shuddered,

and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.

 

In the absorbing contemplation of the scarlet letter, I had

hitherto neglected to examine a small roll of dingy paper,

around which it had been twisted.  This I now opened, and had the

satisfaction to find recorded by the old Surveyor's pen, a

reasonably complete explanation of the whole affair.  There were

several foolscap sheets, containing many particulars respecting

the life and conversation of one Hester Prynne, who appeared to

have been rather a noteworthy personage in the view of our

ancestors.  She had flourished during the period between the

early days of Massachusetts and the close of the seventeenth

century.  Aged persons, alive in the time of Mr. Surveyor Pue,

and from whose oral testimony he had made up his narrative,

remembered her, in their youth, as a very old, but not decrepit

woman, of a stately and solemn aspect.  It had been her habit,

from an almost immemorial date, to go about the country as a

kind of voluntary nurse, and doing whatever miscellaneous good

she might; taking upon herself, likewise, to give advice in all

matters, especially those of the heart, by which means--as a

person of such propensities inevitably must--she gained from

many people the reverence due to an angel, but, I should

imagine, was looked upon by others as an intruder and a

nuisance.  Prying further into the manuscript, I found the record

of other doings and sufferings of this singular woman, for most

of which the reader is referred to the story entitled "THE

SCARLET LETTER"; and it should be borne carefully in mind that

the main facts of that story are authorized and authenticated by

the document of Mr. Surveyor Pue.  The original papers, together

with the scarlet letter itself--a most curious relic--are still

in my possession, and shall be freely exhibited to whomsoever,

induced by the great interest of the narrative, may desire a

sight of them.  I must not be understood affirming that, in the

dressing up of the tale, and imagining the motives and modes of

passion that influenced the characters who figure in it, I have

invariably confined myself within the limits of the old

Surveyor's half-a-dozen sheets of foolscap.  On the contrary, I

have allowed myself, as to such points, nearly, or altogether,

as much license as if the facts had been entirely of my own

invention.  What I contend for is the authenticity of the

outline.

 

This incident recalled my mind, in some degree, to its old

track.  There seemed to be here the groundwork of a tale.  It

impressed me as if the ancient Surveyor, in his garb of a

hundred years gone by, and wearing his immortal wig--which was

buried with him, but did not perish in the grave--had met me in

the deserted chamber of the Custom-House.  In his port was the

dignity of one who had borne His Majesty's commission, and who

was therefore illuminated by a ray of the splendour that shone

so dazzlingly about the throne.  How unlike alas the hangdog look

of a republican official, who, as the servant of the people,

feels himself less than the least, and below the lowest of his

masters.  With his own ghostly hand, the obscurely seen, but

majestic, figure had imparted to me the scarlet symbol and the

little roll of explanatory manuscript.  With his own ghostly

voice he had exhorted me, on the sacred consideration of my

filial duty and reverence towards him--who might reasonably

regard himself as my official ancestor--to bring his mouldy and

moth-eaten lucubrations before the public.  "Do this," said the

ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue, emphatically nodding the head that

looked so imposing within its memorable wig; "do this, and the

profit shall be all your own.  You will shortly need it; for it

is not in your days as it was in mine, when a man's office was a

life-lease, and oftentimes an heirloom.  But I charge you, in

this matter of old Mistress Prynne, give to your predecessor's

memory the credit which will be rightfully due" And I said to

the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue--"I will".

 

On Hester Prynne's story, therefore, I bestowed much thought.

It was the subject of my meditations for many an hour, while

pacing to and fro across my room, or traversing, with a

hundredfold repetition, the long extent from the front door of

the Custom-House to the side entrance, and back again.  Great

were the weariness and annoyance of the old Inspector and the

Weighers and Gaugers, whose slumbers were disturbed by the

unmercifully lengthened tramp of my passing and returning

footsteps.  Remembering their own former habits, they used to say

that the Surveyor was walking the quarter-deck.  They probably

fancied that my sole object--and, indeed, the sole object for

which a sane man could ever put himself into voluntary

motion--was to get an appetite for dinner.  And, to say the

truth, an appetite, sharpened by the east wind that generally

blew along the passage, was the only valuable result of so much

indefatigable exercise.  So little adapted is the atmosphere of a

Custom-house to the delicate harvest of fancy and sensibility,

that, had I remained there through ten Presidencies yet to come,

I doubt whether the tale of "The Scarlet Letter" would ever have

been brought before the public eye.  My imagination was a

tarnished mirror.  It would not reflect, or only with miserable

dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it.  The

characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered

malleable by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual

forge.  They would take neither the glow of passion nor the

tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of dead

corpses, and stared me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin

of contemptuous defiance.  "What have you to do with us?" that

expression seemed to say.  "The little power you might have once

possessed over the tribe of unrealities is gone!  You have

bartered it for a pittance of the public gold.  Go then, and earn

your wages!"  In short, the almost torpid creatures of my own

fancy twitted me with imbecility, and not without fair occasion.

 

It was not merely during the three hours and a half which Uncle

Sam claimed as his share of my daily life that this wretched

numbness held possession of me.  It went with me on my sea-shore

walks and rambles into the country, whenever--which was seldom

and reluctantly--I bestirred myself to seek that invigorating

charm of Nature which used to give me such freshness and

activity of thought, the moment that I stepped across the

threshold of the Old Manse.  The same torpor, as regarded the

capacity for intellectual effort, accompanied me home, and

weighed upon me in the chamber which I most absurdly termed my

study.  Nor did it quit me when, late at night, I sat in the

deserted parlour, lighted only by the glimmering coal-fire and

the moon, striving to picture forth imaginary scenes, which, the

next day, might flow out on the brightening page in many-hued

description.

 

If the imaginative faculty refused to act at such an hour, it

might well be deemed a hopeless case.  Moonlight, in a familiar

room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its

figures so distinctly--making every object so minutely visible,

yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility--is a medium the

most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his

illusive guests.  There is the little domestic scenery of the

well-known apartment; the chairs, with each its separate

individuality; the centre-table, sustaining a work-basket, a

volume or two, and an extinguished lamp; the sofa; the

book-case; the picture on the wall--all these details, so

completely seen, are so spiritualised by the unusual light, that

they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of

intellect.  Nothing is too small or too trifling to undergo this

change, and acquire dignity thereby.  A child's shoe; the doll,

seated in her little wicker carriage; the hobby-horse--whatever,

in a word, has been used or played with during the day is now

invested with a quality of strangeness and remoteness, though

still almost as vividly present as by daylight.  Thus, therefore,

the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory,

somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the

Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with

the nature of the other.  Ghosts might enter here without

affrighting us.  It would be too much in keeping with the scene

to excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover a

form, beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in a streak

of this magic moonshine, with an aspect that would make us doubt

whether it had returned from afar, or had never once stirred

from our fireside.

 

The somewhat dim coal fire has an essential Influence in

producing the effect which I would describe.  It throws its

unobtrusive tinge throughout the room, with a faint ruddiness

upon the walls and ceiling, and a reflected gleam upon the

polish of the furniture.  This warmer light mingles itself with

the cold spirituality of the moon-beams, and communicates, as it

were, a heart and sensibilities of human tenderness to the forms

which fancy summons up.  It converts them from snow-images into

men and women.  Glancing at the looking-glass, we behold--deep

within its haunted verge--the smouldering glow of the

half-extinguished anthracite, the white moon-beams on the floor,

and a repetition of all the gleam and shadow of the picture,

with one remove further from the actual, and nearer to the

imaginative.  Then, at such an hour, and with this scene before

him, if a man, sitting all alone, cannot dream strange things,

and make them look like truth, he need never try to write

romances.

 

But, for myself, during the whole of my Custom-House experience,

moonlight and sunshine, and the glow of firelight, were just

alike in my regard; and neither of them was of one whit more

avail than the twinkle of a tallow-candle.  An entire class of

susceptibilities, and a gift connected with them--of no great

richness or value, but the best I had--was gone from me.

 

It is my belief, however, that had I attempted a different order

of composition, my faculties would not have been found so

pointless and inefficacious.  I might, for instance, have

contented myself with writing out the narratives of a veteran

shipmaster, one of the Inspectors, whom I should be most

ungrateful not to mention, since scarcely a day passed that he

did not stir me to laughter and admiration by his marvelous

gifts as a story-teller.  Could I have preserved the picturesque

force of his style, and the humourous colouring which nature

taught him how to throw over his descriptions, the result, I

honestly believe, would have been something new in literature.

Or I might readily have found a more serious task.  It was a

folly, with the materiality of this daily life pressing so

intrusively upon me, to attempt to fling myself back into

another age, or to insist on creating the semblance of a world

out of airy matter, when, at every moment, the impalpable beauty

of my soap-bubble was broken by the rude contact of some actual

circumstance.  The wiser effort would have been to diffuse

thought and imagination through the opaque substance of to-day,

and thus to make it a bright transparency; to spiritualise the

burden that began to weigh so heavily; to seek, resolutely, the

true and indestructible value that lay hidden in the petty and

wearisome incidents, and ordinary characters with which I was

now conversant.  The fault was mine.  The page of life that was

spread out before me seemed dull and commonplace only because I

had not fathomed its deeper import.  A better book than I shall

ever write was there; leaf after leaf presenting itself to me,

just as it was written out by the reality of the flitting hour,

and vanishing as fast as written, only because my brain wanted

the insight, and my hand the cunning, to transcribe it.  At some

future day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered

fragments and broken paragraphs, and write them down, and find

the letters turn to gold upon the page.

 

These perceptions had come too late.  At the Instant, I was only

conscious that what would have been a pleasure once was now a

hopeless toil.  There was no occasion to make much moan about

this state of affairs.  I had ceased to be a writer of tolerably

poor tales and essays, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor

of the Customs.  That was all.  But, nevertheless, it is anything

but agreeable to be haunted by a suspicion that one's intellect

is dwindling away, or exhaling, without your consciousness, like

ether out of a phial; so that, at every glance, you find a

smaller and less volatile residuum.  Of the fact there could be

no doubt and, examining myself and others, I was led to

conclusions, in reference to the effect of public office on the

character, not very favourable to the mode of life in question.

In some other form, perhaps, I may hereafter develop these

effects.  Suffice it here to say that a Custom-House officer of

long continuance can hardly be a very praiseworthy or

respectable personage, for many reasons; one of them, the tenure

by which he holds his situation, and another, the very nature of

his business, which--though, I trust, an honest one--is of such

a sort that he does not share in the united effort of mankind.

 

An effect--which I believe to be observable, more or less, in

every individual who has occupied the position--is, that while

he leans on the mighty arm of the Republic, his own proper

strength departs from him.  He loses, in an extent proportioned

to the weakness or force of his original nature, the capability

of self-support.  If he possesses an unusual share of native

energy, or the enervating magic of place do not operate too long

upon him, his forfeited powers may be redeemable.  The ejected

officer--fortunate in the unkindly shove that sends him forth

betimes, to struggle amid a struggling world--may return to

himself, and become all that he has ever been.  But this seldom

happens.  He usually keeps his ground just long enough for his

own ruin, and is then thrust out, with sinews all unstrung, to

totter along the difficult footpath of life as he best may.

Conscious of his own infirmity--that his tempered steel and

elasticity are lost--he for ever afterwards looks wistfully

about him in quest of support external to himself.  His pervading

and continual hope--a hallucination, which, in the face of all

discouragement, and making light of impossibilities, haunts him

while he lives, and, I fancy, like the convulsive throes of the

cholera, torments him for a brief space after death--is, that

finally, and in no long time, by some happy coincidence of

circumstances, he shall be restored to office.  This faith, more

than anything else, steals the pith and availability out of

whatever enterprise he may dream of undertaking.  Why should he

toil and moil, and be at so much trouble to pick himself up out

of the mud, when, in a little while hence, the strong arm of his

Uncle will raise and support him?  Why should he work for his

living here, or go to dig gold in California, when he is so soon

to be made happy, at monthly intervals, with a little pile of

glittering coin out of his Uncle's pocket?  It is sadly curious

to observe how slight a taste of office suffices to infect a

poor fellow with this singular disease.  Uncle Sam's

gold--meaning no disrespect to the worthy old gentleman--has, in

this respect, a quality of enchantment like that of the devil's

wages.  Whoever touches it should look well to himself, or he may

find the bargain to go hard against him, involving, if not his

soul, yet many of its better attributes; its sturdy force, its

courage and constancy, its truth, its self-reliance, and all

that gives the emphasis to manly character.

 

Here was a fine prospect in the distance.  Not that the Surveyor

brought the lesson home to himself, or admitted that he could be

so utterly undone, either by continuance in office or ejectment.

Yet my reflections were not the most comfortable.  I began to

grow melancholy and restless; continually prying into my mind,

to discover which of its poor properties were gone, and what

degree of detriment had already accrued to the remainder.  I

endeavoured to calculate how much longer I could stay in the

Custom-House, and yet go forth a man.  To confess the truth, it

was my greatest apprehension--as it would never be a measure of

policy to turn out so quiet an individual as myself; and it

being hardly in the nature of a public officer to resign--it was

my chief trouble, therefore, that I was likely to grow grey and

decrepit in the Surveyorship, and become much such another

animal as the old Inspector.  Might it not, in the tedious lapse

of official life that lay before me, finally be with me as it

was with this venerable friend--to make the dinner-hour the

nucleus of the day, and to spend the rest of it, as an old dog

spends it, asleep in the sunshine or in the shade?  A dreary

look-forward, this, for a man who felt it to be the best

definition of happiness to live throughout the whole range of

his faculties and sensibilities.  But, all this while, I was

giving myself very unnecessary alarm.  Providence had meditated

better things for me than I could possibly imagine for myself.

 

A remarkable event of the third year of my Surveyorship--to

adopt the tone of "P. P. "--was the election of General Taylor

to the Presidency.  It is essential, in order to form a complete

estimate of the advantages of official life, to view the

incumbent at the in-coming of a hostile administration.  His

position is then one of the most singularly irksome, and, in

every contingency, disagreeable, that a wretched mortal can

possibly occupy; with seldom an alternative of good on either

hand, although what presents itself to him as the worst event

may very probably be the best.  But it is a strange experience,

to a man of pride and sensibility, to know that his interests

are within the control of individuals who neither love nor

understand him, and by whom, since one or the other must needs

happen, he would rather be injured than obliged.  Strange, too,

for one who has kept his calmness throughout the contest, to

observe the bloodthirstiness that is developed in the hour of

triumph, and to be conscious that he is himself among its

objects!  There are few uglier traits of human nature than this

tendency--which I now witnessed in men no worse than their

neighbours--to grow cruel, merely because they possessed the

power of inflicting harm.  If the guillotine, as applied to

office-holders, were a literal fact, instead of one of the most

apt of metaphors, it is my sincere belief that the active

members of the victorious party were sufficiently excited to

have chopped off all our heads, and have thanked Heaven for the

opportunity!  It appears to me--who have been a calm and curious

observer, as well in victory as defeat--that this fierce and

bitter spirit of malice and revenge has never distinguished the

many triumphs of my own party as it now did that of the Whigs.

The Democrats take the offices, as a general rule, because they

need them, and because the practice of many years has made it

the law of political warfare, which unless a different system be

proclaimed, it was weakness and cowardice to murmur at.  But the

long habit of victory has made them generous.  They know how to

spare when they see occasion; and when they strike, the axe may

be sharp indeed, but its edge is seldom poisoned with ill-will;

nor is it their custom ignominiously to kick the head which they

have just struck off.

 

In short, unpleasant as was my predicament, at best, I saw much

reason to congratulate myself that I was on the losing side

rather than the triumphant one.  If, heretofore, I had been none

of the warmest of partisans I began now, at this season of peril

and adversity, to be pretty acutely sensible with which party my

predilections lay; nor was it without something like regret and

shame that, according to a reasonable calculation of chances, I

saw my own prospect of retaining office to be better than those

of my democratic brethren.  But who can see an inch into futurity

beyond his nose?  My own head was the first that fell.

 

The moment when a man's head drops off is seldom or never, I am

inclined to think, precisely the most agreeable of his life.

Nevertheless, like the greater part of our misfortunes, even so

serious a contingency brings its remedy and consolation with it,

if the sufferer will but make the best rather than the worst, of

the accident which has befallen him.  In my particular case the

consolatory topics were close at hand, and, indeed, had

suggested themselves to my meditations a considerable time

before it was requisite to use them.  In view of my previous

weariness of office, and vague thoughts of resignation, my

fortune somewhat resembled that of a person who should entertain

an idea of committing suicide, and although beyond his hopes,

meet with the good hap to be murdered.  In the Custom-House, as

before in the Old Manse, I had spent three years--a term long

enough to rest a weary brain: long enough to break off old

intellectual habits, and make room for new ones: long enough,

and too long, to have lived in an unnatural state, doing what

was really of no advantage nor delight to any human being, and

withholding myself from toil that would, at least, have stilled

an unquiet impulse in me.  Then, moreover, as regarded his

unceremonious ejectment, the late Surveyor was not altogether

ill-pleased to be recognised by the Whigs as an enemy; since his

inactivity in political affairs--his tendency to roam, at will,

in that broad and quiet field where all mankind may meet, rather

than confine himself to those narrow paths where brethren of the

same household must diverge from one another--had sometimes made

it questionable with his brother Democrats whether he was a

friend.  Now, after he had won the crown of martyrdom (though

with no longer a head to wear it on), the point might be looked

upon as settled.  Finally, little heroic as he was, it seemed

more decorous to be overthrown in the downfall of the party with

which he had been content to stand than to remain a forlorn

survivor, when so many worthier men were falling: and at last,

after subsisting for four years on the mercy of a hostile

administration, to be compelled then to define his position

anew, and claim the yet more humiliating mercy of a friendly

one.

 

Meanwhile, the press had taken up my affair, and kept me for a

week or two careering through the public prints, in my

decapitated state, like Irving's Headless Horseman, ghastly and

grim, and longing to be buried, as a political dead man ought.

So much for my figurative self.  The real human being all this

time, with his head safely on his shoulders, had brought himself

to the comfortable conclusion that everything was for the best;

and making an investment in ink, paper, and steel pens, had

opened his long-disused writing desk, and was again a literary

man.

 

Now it was that the lucubrations of my ancient predecessor, Mr.

Surveyor Pue, came into play.  Rusty through long idleness, some

little space was requisite before my intellectual machinery

could be brought to work upon the tale with an effect in any

degree satisfactory.  Even yet, though my thoughts were

ultimately much absorbed in the task, it wears, to my eye, a

stern and sombre aspect: too much ungladdened by genial

sunshine; too little relieved by the tender and familiar

influences which soften almost every scene of nature and real

life, and undoubtedly should soften every picture of them.  This

uncaptivating effect is perhaps due to the period of hardly

accomplished revolution, and still seething turmoil, in which

the story shaped itself.  It is no indication, however, of a lack

of cheerfulness in the writer's mind: for he was happier while

straying through the gloom of these sunless fantasies than at

any time since he had quitted the Old Manse.  Some of the briefer

articles, which contribute to make up the volume, have likewise

been written since my involuntary withdrawal from the toils and

honours of public life, and the remainder are gleaned from

annuals and magazines, of such antique date, that they have gone

round the circle, and come back to novelty again.  Keeping up the

metaphor of the political guillotine, the whole may be

considered as the POSTHUMOUS PAPERS OF A DECAPITATED SURVEYOR:

and the sketch which I am now bringing to a close, if too

autobiographical for a modest person to publish in his lifetime,

will readily be excused in a gentleman who writes from beyond

the grave.  Peace be with all the world!  My blessing on my

friends!  My forgiveness to my enemies!  For I am in the realm of

quiet!

 

The life of the Custom-House lies like a dream behind me.  The

old Inspector--who, by-the-bye, I regret to say, was overthrown

and killed by a horse some time ago, else he would certainly

have lived for ever--he, and all those other venerable

personages who sat with him at the receipt of custom, are but

shadows in my view: white-headed and wrinkled images, which my

fancy used to sport with, and has now flung aside for ever.  The

merchants--Pingree, Phillips, Shepard, Upton, Kimball, Bertram,

Hunt--these and many other names, which had such classic

familiarity for my ear six months ago,--these men of traffic,

who seemed to occupy so important a position in the world--how

little time has it required to disconnect me from them all, not

merely in act, but recollection!  It is with an effort that I

recall the figures and appellations of these few.  Soon,

likewise, my old native town will loom upon me through the haze

of memory, a mist brooding over and around it; as if it were no

portion of the real earth, but an overgrown village in

cloud-land, with only imaginary inhabitants to people its wooden

houses and walk its homely lanes, and the unpicturesque

prolixity of its main street.  Henceforth it ceases to be a

reality of my life; I am a citizen of somewhere else.  My good

townspeople will not much regret me, for--though it has been as

dear an object as any, in my literary efforts, to be of some

importance in their eyes, and to win myself a pleasant memory in

this abode and burial-place of so many of my forefathers--there

has never been, for me, the genial atmosphere which a literary

man requires in order to ripen the best harvest of his mind.  I

shall do better amongst other faces; and these familiar ones, it

need hardly be said, will do just as well without me.

 

It may be, however--oh, transporting and triumphant

thought--that the great-grandchildren of the present race may

sometimes think kindly of the scribbler of bygone days, when the

antiquary of days to come, among the sites memorable in the

town's history, shall point out the locality of THE TOWN PUMP.

 

 

 

 

 

THE SCARLET LETTER

 

 

I. THE PRISON DOOR

 

A throng of bearded men, in sad-coloured garments and grey

steeple-crowned hats, inter-mixed with women, some wearing

hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden

edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and

studded with iron spikes.

 

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue

and happiness they might originally project, have invariably

recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to

allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another

portion as the site of a prison.  In accordance with this rule it

may safely be assumed that the forefathers of Boston had built

the first prison-house somewhere in the Vicinity of Cornhill,

almost as seasonably as they marked out the first burial-ground,

on Isaac Johnson's lot, and round about his grave, which

subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated

sepulchres in the old churchyard of King's Chapel.  Certain it is

that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the

town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and

other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its

beetle-browed and gloomy front.  The rust on the ponderous

iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything

else in the New World.  Like all that pertains to crime, it

seemed never to have known a youthful era.  Before this ugly

edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a

grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-pern,

and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something

congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower

of civilised society, a prison.  But on one side of the portal,

and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush,

covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which

might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to

the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he

came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature

could pity and be kind to him.

 

This rose-bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in

history; but whether it had merely survived out of the stern old

wilderness, so long after the fall of the gigantic pines and

oaks that originally overshadowed it, or whether, as there is

fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the

footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson as she entered the

prison-door, we shall not take upon us to determine.  Finding it

so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now

about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do

otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the

reader.  It may serve, let us hope, to symbolise some sweet moral

blossom that may be found along the track, or relieve the

darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.

 

 

 

II. THE MARKET-PLACE

 

The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain

summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by

a pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston, all with

their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door.

Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the

history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the

bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured

some awful business in hand.  It could have betokened nothing

short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit, on

whom the sentence of a legal tribunal had but confirmed the

verdict of public sentiment.  But, in that early severity of the

Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so

indubitably be drawn.  It might be that a sluggish bond-servant,

or an undutiful child, whom his parents had given over to the

civil authority, was to be corrected at the whipping-post.  It

might be that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox

religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle or

vagrant Indian, whom the white man's firewater had made riotous

about the streets, was to be driven with stripes into the shadow

of the forest.  It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress

Hibbins, the bitter-tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die

upon the gallows.  In either case, there was very much the same

solemnity of demeanour on the part of the spectators, as

befitted a people among whom religion and law were almost

identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly

interfused, that the mildest and severest acts of public

discipline were alike made venerable and awful.  Meagre, indeed,

and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for,

from such bystanders, at the scaffold.  On the other hand, a

penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking

infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern

a dignity as the punishment of death itself.

 

It was a circumstance to be noted on the summer morning when our

story begins its course, that the women, of whom there were

several in the crowd, appeared to take a peculiar interest in

whatever penal infliction might be expected to ensue.  The age

had not so much refinement, that any sense of impropriety

restrained the wearers of petticoat and farthingale from

stepping forth into the public ways, and wedging their not

unsubstantial persons, if occasion were, into the throng nearest

to the scaffold at an execution.  Morally, as well as materially,

there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of old

English birth and breeding than in their fair descendants,

separated from them by a series of six or seven generations;

for, throughout that chain of ancestry, every successive mother

had transmitted to her child a fainter bloom, a more delicate

and briefer beauty, and a slighter physical frame, if not

character of less force and solidity than her own.  The women who

were now standing about the prison-door stood within less than

half a century of the period when the man-like Elizabeth had

been the not altogether unsuitable representative of the sex.

They were her countrywomen: and the beef and ale of their native

land, with a moral diet not a whit more refined, entered largely

into their composition.  The bright morning sun, therefore, shone

on broad shoulders and well-developed busts, and on round and

ruddy cheeks, that had ripened in the far-off island, and had

hardly yet grown paler or thinner in the atmosphere of New

England.  There was, moreover, a boldness and rotundity of speech

among these matrons, as most of them seemed to be, that would

startle us at the present day, whether in respect to its purport

or its volume of tone.

 

"Goodwives," said a hard-featured dame of fifty, "I'll tell ye a

piece of my mind.  It would be greatly for the public behoof if

we women, being of mature age and church-members in good repute,

should have the handling of such malefactresses as this Hester

Prynne.  What think ye, gossips?  If the hussy stood up for

judgment before us five, that are now here in a knot together,

would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful

magistrates have awarded?  Marry, I trow not."

 

"People say," said another, "that the Reverend Master

Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to heart

that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation."

 

"The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful

overmuch--that is a truth," added a third autumnal matron.  "At

the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on

Hester Prynne's forehead.  Madame Hester would have winced at

that, I warrant me.  But she--the naughty baggage--little will

she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown!  Why, look

you, she may cover it with a brooch, or such like heathenish

adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever!"

 

"Ah, but," interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a

child by the hand, "let her cover the mark as she will, the pang

of it will be always in her heart."

 

"What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of

her gown or the flesh of her forehead?" cried another female,

the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these

self-constituted judges.  "This woman has brought shame upon us

all, and ought to die; is there not law for it?  Truly there is,

both in the Scripture and the statute-book.  Then let the

magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if

their own wives and daughters go astray."

 

"Mercy on us, goodwife!" exclaimed a man in the crowd, "is there

no virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of

the gallows?  That is the hardest word yet!  Hush now, gossips for

the lock is turning in the prison-door, and here comes Mistress

Prynne herself."

 

The door of the jail being flung open from within there

appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into

sunshine, the grim and gristly presence of the town-beadle, with

a sword by his side, and his staff of office in his hand.  This

personage prefigured and represented in his aspect the whole

dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law, which it was his

business to administer in its final and closest application to

the offender.  Stretching forth the official staff in his left

hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom

he thus drew forward, until, on the threshold of the

prison-door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural

dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air as

if by her own free will.  She bore in her arms a child, a baby of

some three months old, who winked and turned aside its little

face from the too vivid light of day; because its existence,

heretofore, had brought it acquaintance only with the grey

twilight of a dungeon, or other darksome apartment of the

prison.

 

When the young woman--the mother of this child--stood fully

revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to

clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse

of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a

certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress.  In

a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame

would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her

arm, and with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a

glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her

townspeople and neighbours.  On the breast of her gown, in fine

red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic

flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so

artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous

luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and

fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore, and which was

of a splendour in accordance with the taste of the age, but

greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of

the colony.

 

The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a

large scale.  She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it

threw off the sunshine with a gleam; and a face which, besides

being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of

complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow

and deep black eyes.  She was ladylike, too, after the manner of

the feminine gentility of those days; characterised by a certain

state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and

indescribable grace which is now recognised as its indication.

And never had Hester Prynne appeared more ladylike, in the

antique interpretation of the term, than as she issued from the

prison.  Those who had before known her, and had expected to

behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were

astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone

out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she

was enveloped.  It may be true that, to a sensitive observer,

there was some thing exquisitely painful in it.  Her attire,

which indeed, she had wrought for the occasion in prison, and

had modelled much after her own fancy, seemed to express the

attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood,

by its wild and picturesque peculiarity.  But the point which

drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer--so that

both men and women who had been familiarly acquainted with

Hester Prynne were now impressed as if they beheld her for the

first time--was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically

embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom.  It had the effect of

a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity,

and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.

 

"She hath good skill at her needle, that's certain," remarked

one of her female spectators; "but did ever a woman, before this

brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it?  Why, gossips,

what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates,

and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a

punishment?"

 

"It were well," muttered the most iron-visaged of the old dames,

"if we stripped Madame Hester's rich gown off her dainty

shoulders; and as for the red letter which she hath stitched so

curiously, I'll bestow a rag of mine own rheumatic flannel to

make a fitter one!"

 

"Oh, peace, neighbours--peace!" whispered their youngest

companion; "do not let her hear you!  Not a stitch in that

embroidered letter but she has felt it in her heart."

 

The grim beadle now made a gesture with his staff.  "Make way,

good people--make way, in the King's name!" cried he.  "Open a

passage; and I promise ye, Mistress Prynne shall be set where

man, woman, and child may have a fair sight of her brave apparel

from this time till an hour past meridian.  A blessing on the

righteous colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged

out into the sunshine!  Come along, Madame Hester, and show your

scarlet letter in the market-place!"

 

A lane was forthwith opened through the crowd of spectators.

Preceded by the beadle, and attended by an irregular procession

of stern-browed men and unkindly visaged women, Hester Prynne

set forth towards the place appointed for her punishment.  A

crowd of eager and curious schoolboys, understanding little of

the matter in hand, except that it gave them a half-holiday, ran

before her progress, turning their heads continually to stare

into her face and at the winking baby in her arms, and at the

ignominious letter on her breast.  It was no great distance, in

those days, from the prison door to the market-place.  Measured

by the prisoner's experience, however, it might be reckoned a

journey of some length; for haughty as her demeanour was, she

perchance underwent an agony from every footstep of those that

thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the

street for them all to spurn and trample upon.  In our nature,

however, there is a provision, alike marvellous and merciful,

that the sufferer should never know the intensity of what he

endures by its present torture, but chiefly by the pang that

rankles after it.  With almost a serene deportment, therefore,

Hester Prynne passed through this portion of her ordeal, and

came to a sort of scaffold, at the western extremity of the

market-place.  It stood nearly beneath the eaves of Boston's

earliest church, and appeared to be a fixture there.

 

In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine,

which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely

historical and traditionary among us, but was held, in the old

time, to be as effectual an agent, in the promotion of good

citizenship, as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of

France.  It was, in short, the platform of the pillory; and above

it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so

fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and

thus hold it up to the public gaze.  The very ideal of ignominy

was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and

iron.  There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common

nature--whatever be the delinquencies of the individual--no

outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his

face for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to do.

In Hester Prynne's instance, however, as not unfrequently in

other cases, her sentence bore that she should stand a certain

time upon the platform, but without undergoing that gripe about

the neck and confinement of the head, the proneness to which was

the most devilish characteristic of this ugly engine.  Knowing

well her part, she ascended a flight of wooden steps, and was

thus displayed to the surrounding multitude, at about the height

of a man's shoulders above the street.

 

Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might

have seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire

and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind

him of the image of Divine Maternity, which so many illustrious

painters have vied with one another to represent; something

which should remind him, indeed, but only by contrast, of that

sacred image of sinless motherhood, whose infant was to redeem

the world.  Here, there was the taint of deepest sin in the most

sacred quality of human life, working such effect, that the

world was only the darker for this woman's beauty, and the more

lost for the infant that she had borne.

 

The scene was not without a mixture of awe, such as must always

invest the spectacle of guilt and shame in a fellow-creature,

before society shall have grown corrupt enough to smile, instead

of shuddering at it.  The witnesses of Hester Prynne's disgrace

had not yet passed beyond their simplicity.  They were stern

enough to look upon her death, had that been the sentence,

without a murmur at its severity, but had none of the

heartlessness of another social state, which would find only a

theme for jest in an exhibition like the present.  Even had there

been a disposition to turn the matter into ridicule, it must

have been repressed and overpowered by the solemn presence of

men no less dignified than the governor, and several of his

counsellors, a judge, a general, and the ministers of the town,

all of whom sat or stood in a balcony of the meeting-house,

looking down upon the platform.  When such personages could

constitute a part of the spectacle, without risking the majesty,

or reverence of rank and office, it was safely to be inferred

that the infliction of a legal sentence would have an earnest

and effectual meaning.  Accordingly, the crowd was sombre and

grave.  The unhappy culprit sustained herself as best a woman

might, under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes,

all fastened upon her, and concentrated at her bosom.  It was

almost intolerable to be borne.  Of an impulsive and passionate

nature, she had fortified herself to encounter the stings and

venomous stabs of public contumely, wreaking itself in every

variety of insult; but there was a quality so much more terrible

in the solemn mood of the popular mind, that she longed rather

to behold all those rigid countenances contorted with scornful

merriment, and herself the object.  Had a roar of laughter burst

from the multitude--each man, each woman, each little

shrill-voiced child, contributing their individual parts--Hester

Prynne might have repaid them all with a bitter and disdainful

smile.  But, under the leaden infliction which it was her doom to

endure, she felt, at moments, as if she must needs shriek out

with the full power of her lungs, and cast herself from the

scaffold down upon the ground, or else go mad at once.

 

Yet there were intervals when the whole scene, in which she was

the most conspicuous object, seemed to vanish from her eyes, or,

at least, glimmered indistinctly before them, like a mass of

imperfectly shaped and spectral images.  Her mind, and especially

her memory, was preternaturally active, and kept bringing up

other scenes than this roughly hewn street of a little town, on

the edge of the western wilderness: other faces than were

lowering upon her from beneath the brims of those

steeple-crowned hats.  Reminiscences, the most trifling and

immaterial, passages of infancy and school-days, sports,

childish quarrels, and the little domestic traits of her maiden

years, came swarming back upon her, intermingled with

recollections of whatever was gravest in her subsequent life;

one picture precisely as vivid as another; as if all were of

similar importance, or all alike a play.  Possibly, it was an

instinctive device of her spirit to relieve itself by the

exhibition of these phantasmagoric forms, from the cruel weight

and hardness of the reality.

 

Be that as it might, the scaffold of the pillory was a point of

view that revealed to Hester Prynne the entire track along which

she had been treading, since her happy infancy.  Standing on that

miserable eminence, she saw again her native village, in Old

England, and her paternal home: a decayed house of grey stone,

with a poverty-stricken aspect, but retaining a half obliterated

shield of arms over the portal, in token of antique gentility.

She saw her father's face, with its bold brow, and reverend

white beard that flowed over the old-fashioned Elizabethan ruff;

her mother's, too, with the look of heedful and anxious love

which it always wore in her remembrance, and which, even since

her death, had so often laid the impediment of a gentle

remonstrance in her daughter's pathway.  She saw her own face,

glowing with girlish beauty, and illuminating all the interior

of the dusky mirror in which she had been wont to gaze at it.

There she beheld another countenance, of a man well stricken in

years, a pale, thin, scholar-like visage, with eyes dim and

bleared by the lamp-light that had served them to pore over many

ponderous books.  Yet those same bleared optics had a strange,

penetrating power, when it was their owner's purpose to read the

human soul.  This figure of the study and the cloister, as Hester

Prynne's womanly fancy failed not to recall, was slightly

deformed, with the left shoulder a trifle higher than the right.

Next rose before her in memory's picture-gallery, the intricate

and narrow thoroughfares, the tall, grey houses, the huge

cathedrals, and the public edifices, ancient in date and quaint

in architecture, of a continental city; where new life had

awaited her, still in connexion with the misshapen scholar: a

new life, but feeding itself on time-worn materials, like a tuft

of green moss on a crumbling wall.  Lastly, in lieu of these

shifting scenes, came back the rude market-place of the Puritan,

settlement, with all the townspeople assembled, and levelling

their stern regards at Hester Prynne--yes, at herself--who stood

on the scaffold of the pillory, an infant on her arm, and the

letter A, in scarlet, fantastically embroidered with gold

thread, upon her bosom.

 

Could it be true?   She clutched the child so fiercely to her

breast that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at

the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to

assure herself that the infant and the shame were real.  Yes

these were her realities--all else had vanished!

 

 

 

III.  THE RECOGNITION

 

From this intense consciousness of being the object of severe

and universal observation, the wearer of the scarlet letter was

at length relieved, by discerning, on the outskirts of the

crowd, a figure which irresistibly took possession of her

thoughts.  An Indian in his native garb was standing there; but

the red men were not so infrequent visitors of the English

settlements that one of them would have attracted any notice

from Hester Prynne at such a time; much less would he have

excluded all other objects and ideas from her mind.  By the

Indian's side, and evidently sustaining a companionship with

him, stood a white man, clad in a strange disarray of civilized

and savage costume.

 

He was small in stature, with a furrowed visage, which as yet

could hardly be termed aged.  There was a remarkable intelligence

in his features, as of a person who had so cultivated his mental

part that it could not fail to mould the physical to itself and

become manifest by unmistakable tokens.  Although, by a seemingly

careless arrangement of his heterogeneous garb, he had

endeavoured to conceal or abate the peculiarity, it was

sufficiently evident to Hester Prynne that one of this man's

shoulders rose higher than the other.  Again, at the first

instant of perceiving that thin visage, and the slight deformity

of the figure, she pressed her infant to her bosom with so

convulsive a force that the poor babe uttered another cry of

pain.  But the mother did not seem to hear it.

 

At his arrival in the market-place, and some time before she saw

him, the stranger had bent his eyes on Hester Prynne.  It was

carelessly at first, like a man chiefly accustomed to look

inward, and to whom external matters are of little value and

import, unless they bear relation to something within his mind.

Very soon, however, his look became keen and penetrative.  A

writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake

gliding swiftly over them, and making one little pause, with all

its wreathed intervolutions in open sight.  His face darkened

with some powerful emotion, which, nevertheless, he so

instantaneously controlled by an effort of his will, that, save

at a single moment, its expression might have passed for

calmness.  After a brief space, the convulsion grew almost

imperceptible, and finally subsided into the depths of his

nature.  When he found the eyes of Hester Prynne fastened on his

own, and saw that she appeared to recognize him, he slowly and

calmly raised his finger, made a gesture with it in the air, and

laid it on his lips.

 

Then touching the shoulder of a townsman who stood near to him,

he addressed him in a formal and courteous manner:

 

"I pray you, good Sir," said he, "who is this woman?--and

wherefore is she here set up to public shame?"

 

"You must needs be a stranger in this region, friend," answered

the townsman, looking curiously at the questioner and his savage

companion, "else you would surely have heard of Mistress Hester

Prynne and her evil doings.  She hath raised a great scandal, I

promise you, in godly Master Dimmesdale's church."

 

"You say truly," replied the other; "I am a stranger, and have

been a wanderer, sorely against my will.  I have met with

grievous mishaps by sea and land, and have been long held in

bonds among the heathen-folk to the southward; and am now

brought hither by this Indian to be redeemed out of my

captivity.  Will it please you, therefore, to tell me of Hester

Prynne's--have I her name rightly?--of this woman's offences,

and what has brought her to yonder scaffold?"

 

"Truly, friend; and methinks it must gladden your heart, after

your troubles and sojourn in the wilderness," said the townsman,

"to find yourself at length in a land where iniquity is searched

out and punished in the sight of rulers and people, as here in

our godly New England.  Yonder woman, Sir, you must know, was the

wife of a certain learned man, English by birth, but who had

long ago dwelt in Amsterdam, whence some good time agone he was

minded to cross over and cast in his lot with us of the

Massachusetts.  To this purpose he sent his wife before him,

remaining himself to look after some necessary affairs.  Marry,

good Sir, in some two years, or less, that the woman has been a

dweller here in Boston, no tidings have come of this learned

gentleman, Master Prynne; and his young wife, look you, being

left to her own misguidance--"

 

"Ah!--aha!--I conceive you," said the stranger with a bitter

smile.  "So learned a man as you speak of should have learned

this too in his books.  And who, by your favour, Sir, may be the

father of yonder babe--it is some three or four months old, I

should judge--which Mistress Prynne is holding in her arms?"

 

"Of a truth, friend, that matter remaineth a riddle; and the

Daniel who shall expound it is yet a-wanting," answered the

townsman.  "Madame Hester absolutely refuseth to speak, and the

magistrates have laid their heads together in vain.  Peradventure

the guilty one stands looking on at this sad spectacle, unknown

of man, and forgetting that God sees him."

 

"The learned man," observed the stranger with another smile,

"should come himself to look into the mystery."

 

"It behoves him well if he be still in life," responded the

townsman.  "Now, good Sir, our Massachusetts magistracy,

bethinking themselves that this woman is youthful and fair, and

doubtless was strongly tempted to her fall, and that, moreover,

as is most likely, her husband may be at the bottom of the sea,

they have not been bold to put in force the extremity of our

righteous law against her.  The penalty thereof is death.  But in

their great mercy and tenderness of heart they have doomed

Mistress Prynne to stand only a space of three hours on the

platform of the pillory, and then and thereafter, for the

remainder of her natural life to wear a mark of shame upon her

bosom."

 

"A wise sentence," remarked the stranger, gravely, bowing his

head.  "Thus she will be a living sermon against sin, until the

ignominious letter be engraved upon her tombstone.  It irks me,

nevertheless, that the partner of her iniquity should not at

least, stand on the scaffold by her side.  But he will be

known--he will be known!--he will be known!"

 

He bowed courteously to the communicative townsman, and

whispering a few words to his Indian attendant, they both made

their way through the crowd.

 

While this passed, Hester Prynne had been standing on her

pedestal, still with a fixed gaze towards the stranger--so fixed

a gaze that, at moments of intense absorption, all other objects

in the visible world seemed to vanish, leaving only him and her.

Such an interview, perhaps, would have been more terrible than

even to meet him as she now did, with the hot mid-day sun

burning down upon her face, and lighting up its shame; with the

scarlet token of infamy on her breast; with the sin-born infant

in her arms; with a whole people, drawn forth as to a festival,

staring at the features that should have been seen only in the

quiet gleam of the fireside, in the happy shadow of a home, or

beneath a matronly veil at church.  Dreadful as it was, she was

conscious of a shelter in the presence of these thousand

witnesses.  It was better to stand thus, with so many betwixt him

and her, than to greet him face to face--they two alone.  She

fled for refuge, as it were, to the public exposure, and dreaded

the moment when its protection should be withdrawn from her.

Involved in these thoughts, she scarcely heard a voice behind

her until it had repeated her name more than once, in a loud and

solemn tone, audible to the whole multitude.

 

"Hearken unto me, Hester Prynne!" said the voice.

 

It has already been noticed that directly over the platform on

which Hester Prynne stood was a kind of balcony, or open

gallery, appended to the meeting-house.  It was the place whence

proclamations were wont to be made, amidst an assemblage of the

magistracy, with all the ceremonial that attended such public

observances in those days.  Here, to witness the scene which we

are describing, sat Governor Bellingham himself with four

sergeants about his chair, bearing halberds, as a guard of

honour.  He wore a dark feather in his hat, a border of

embroidery on his cloak, and a black velvet tunic beneath--a

gentleman advanced in years, with a hard experience written in

his wrinkles.  He was not ill-fitted to be the head and

representative of a community which owed its origin and

progress, and its present state of development, not to the

impulses of youth, but to the stern and tempered energies of

manhood and the sombre sagacity of age; accomplishing so much,

precisely because it imagined and hoped so little.  The other

eminent characters by whom the chief ruler was surrounded were

distinguished by a dignity of mien, belonging to a period when

the forms of authority were felt to possess the sacredness of

Divine institutions.  They were, doubtless, good men, just and

sage.  But, out of the whole human family, it would not have been

easy to select the same number of wise and virtuous persons, who

should be less capable of sitting in judgment on an erring

woman's heart, and disentangling its mesh of good and evil, than

the sages of rigid aspect towards whom Hester Prynne now turned

her face.  She seemed conscious, indeed, that whatever sympathy

she might expect lay in the larger and warmer heart of the

multitude; for, as she lifted her eyes towards the balcony, the

unhappy woman grew pale, and trembled.

 

The voice which had called her attention was that of the

reverend and famous John Wilson, the eldest clergyman of Boston,

a great scholar, like most of his contemporaries in the

profession, and withal a man of kind and genial spirit.  This

last attribute, however, had been less carefully developed than

his intellectual gifts, and was, in truth, rather a matter of

shame than self-congratulation with him.  There he stood, with a

border of grizzled locks beneath his skull-cap, while his grey

eyes, accustomed to the shaded light of his study, were winking,

like those of Hester's infant, in the unadulterated sunshine.  He

looked like the darkly engraved portraits which we see prefixed

to old volumes of sermons, and had no more right than one of

those portraits would have to step forth, as he now did, and

meddle with a question of human guilt, passion, and anguish.

 

"Hester Prynne," said the clergyman, "I have striven with my

young brother here, under whose preaching of the Word you have

been privileged to sit"--here Mr. Wilson laid his hand on the

shoulder of a pale young man beside him--"I have sought, I say,

to persuade this godly youth, that he should deal with you, here

in the face of Heaven, and before these wise and upright rulers,

and in hearing of all the people, as touching the vileness and

blackness of your sin.  Knowing your natural temper better than

I, he could the better judge what arguments to use, whether of

tenderness or terror, such as might prevail over your hardness

and obstinacy, insomuch that you should no longer hide the name

of him who tempted you to this grievous fall.  But he opposes to

me--with a young man's over-softness, albeit wise beyond his

years--that it were wronging the very nature of woman to force

her to lay open her heart's secrets in such broad daylight, and

in presence of so great a multitude.  Truly, as I sought to

convince him, the shame lay in the commission of the sin, and

not in the showing of it forth.  What say you to it, once again,

brother Dimmesdale?  Must it be thou, or I, that shall deal with

this poor sinner's soul?"

 

There was a murmur among the dignified and reverend occupants of

the balcony; and Governor Bellingham gave expression to its

purport, speaking in an authoritative voice, although tempered

with respect towards the youthful clergyman whom he addressed:

 

"Good Master Dimmesdale," said he, "the responsibility of this

woman's soul lies greatly with you.  It behoves you; therefore,

to exhort her to repentance and to confession, as a proof and

consequence thereof."

 

The directness of this appeal drew the eyes of the whole crowd

upon the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale--young clergyman, who had come

from one of the great English universities, bringing all the

learning of the age into our wild forest land.  His eloquence and

religious fervour had already given the earnest of high eminence

in his profession.  He was a person of very striking aspect, with

a white, lofty, and impending brow; large, brown, melancholy

eyes, and a mouth which, unless when he forcibly compressed it,

was apt to be tremulous, expressing both nervous sensibility and

a vast power of self restraint.  Notwithstanding his high native

gifts and scholar-like attainments, there was an air about this

young minister--an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened

look--as of a being who felt himself quite astray, and at a loss

in the pathway of human existence, and could only be at ease in

some seclusion of his own.  Therefore, so far as his duties would

permit, he trod in the shadowy by-paths, and thus kept himself

simple and childlike, coming forth, when occasion was, with a

freshness, and fragrance, and dewy purity of thought, which, as

many people said, affected them like the speech of an angel.

 

Such was the young man whom the Reverend Mr. Wilson and the

Governor had introduced so openly to the public notice, bidding

him speak, in the hearing of all men, to that mystery of a

woman's soul, so sacred even in its pollution.  The trying nature

of his position drove the blood from his cheek, and made his

lips tremulous.

 

"Speak to the woman, my brother," said Mr. Wilson.  "It is of

moment to her soul, and, therefore, as the worshipful Governor

says, momentous to thine own, in whose charge hers is.  Exhort

her to confess the truth!"

 

The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale bent his head, in silent prayer,

as it seemed, and then came forward.

 

"Hester Prynne," said he, leaning over the balcony and looking

down steadfastly into her eyes, "thou hearest what this good man

says, and seest the accountability under which I labour.  If thou

feelest it to be for thy soul's peace, and that thy earthly

punishment will thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I

charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and

fellow-sufferer!  Be not silent from any mistaken pity and

tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to

step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy

pedestal of shame, yet better were it so than to hide a guilty

heart through life.  What can thy silence do for him, except it

tempt him--yea, compel him, as it were--to add hypocrisy to sin?

Heaven hath granted thee an open ignominy, that thereby thou

mayest work out an open triumph over the evil within thee and

the sorrow without.  Take heed how thou deniest to him--who,

perchance, hath not the courage to grasp it for himself--the

bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips!"

 

The young pastor's voice was tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and

broken.  The feeling that it so evidently manifested, rather than

the direct purport of the words, caused it to vibrate within all

hearts, and brought the listeners into one accord of sympathy.

Even the poor baby at Hester's bosom was affected by the same

influence, for it directed its hitherto vacant gaze towards Mr.

Dimmesdale, and held up its little arms with a half-pleased,

half-plaintive murmur.  So powerful seemed the minister's appeal

that the people could not believe but that Hester Prynne would

speak out the guilty name, or else that the guilty one himself

in whatever high or lowly place he stood, would be drawn forth

by an inward and inevitable necessity, and compelled to ascend

the scaffold.

 

Hester shook her head.

 

"Woman, transgress not beyond the limits of Heaven's mercy!"

cried the Reverend Mr. Wilson, more harshly than before.  "That

little babe hath been gifted with a voice, to second and confirm

the counsel which thou hast heard.  Speak out the name!  That, and

thy repentance, may avail to take the scarlet letter off thy

breast."

 

"Never," replied Hester Prynne, looking, not at Mr. Wilson, but

into the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman.  "It is

too deeply branded.  Ye cannot take it off.  And would that I

might endure his agony as well as mine!"

 

"Speak, woman!" said another voice, coldly and sternly,

proceeding from the crowd about the scaffold, "Speak; and give

your child a father!"

 

"I will not speak!" answered Hester, turning pale as death, but

responding to this voice, which she too surely recognised.  "And

my child must seek a heavenly father; she shall never know an

earthly one!"

 

"She will not speak!" murmured Mr. Dimmesdale, who, leaning over

the balcony, with his hand upon his heart, had awaited the

result of his appeal.  He now drew back with a long respiration.

"Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman's heart!  She will

not speak!"

 

Discerning the impracticable state of the poor culprit's mind,

the elder clergyman, who had carefully prepared himself for the

occasion, addressed to the multitude a discourse on sin, in all

its branches, but with continual reference to the ignominious

letter.  So forcibly did he dwell upon this symbol, for the hour

or more during which his periods were rolling over the people's

heads, that it assumed new terrors in their imagination, and

seemed to derive its scarlet hue from the flames of the infernal

pit.  Hester Prynne, meanwhile, kept her place upon the pedestal

of shame, with glazed eyes, and an air of weary indifference.

She had borne that morning all that nature could endure; and as

her temperament was not of the order that escapes from too

intense suffering by a swoon, her spirit could only shelter

itself beneath a stony crust of insensibility, while the

faculties of animal life remained entire.  In this state, the

voice of the preacher thundered remorselessly, but unavailingly,

upon her ears.  The infant, during the latter portion of her

ordeal, pierced the air with its wailings and screams; she

strove to hush it mechanically, but seemed scarcely to

sympathise with its trouble.  With the same hard demeanour, she

was led back to prison, and vanished from the public gaze within

its iron-clamped portal.  It was whispered by those who peered

after her that the scarlet letter threw a lurid gleam along the

dark passage-way of the interior.

 

 

 

IV.   THE INTERVIEW

 

After her return to the prison, Hester Prynne was found to be in

a state of nervous excitement, that demanded constant

watchfulness, lest she should perpetrate violence on herself, or

do some half-frenzied mischief to the poor babe.  As night

approached, it proving impossible to quell her insubordination

by rebuke or threats of punishment, Master Brackett, the jailer,

thought fit to introduce a physician.  He described him as a man

of skill in all Christian modes of physical science, and

likewise familiar with whatever the savage people could teach in

respect to medicinal herbs and roots that grew in the forest.  To

say the truth, there was much need of professional assistance,

not merely for Hester herself, but still more urgently for the

child--who, drawing its sustenance from the maternal bosom,

seemed to have drank in with it all the turmoil, the anguish and

despair, which pervaded the mother's system.  It now writhed in

convulsions of pain, and was a forcible type, in its little

frame, of the moral agony which Hester Prynne had borne

throughout the day.

 

Closely following the jailer into the dismal apartment, appeared

that individual, of singular aspect whose presence in the crowd

had been of such deep interest to the wearer of the scarlet

letter.  He was lodged in the prison, not as suspected of any

offence, but as the most convenient and suitable mode of

disposing of him, until the magistrates should have conferred

with the Indian sagamores respecting his ransom.  His name was

announced as Roger Chillingworth.  The jailer, after ushering him

into the room, remained a moment, marvelling at the comparative

quiet that followed his entrance; for Hester Prynne had

immediately become as still as death, although the child

continued to moan.

 

"Prithee, friend, leave me alone with my patient," said the

practitioner.  "Trust me, good jailer, you shall briefly have

peace in your house; and, I promise you, Mistress Prynne shall

hereafter be more amenable to just authority than you may have

found her heretofore."

 

"Nay, if your worship can accomplish that," answered Master

Brackett, "I shall own you for a man of skill, indeed!  Verily,

the woman hath been like a possessed one; and there lacks little

that I should take in hand, to drive Satan out of her with

stripes."

 

The stranger had entered the room with the characteristic

quietude of the profession to which he announced himself as

belonging.  Nor did his demeanour change when the withdrawal of

the prison keeper left him face to face with the woman, whose

absorbed notice of him, in the crowd, had intimated so close a

relation between himself and her.  His first care was given to

the child, whose cries, indeed, as she lay writhing on the

trundle-bed, made it of peremptory necessity to postpone all

other business to the task of soothing her.  He examined the

infant carefully, and then proceeded to unclasp a leathern case,

which he took from beneath his dress.  It appeared to contain

medical preparations, one of which he mingled with a cup of

water.

 

"My old studies in alchemy," observed he, "and my sojourn, for

above a year past, among a people well versed in the kindly

properties of simples, have made a better physician of me than

many that claim the medical degree.  Here, woman!  The child is

yours--she is none of mine--neither will she recognise my voice

or aspect as a father's.  Administer this draught, therefore,

with thine own hand."

 

Hester repelled the offered medicine, at the same time gazing

with strongly marked apprehension into his face.  "Wouldst thou

avenge thyself on the innocent babe?" whispered she.

 

"Foolish woman!" responded the physician, half coldly, half

soothingly.  "What should ail me to harm this misbegotten and

miserable babe?  The medicine is potent for good, and were it my

child--yea, mine own, as well as thine!  I could do no better for

it."

 

As she still hesitated, being, in fact, in no reasonable state

of mind, he took the infant in his arms, and himself

administered the draught.  It soon proved its efficacy, and

redeemed the leech's pledge.  The moans of the little patient

subsided; its convulsive tossings gradually ceased; and in a few

moments, as is the custom of young children after relief from

pain, it sank into a profound and dewy slumber.  The physician,

as he had a fair right to be termed, next bestowed his attention

on the mother.  With calm and intent scrutiny, he felt her pulse,

looked into her eyes--a gaze that made her heart shrink and

shudder, because so familiar, and yet so strange and cold--and,

finally, satisfied with his investigation, proceeded to mingle

another draught.

 

"I know not Lethe nor Nepenthe," remarked he; "but I have

learned many new secrets in the wilderness, and here is one of

them--a recipe that an Indian taught me, in requital of some

lessons of my own, that were as old as Paracelsus.  Drink it!  It

may be less soothing than a sinless conscience.  That I cannot

give thee.  But it will calm the swell and heaving of thy

passion, like oil thrown on the waves of a tempestuous sea."

 

He presented the cup to Hester, who received it with a slow,

earnest look into his face; not precisely a look of fear, yet

full of doubt and questioning as to what his purposes might be.

She looked also at her slumbering child.

 

"I have thought of death," said she--"have wished for it--would

even have prayed for it, were it fit that such as I should pray

for anything.  Yet, if death be in this cup, I bid thee think

again, ere thou beholdest me quaff it.  See! it is even now at my

lips."

 

"Drink, then," replied he, still with the same cold composure.

"Dost thou know me so little, Hester Prynne?  Are my purposes

wont to be so shallow?  Even if I imagine a scheme of vengeance,

what could I do better for my object than to let thee live--than

to give thee medicines against all harm and peril of life--so

that this burning shame may still blaze upon thy bosom?" As he

spoke, he laid his long fore-finger on the scarlet letter, which

forthwith seemed to scorch into Hester's breast, as if it had

been red hot.  He noticed her involuntary gesture, and smiled.

"Live, therefore, and bear about thy doom with thee, in the eyes

of men and women--in the eyes of him whom thou didst call thy

husband--in the eyes of yonder child!  And, that thou mayest

live, take off this draught."

 

Without further expostulation or delay, Hester Prynne drained

the cup, and, at the motion of the man of skill, seated herself

on the bed, where the child was sleeping; while he drew the only

chair which the room afforded, and took his own seat beside her.

She could not but tremble at these preparations; for she felt

that--having now done all that humanity, or principle, or, if so

it were, a refined cruelty, impelled him to do for the relief of

physical suffering--he was next to treat with her as the man

whom she had most deeply and irreparably injured.

 

"Hester," said he, "I ask not wherefore, nor how thou hast

fallen into the pit, or say, rather, thou hast ascended to the

pedestal of infamy on which I found thee.  The reason is not far

to seek.  It was my folly, and thy weakness.  I--a man of

thought--the book-worm of great libraries--a man already in

decay, having given my best years to feed the hungry dream of

knowledge--what had I to do with youth and beauty like thine

own?  Misshapen from my birth-hour, how could I delude myself

with the idea that intellectual gifts might veil physical

deformity in a young girl's fantasy?  Men call me wise.  If sages

were ever wise in their own behoof, I might have foreseen all

this.  I might have known that, as I came out of the vast and

dismal forest, and entered this settlement of Christian men, the

very first object to meet my eyes would be thyself, Hester

Prynne, standing up, a statue of ignominy, before the people.

Nay, from the moment when we came down the old church-steps

together, a married pair, I might have beheld the bale-fire of

that scarlet letter blazing at the end of our path!"

 

"Thou knowest," said Hester--for, depressed as she was, she

could not endure this last quiet stab at the token of her

shame--"thou knowest that I was frank with thee.  I felt no love,

nor feigned any."

 

"True," replied he.  "It was my folly!  I have said it.  But, up

to that epoch of my life, I had lived in vain.  The world had

been so cheerless!  My heart was a habitation large enough for

many guests, but lonely and chill, and without a household fire.

I longed to kindle one!  It seemed not so wild a dream--old as I

was, and sombre as I was, and misshapen as I was--that the

simple bliss, which is scattered far and wide, for all mankind

to gather up, might yet be mine.  And so, Hester, I drew thee

into my heart, into its innermost chamber, and sought to warm

thee by the warmth which thy presence made there!"

 

"I have greatly wronged thee," murmured Hester.

 

"We have wronged each other," answered he.  "Mine was the first

wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and

unnatural relation with my decay.  Therefore, as a man who has

not thought and philosophised in vain, I seek no vengeance, plot

no evil against thee.  Between thee and me, the scale hangs

fairly balanced.  But, Hester, the man lives who has wronged us

both!  Who is he?"

 

"Ask me not!" replied Hester Prynne, looking firmly into his

face.  "That thou shalt never know!"

 

"Never, sayest thou?" rejoined he, with a smile of dark and

self-relying intelligence.  "Never know him!  Believe me, Hester,

there are few things whether in the outward world, or, to a

certain depth, in the invisible sphere of thought--few things

hidden from the man who devotes himself earnestly and

unreservedly to the solution of a mystery.  Thou mayest cover up

thy secret from the prying multitude.  Thou mayest conceal it,

too, from the ministers and magistrates, even as thou didst this

day, when they sought to wrench the name out of thy heart, and

give thee a partner on thy pedestal.  But, as for me, I come to

the inquest with other senses than they possess.  I shall seek

this man, as I have sought truth in books: as I have sought gold

in alchemy.  There is a sympathy that will make me conscious of

him.  I shall see him tremble.  I shall feel myself shudder,

suddenly and unawares.  Sooner or later, he must needs be mine."

 

The eyes of the wrinkled scholar glowed so intensely upon her,

that Hester Prynne clasped her hand over her heart, dreading

lest he should read the secret there at once.

 

"Thou wilt not reveal his name?   Not the less he is mine,"

resumed he, with a look of confidence, as if destiny were at one

with him.  "He bears no letter of infamy wrought into his

garment, as thou dost, but I shall read it on his heart.  Yet

fear not for him!  Think not that I shall interfere with Heaven's

own method of retribution, or, to my own loss, betray him to the

gripe of human law.  Neither do thou imagine that I shall

contrive aught against his life; no, nor against his fame, if as

I judge, he be a man of fair repute.  Let him live!  Let him hide

himself in outward honour, if he may!  Not the less he shall be

mine!"

 

"Thy acts are like mercy," said Hester, bewildered and appalled;

"but thy words interpret thee as a terror!"

 

"One thing, thou that wast my wife, I would enjoin upon thee,"

continued the scholar.  "Thou hast kept the secret of thy

paramour.  Keep, likewise, mine!  There are none in this land that

know me.  Breathe not to any human soul that thou didst ever call

me husband!  Here, on this wild outskirt of the earth, I shall

pitch my tent; for, elsewhere a wanderer, and isolated from

human interests, I find here a woman, a man, a child, amongst

whom and myself there exist the closest ligaments.  No matter

whether of love or hate: no matter whether of right or wrong!

Thou and thine, Hester Prynne, belong to me.  My home is where

thou art and where he is.  But betray me not!"

 

"Wherefore dost thou desire it?" inquired Hester, shrinking, she

hardly knew why, from this secret bond.  "Why not announce

thyself openly, and cast me off at once?"

 

"It may be," he replied, "because I will not encounter the

dishonour that besmirches the husband of a faithless woman.  It

may be for other reasons.  Enough, it is my purpose to live and

die unknown.  Let, therefore, thy husband be to the world as one

already dead, and of whom no tidings shall ever come.  Recognise

me not, by word, by sign, by look!  Breathe not the secret, above

all, to the man thou wottest of.  Shouldst thou fail me in this,

beware!  His fame, his position, his life will be in my hands.

Beware!"

 

"I will keep thy secret, as I have his," said Hester.

 

"Swear it!" rejoined he.

 

And she took the oath.

 

"And now, Mistress Prynne," said old Roger Chillingworth, as he

was hereafter to be named, "I leave thee alone: alone with thy

infant and the scarlet letter!  How is it, Hester?  Doth thy

sentence bind thee to wear the token in thy sleep?  Art thou not

afraid of nightmares and hideous dreams?"

 

"Why dost thou smile so at me?" inquired Hester, troubled at the

expression of his eyes.  "Art thou like the Black Man that haunts

the forest round about us?  Hast thou enticed me into a bond that

will prove the ruin of my soul?"

 

"Not thy soul," he answered, with another smile.  "No, not

thine!"

 

 

 

V.  HESTER AT HER NEEDLE

 

Hester Prynne's term of confinement was now at an end.  Her

prison-door was thrown open, and she came forth into the

sunshine, which, falling on all alike, seemed, to her sick and

morbid heart, as if meant for no other purpose than to reveal

the scarlet letter on her breast.  Perhaps there was a more real

torture in her first unattended footsteps from the threshold of

the prison than even in the procession and spectacle that have

been described, where she was made the common infamy, at which

all mankind was summoned to point its finger.  Then, she was

supported by an unnatural tension of the nerves, and by all the

combative energy of her character, which enabled her to convert

the scene into a kind of lurid triumph.  It was, moreover, a

separate and insulated event, to occur but once in her lifetime,

and to meet which, therefore, reckless of economy, she might

call up the vital strength that would have sufficed for many

quiet years.  The very law that condemned her--a giant of stern

features but with vigour to support, as well as to annihilate,

in his iron arm--had held her up through the terrible ordeal of

her ignominy.  But now, with this unattended walk from her prison

door, began the daily custom; and she must either sustain and

carry it forward by the ordinary resources of her nature, or

sink beneath it.  She could no longer borrow from the future to

help her through the present grief.  Tomorrow would bring its own

trial with it; so would the next day, and so would the next:

each its own trial, and yet the very same that was now so

unutterably grievous to be borne.  The days of the far-off future

would toil onward, still with the same burden for her to take

up, and bear along with her, but never to fling down; for the

accumulating days and added years would pile up their misery

upon the heap of shame.  Throughout them all, giving up her

individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the

preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might

vivify and embody their images of woman's frailty and sinful

passion.  Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her,

with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast--at her, the child

of honourable parents--at her, the mother of a babe that would

hereafter be a woman--at her, who had once been innocent--as the

figure, the body, the reality of sin.  And over her grave, the

infamy that she must carry thither would be her only monument.

 

It may seem marvellous that, with the world before her--kept by

no restrictive clause of her condemnation within the limits of

the Puritan settlement, so remote and so obscure--free to return

to her birth-place, or to any other European land, and there

hide her character and identity under a new exterior, as

completely as if emerging into another state of being--and

having also the passes of the dark, inscrutable forest open to

her, where the wildness of her nature might assimilate itself

with a people whose customs and life were alien from the law

that had condemned her--it may seem marvellous that this woman

should still call that place her home, where, and where only,

she must needs be the type of shame.  But there is a fatality, a

feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of

doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger

around and haunt, ghost-like, the spot where some great and

marked event has given the colour to their lifetime; and, still

the more irresistibly, the darker the tinge that saddens it.  Her

sin, her ignominy, were the roots which she had struck into the

soil.  It was as if a new birth, with stronger assimilations than

the first, had converted the forest-land, still so uncongenial

to every other pilgrim and wanderer, into Hester Prynne's wild

and dreary, but life-long home.  All other scenes of earth--even

that village of rural England, where happy infancy and stainless

maidenhood seemed yet to be in her mother's keeping, like

garments put off long ago--were foreign to her, in comparison.

The chain that bound her here was of iron links, and galling to

her inmost soul, but could never be broken.

 

It might be, too--doubtless it was so, although she hid the

secret from herself, and grew pale whenever it struggled out of

her heart, like a serpent from its hole--it might be that

another feeling kept her within the scene and pathway that had

been so fatal.  There dwelt, there trode, the feet of one with

whom she deemed herself connected in a union that, unrecognised

on earth, would bring them together before the bar of final

judgment, and make that their marriage-altar, for a joint

futurity of endless retribution.  Over and over again, the

tempter of souls had thrust this idea upon Hester's

contemplation, and laughed at the passionate and desperate joy

with which she seized, and then strove to cast it from her.  She

barely looked the idea in the face, and hastened to bar it in

its dungeon.  What she compelled herself to believe--what,

finally, she reasoned upon as her motive for continuing a

resident of New England--was half a truth, and half a

self-delusion.  Here, she said to herself had been the scene of

her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly

punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame

would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than

that which she had lost: more saint-like, because the result of

martyrdom.

 

Hester Prynne, therefore, did not flee.  On the outskirts of the

town, within the verge of the peninsula, but not in close

vicinity to any other habitation, there was a small thatched

cottage.  It had been built by an earlier settler, and abandoned,

because the soil about it was too sterile for cultivation, while

its comparative remoteness put it out of the sphere of that

social activity which already marked the habits of the

emigrants.  It stood on the shore, looking across a basin of the

sea at the forest-covered hills, towards the west.  A clump of

scrubby trees, such as alone grew on the peninsula, did not so

much conceal the cottage from view, as seem to denote that here

was some object which would fain have been, or at least ought to

be, concealed.  In this little lonesome dwelling, with some

slender means that she possessed, and by the licence of the

magistrates, who still kept an inquisitorial watch over her,

Hester established herself, with her infant child.  A mystic

shadow of suspicion immediately attached itself to the spot.

Children, too young to comprehend wherefore this woman should be

shut out from the sphere of human charities, would creep nigh

enough to behold her plying her needle at the cottage-window, or

standing in the doorway, or labouring in her little garden, or

coming forth along the pathway that led townward, and,

discerning the scarlet letter on her breast, would scamper off

with a strange contagious fear.

 

Lonely as was Hester's situation, and without a friend on earth

who dared to show himself, she, however, incurred no risk of

want.  She possessed an art that sufficed, even in a land that

afforded comparatively little scope for its exercise, to supply

food for her thriving infant and herself.  It was the art, then,

as now, almost the only one within a woman's grasp--of

needle-work.  She bore on her breast, in the curiously

embroidered letter, a specimen of her delicate and imaginative

skill, of which the dames of a court might gladly have availed

themselves, to add the richer and more spiritual adornment of

human ingenuity to their fabrics of silk and gold.  Here, indeed,

in the sable simplicity that generally characterised the

Puritanic modes of dress, there might be an infrequent call for

the finer productions of her handiwork.  Yet the taste of the

age, demanding whatever was elaborate in compositions of this

kind, did not fail to extend its influence over our stern

progenitors, who had cast behind them so many fashions which it

might seem harder to dispense with.

 

Public ceremonies, such as ordinations, the installation of

magistrates, and all that could give majesty to the forms in

which a new government manifested itself to the people, were, as

a matter of policy, marked by a stately and well-conducted

ceremonial, and a sombre, but yet a studied magnificence.  Deep

ruffs, painfully wrought bands, and gorgeously embroidered

gloves, were all deemed necessary to the official state of men

assuming the reins of power, and were readily allowed to

individuals dignified by rank or wealth, even while sumptuary

laws forbade these and similar extravagances to the plebeian

order.  In the array of funerals, too--whether for the apparel of

the dead body, or to typify, by manifold emblematic devices of

sable cloth and snowy lawn, the sorrow of the survivors--there

was a frequent and characteristic demand for such labour as

Hester Prynne could supply.  Baby-linen--for babies then wore

robes of state--afforded still another possibility of toil and

emolument.

 

By degrees, not very slowly, her handiwork became what would now

be termed the fashion.  Whether from commiseration for a woman of

so miserable a destiny; or from the morbid curiosity that gives

a fictitious value even to common or worthless things; or by

whatever other intangible circumstance was then, as now,

sufficient to bestow, on some persons, what others might seek in

vain; or because Hester really filled a gap which must otherwise

have remained vacant; it is certain that she had ready and

fairly requited employment for as many hours as she saw fit to

occupy with her needle.  Vanity, it may be, chose to mortify

itself, by putting on, for ceremonials of pomp and state, the

garments that had been wrought by her sinful hands.  Her

needle-work was seen on the ruff of the Governor; military men

wore it on their scarfs, and the minister on his band; it decked

the baby's little cap; it was shut up, to be mildewed and

moulder away, in the coffins of the dead.  But it is not recorded

that, in a single instance, her skill was called in to embroider

the white veil which was to cover the pure blushes of a bride.

The exception indicated the ever relentless vigour with which

society frowned upon her sin.

 

Hester sought not to acquire anything beyond a subsistence, of

the plainest and most ascetic description, for herself, and a

simple abundance for her child.  Her own dress was of the

coarsest materials and the most sombre hue, with only that one

ornament--the scarlet letter--which it was her doom to wear.  The

child's attire, on the other hand, was distinguished by a

fanciful, or, we may rather say, a fantastic ingenuity, which

served, indeed, to heighten the airy charm that early began to

develop itself in the little girl, but which appeared to have

also a deeper meaning.  We may speak further of it hereafter.

Except for that small expenditure in the decoration of her

infant, Hester bestowed all her superfluous means in charity, on

wretches less miserable than herself, and who not unfrequently

insulted the hand that fed them.  Much of the time, which she

might readily have applied to the better efforts of her art, she

employed in making coarse garments for the poor.  It is probable

that there was an idea of penance in this mode of occupation,

and that she offered up a real sacrifice of enjoyment in

devoting so many hours to such rude handiwork.  She had in her

nature a rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic--a taste for

the gorgeously beautiful, which, save in the exquisite

productions of her needle, found nothing else, in all the

possibilities of her life, to exercise itself upon.  Women derive

a pleasure, incomprehensible to the other sex, from the delicate

toil of the needle.  To Hester Prynne it might have been a mode

of expressing, and therefore soothing, the passion of her life.

Like all other joys, she rejected it as sin.  This morbid

meddling of conscience with an immaterial matter betokened, it

is to be feared, no genuine and steadfast penitence, but

something doubtful, something that might be deeply wrong

beneath.

 

In this manner, Hester Prynne came to have a part to perform in

the world.  With her native energy of character and rare

capacity, it could not entirely cast her off, although it had

set a mark upon her, more intolerable to a woman's heart than

that which branded the brow of Cain.  In all her intercourse with

society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as if she

belonged to it.  Every gesture, every word, and even the silence

of those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often

expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she

inhabited another sphere, or communicated with the common nature

by other organs and senses than the rest of human kind.  She

stood apart from mortal interests, yet close beside them, like a

ghost that revisits the familiar fireside, and can no longer

make itself seen or felt; no more smile with the household joy,

nor mourn with the kindred sorrow; or, should it succeed in

manifesting its forbidden sympathy, awakening only terror and

horrible repugnance.  These emotions, in fact, and its bitterest

scorn besides, seemed to be the sole portion that she retained

in the universal heart.  It was not an age of delicacy; and her

position, although she understood it well, and was in little

danger of forgetting it, was often brought before her vivid

self-perception, like a new anguish, by the rudest touch upon

the tenderest spot.  The poor, as we have already said, whom she

sought out to be the objects of her bounty, often reviled the

hand that was stretched forth to succour them.  Dames of elevated

rank, likewise, whose doors she entered in the way of her

occupation, were accustomed to distil drops of bitterness into

her heart; sometimes through that alchemy of quiet malice, by

which women can concoct a subtle poison from ordinary trifles;

and sometimes, also, by a coarser expression, that fell upon the

sufferer's defenceless breast like a rough blow upon an

ulcerated wound.  Hester had schooled herself long and well; and

she never responded to these attacks, save by a flush of crimson

that rose irrepressibly over her pale cheek, and again subsided

into the depths of her bosom.  She was patient--a martyr, indeed

but she forebore to pray for enemies, lest, in spite of her

forgiving aspirations, the words of the blessing should

stubbornly twist themselves into a curse.

 

Continually, and in a thousand other ways, did she feel the

innumerable throbs of anguish that had been so cunningly

contrived for her by the undying, the ever-active sentence of

the Puritan tribunal.  Clergymen paused in the streets, to

address words of exhortation, that brought a crowd, with its

mingled grin and frown, around the poor, sinful woman.  If she

entered a church, trusting to share the Sabbath smile of the

Universal Father, it was often her mishap to find herself the

text of the discourse.  She grew to have a dread of children; for

they had imbibed from their parents a vague idea of something

horrible in this dreary woman gliding silently through the town,

with never any companion but one only child.  Therefore, first

allowing her to pass, they pursued her at a distance with shrill

cries, and the utterances of a word that had no distinct purport

to their own minds, but was none the less terrible to her, as

proceeding from lips that babbled it unconsciously.  It seemed to

argue so wide a diffusion of her shame, that all nature knew of

it; it could have caused her no deeper pang had the leaves of

the trees whispered the dark story among themselves--had the

summer breeze murmured about it--had the wintry blast shrieked

it aloud!  Another peculiar torture was felt in the gaze of a new

eye.  When strangers looked curiously at the scarlet letter and

none ever failed to do so--they branded it afresh in Hester's

soul; so that, oftentimes, she could scarcely refrain, yet

always did refrain, from covering the symbol with her hand.  But

then, again, an accustomed eye had likewise its own anguish to

inflict.  Its cool stare of familiarity was intolerable.  From

first to last, in short, Hester Prynne had always this dreadful

agony in feeling a human eye upon the token; the spot never grew

callous; it seemed, on the contrary, to grow more sensitive with

daily torture.

 

But sometimes, once in many days, or perchance in many months,

she felt an eye--a human eye--upon the ignominious brand, that

seemed to give a momentary relief, as if half of her agony were

shared.  The next instant, back it all rushed again, with still a

deeper throb of pain; for, in that brief interval, she had

sinned anew.  (Had Hester sinned alone?)

 

Her imagination was somewhat affected, and, had she been of a

softer moral and intellectual fibre would have been still more

so, by the strange and solitary anguish of her life.  Walking to

and fro, with those lonely footsteps, in the little world with

which she was outwardly connected, it now and then appeared to

Hester--if altogether fancy, it was nevertheless too potent to

be resisted--she felt or fancied, then, that the scarlet letter

had endowed her with a new sense.  She shuddered to believe, yet

could not help believing, that it gave her a sympathetic

knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts.  She was terror-

stricken by the revelations that were thus made.  What were they?

Could they be other than the insidious whispers of the bad

angel, who would fain have persuaded the struggling woman, as

yet only half his victim, that the outward guise of purity was

but a lie, and that, if truth were everywhere to be shown, a

scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom besides Hester

Prynne's?  Or, must she receive those intimations--so obscure,

yet so distinct--as truth?  In all her miserable experience,

there was nothing else so awful and so loathsome as this sense.

It perplexed, as well as shocked her, by the irreverent

inopportuneness of the occasions that brought it into vivid

action.  Sometimes the red infamy upon her breast would give a

sympathetic throb, as she passed near a venerable minister or

magistrate, the model of piety and justice, to whom that age of

antique reverence looked up, as to a mortal man in fellowship

with angels.  "What evil thing is at hand?" would Hester say to

herself.  Lifting her reluctant eyes, there would be nothing

human within the scope of view, save the form of this earthly

saint!  Again a mystic sisterhood would contumaciously assert

itself, as she met the sanctified frown of some matron, who,

according to the rumour of all tongues, had kept cold snow

within her bosom throughout life.  That unsunned snow in the

matron's bosom, and the burning shame on Hester Prynne's--what

had the two in common?  Or, once more, the electric thrill would

give her warning--"Behold Hester, here is a companion!" and,

looking up, she would detect the eyes of a young maiden glancing

at the scarlet letter, shyly and aside, and quickly averted,

with a faint, chill crimson in her cheeks as if her purity were

somewhat sullied by that momentary glance.  O Fiend, whose

talisman was that fatal symbol, wouldst thou leave nothing,

whether in youth or age, for this poor sinner to revere?--such

loss of faith is ever one of the saddest results of sin.  Be it

accepted as a proof that all was not corrupt in this poor victim

of her own frailty, and man's hard law, that Hester Prynne yet

struggled to believe that no fellow-mortal was guilty like

herself.

 

The vulgar, who, in those dreary old times, were always

contributing a grotesque horror to what interested their

imaginations, had a story about the scarlet letter which we

might readily work up into a terrific legend.  They averred that

the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth, tinged in an earthly

dye-pot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen

glowing all alight whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the

night-time.  And we must needs say it seared Hester's bosom so

deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the rumour than our

modern incredulity may be inclined to admit.

 

 

 

VI.  PEARL

 

We have as yet hardly spoken of the infant; that little

creature, whose innocent life had sprung, by the inscrutable

decree of Providence, a lovely and immortal flower, out of the

rank luxuriance of a guilty passion.  How strange it seemed to

the sad woman, as she watched the growth, and the beauty that

became every day more brilliant, and the intelligence that threw

its quivering sunshine over the tiny features of this child!  Her

Pearl--for so had Hester called her; not as a name expressive of

her aspect, which had nothing of the calm, white, unimpassioned

lustre that would be indicated by the comparison.  But she named

the infant "Pearl," as being of great price--purchased with all

she had--her mother's only treasure!  How strange, indeed!  Man

had marked this woman's sin by a scarlet letter, which had such

potent and disastrous efficacy that no human sympathy could

reach her, save it were sinful like herself.  God, as a direct

consequence of the sin which man thus punished, had given her a

lovely child, whose place was on that same dishonoured bosom, to

connect her parent for ever with the race and descent of

mortals, and to be finally a blessed soul in heaven!  Yet these

thoughts affected Hester Prynne less with hope than

apprehension.  She knew that her deed had been evil; she could

have no faith, therefore, that its result would be good.  Day

after day she looked fearfully into the child's expanding

nature, ever dreading to detect some dark and wild peculiarity

that should correspond with the guiltiness to which she owed her

being.

 

Certainly there was no physical defect.  By its perfect shape,

its vigour, and its natural dexterity in the use of all its

untried limbs, the infant was worthy to have been brought forth

in Eden: worthy to have been left there to be the plaything of

the angels after the world's first parents were driven out.  The

child had a native grace which does not invariably co-exist with

faultless beauty; its attire, however simple, always impressed

the beholder as if it were the very garb that precisely became

it best.  But little Pearl was not clad in rustic weeds.  Her

mother, with a morbid purpose that may be better understood

hereafter, had bought the richest tissues that could be

procured, and allowed her imaginative faculty its full play in

the arrangement and decoration of the dresses which the child

wore before the public eye.  So magnificent was the small figure

when thus arrayed, and such was the splendour of Pearl's own

proper beauty, shining through the gorgeous robes which might

have extinguished a paler loveliness, that there was an absolute

circle of radiance around her on the darksome cottage floor.  And

yet a russet gown, torn and soiled with the child's rude play,

made a picture of her just as perfect.  Pearl's aspect was imbued

with a spell of infinite variety; in this one child there were

many children, comprehending the full scope between the

wild-flower prettiness of a peasant-baby, and the pomp, in

little, of an infant princess.  Throughout all, however, there

was a trait of passion, a certain depth of hue, which she never

lost; and if in any of her changes, she had grown fainter or

paler, she would have ceased to be herself--it would have been

no longer Pearl!

 

This outward mutability indicated, and did not more than fairly

express, the various properties of her inner life.  Her nature

appeared to possess depth, too, as well as variety; but--or else

Hester's fears deceived her--it lacked reference and adaptation

to the world into which she was born.  The child could not be

made amenable to rules.  In giving her existence a great law had

been broken; and the result was a being whose elements were

perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder, or with an

order peculiar to themselves, amidst which the point of variety

and arrangement was difficult or impossible to be discovered.

Hester could only account for the child's character--and even

then most vaguely and imperfectly--by recalling what she herself

had been during that momentous period while Pearl was imbibing

her soul from the spiritual world, and her bodily frame from its

material of earth.  The mother's impassioned state had been the

medium through which were transmitted to the unborn infant the

rays of its moral life; and, however white and clear originally,

they had taken the deep stains of crimson and gold, the fiery

lustre, the black shadow, and the untempered light of the

intervening substance.  Above all, the warfare of Hester's spirit

at that epoch was perpetuated in Pearl.  She could recognize her

wild, desperate, defiant mood, the flightiness of her temper,

and even some of the very cloud-shapes of gloom and despondency

that had brooded in her heart.  They were now illuminated by the

morning radiance of a young child's disposition, but, later in

the day of earthly existence, might be prolific of the storm and

whirlwind.

 

The discipline of the family in those days was of a far more

rigid kind than now.  The frown, the harsh rebuke, the frequent

application of the rod, enjoined by Scriptural authority, were

used, not merely in the way of punishment for actual offences,

but as a wholesome regimen for the growth and promotion of all

childish virtues.  Hester Prynne, nevertheless, the loving mother

of this one child, ran little risk of erring on the side of

undue severity.  Mindful, however, of her own errors and

misfortunes, she early sought to impose a tender but strict

control over the infant immortality that was committed to her

charge.  But the task was beyond her skill.  After testing both

smiles and frowns, and proving that neither mode of treatment

possessed any calculable influence, Hester was ultimately

compelled to stand aside and permit the child to be swayed by

her own impulses.  Physical compulsion or restraint was

effectual, of course, while it lasted.  As to any other kind of

discipline, whether addressed to her mind or heart, little Pearl

might or might not be within its reach, in accordance with the

caprice that ruled the moment.  Her mother, while Pearl was yet

an infant, grew acquainted with a certain peculiar look, that

warned her when it would be labour thrown away to insist,

persuade or plead.

 

It was a look so intelligent, yet inexplicable, perverse,

sometimes so malicious, but generally accompanied by a wild flow

of spirits, that Hester could not help questioning at such

moments whether Pearl was a human child.  She seemed rather an

airy sprite, which, after playing its fantastic sports for a

little while upon the cottage floor, would flit away with a

mocking smile.  Whenever that look appeared in her wild, bright,

deeply black eyes, it invested her with a strange remoteness and

intangibility: it was as if she were hovering in the air, and

might vanish, like a glimmering light that comes we know not

whence and goes we know not whither.  Beholding it, Hester was

constrained to rush towards the child--to pursue the little elf

in the flight which she invariably began--to snatch her to her

bosom with a close pressure and earnest kisses--not so much from

overflowing love as to assure herself that Pearl was flesh and

blood, and not utterly delusive.  But Pearl's laugh, when she was

caught, though full of merriment and music, made her mother more

doubtful than before.

 

Heart-smitten at this bewildering and baffling spell, that so

often came between herself and her sole treasure, whom she had

bought so dear, and who was all her world, Hester sometimes

burst into passionate tears.  Then, perhaps--for there was no

foreseeing how it might affect her--Pearl would frown, and

clench her little fist, and harden her small features into a

stern, unsympathising look of discontent.  Not seldom she would

laugh anew, and louder than before, like a thing incapable and

unintelligent of human sorrow.  Or--but this more rarely

happened--she would be convulsed with rage of grief and sob out

her love for her mother in broken words, and seem intent on

proving that she had a heart by breaking it.  Yet Hester was

hardly safe in confiding herself to that gusty tenderness: it

passed as suddenly as it came.  Brooding over all these matters,

the mother felt like one who has evoked a spirit, but, by some

irregularity in the process of conjuration, has failed to win

the master-word that should control this new and

incomprehensible intelligence.  Her only real comfort was when

the child lay in the placidity of sleep.  Then she was sure of

her, and tasted hours of quiet, sad, delicious happiness;

until--perhaps with that perverse expression glimmering from

beneath her opening lids--little Pearl awoke!

 

How soon--with what strange rapidity, indeed did Pearl arrive at

an age that was capable of social intercourse beyond the

mother's ever-ready smile and nonsense-words!  And then what a

happiness would it have been could Hester Prynne have heard her

clear, bird-like voice mingling with the uproar of other

childish voices, and have distinguished and unravelled her own

darling's tones, amid all the entangled outcry of a group of

sportive children.  But this could never be.  Pearl was a born

outcast of the infantile world.  An imp of evil, emblem and

product of sin, she had no right among christened infants.

Nothing was more remarkable than the instinct, as it seemed,

with which the child comprehended her loneliness: the destiny

that had drawn an inviolable circle round about her: the whole

peculiarity, in short, of her position in respect to other

children.  Never since her release from prison had Hester met the

public gaze without her.  In all her walks about the town, Pearl,

too, was there: first as the babe in arms, and afterwards as the

little girl, small companion of her mother, holding a forefinger

with her whole grasp, and tripping along at the rate of three or

four footsteps to one of Hester's.  She saw the children of the

settlement on the grassy margin of the street, or at the

domestic thresholds, disporting themselves in such grim fashions

as the Puritanic nurture would permit; playing at going to

church, perchance, or at scourging Quakers; or taking scalps in

a sham fight with the Indians, or scaring one another with

freaks of imitative witchcraft.  Pearl saw, and gazed intently,

but never sought to make acquaintance.  If spoken to, she would

not speak again.  If the children gathered about her, as they

sometimes did, Pearl would grow positively terrible in her puny

wrath, snatching up stones to fling at them, with shrill,

incoherent exclamations, that made her mother tremble, because

they had so much the sound of a witch's anathemas in some

unknown tongue.

 

The truth was, that the little Puritans, being of the most

intolerant brood that ever lived, had got a vague idea of

something outlandish, unearthly, or at variance with ordinary

fashions, in the mother and child, and therefore scorned them in

their hearts, and not unfrequently reviled them with their

tongues.  Pearl felt the sentiment, and requited it with the

bitterest hatred that can be supposed to rankle in a childish

bosom.  These outbreaks of a fierce temper had a kind of value,

and even comfort for the mother; because there was at least an

intelligible earnestness in the mood, instead of the fitful

caprice that so often thwarted her in the child's

manifestations.  It appalled her, nevertheless, to discern here,

again, a shadowy reflection of the evil that had existed in

herself.  All this enmity and passion had Pearl inherited, by

inalienable right, out of Hester's heart.  Mother and daughter

stood together in the same circle of seclusion from human

society; and in the nature of the child seemed to be perpetuated

those unquiet elements that had distracted Hester Prynne before

Pearl's birth, but had since begun to be soothed away by the

softening influences of maternity.

 

At home, within and around her mother's cottage, Pearl wanted

not a wide and various circle of acquaintance.  The spell of life

went forth from her ever-creative spirit, and communicated

itself to a thousand objects, as a torch kindles a flame

wherever it may be applied.  The unlikeliest materials--a stick,

a bunch of rags, a flower--were the puppets of Pearl's

witchcraft, and, without undergoing any outward change, became

spiritually adapted to whatever drama occupied the stage of her

inner world.  Her one baby-voice served a multitude of imaginary

personages, old and young, to talk withal.  The pine-trees, aged,

black, and solemn, and flinging groans and other melancholy

utterances on the breeze, needed little transformation to figure

as Puritan elders; the ugliest weeds of the garden were their

children, whom Pearl smote down and uprooted most unmercifully.

It was wonderful, the vast variety of forms into which she threw

her intellect, with no continuity, indeed, but darting up and

dancing, always in a state of preternatural activity--soon

sinking down, as if exhausted by so rapid and feverish a tide of

life--and succeeded by other shapes of a similar wild energy.  It

was like nothing so much as the phantasmagoric play of the

northern lights.  In the mere exercise of the fancy, however, and

the sportiveness of a growing mind, there might be a little more

than was observable in other children of bright faculties;

except as Pearl, in the dearth of human playmates, was thrown

more upon the visionary throng which she created.  The

singularity lay in the hostile feelings with which the child

regarded all these offsprings of her own heart and mind.  She

never created a friend, but seemed always to be sowing broadcast

the dragon's teeth, whence sprung a harvest of armed enemies,

against whom she rushed to battle.  It was inexpressibly

sad--then what depth of sorrow to a mother, who felt in her own

heart the cause--to observe, in one so young, this constant

recognition of an adverse world, and so fierce a training of the

energies that were to make good her cause in the contest that

must ensue.

 

Gazing at Pearl, Hester Prynne often dropped her work upon her

knees, and cried out with an agony which she would fain have

hidden, but which made utterance for itself betwixt speech and a

groan--"O Father in Heaven--if Thou art still my Father--what is

this being which I have brought into the world?" And Pearl,

overhearing the ejaculation, or aware through some more subtile

channel, of those throbs of anguish, would turn her vivid and

beautiful little face upon her mother, smile with sprite-like

intelligence, and resume her play.

 

One peculiarity of the child's deportment remains yet to be

told.  The very first thing which she had noticed in her life,

was--what?--not the mother's smile, responding to it, as other

babies do, by that faint, embryo smile of the little mouth,

remembered so doubtfully afterwards, and with such fond

discussion whether it were indeed a smile.  By no means!  But that

first object of which Pearl seemed to become aware was--shall we

say it?--the scarlet letter on Hester's bosom!  One day, as her

mother stooped over the cradle, the infant's eyes had been

caught by the glimmering of the gold embroidery about the

letter; and putting up her little hand she grasped at it,

smiling, not doubtfully, but with a decided gleam, that gave her

face the look of a much older child.  Then, gasping for breath,

did Hester Prynne clutch the fatal token, instinctively

endeavouring to tear it away, so infinite was the torture

inflicted by the intelligent touch of Pearl's baby-hand.  Again,

as if her mother's agonised gesture were meant only to make

sport for her, did little Pearl look into her eyes, and smile.

From that epoch, except when the child was asleep, Hester had

never felt a moment's safety: not a moment's calm enjoyment of

her.  Weeks, it is true, would sometimes elapse, during which

Pearl's gaze might never once be fixed upon the scarlet letter;

but then, again, it would come at unawares, like the stroke of

sudden death, and always with that peculiar smile and odd

expression of the eyes.

 

Once this freakish, elvish cast came into the child's eyes while

Hester was looking at her own image in them, as mothers are fond

of doing; and suddenly for women in solitude, and with troubled

hearts, are pestered with unaccountable delusions she fancied

that she beheld, not her own miniature portrait, but another

face in the small black mirror of Pearl's eye.  It was a face,

fiend-like, full of smiling malice, yet bearing the semblance of

features that she had known full well, though seldom with a

smile, and never with malice in them.  It was as if an evil

spirit possessed the child, and had just then peeped forth in

mockery.  Many a time afterwards had Hester been tortured, though

less vividly, by the same illusion.

 

In the afternoon of a certain summer's day, after Pearl grew big

enough to run about, she amused herself with gathering handfuls

of wild flowers, and flinging them, one by one, at her mother's

bosom; dancing up and down like a little elf whenever she hit

the scarlet letter.  Hester's first motion had been to cover her

bosom with her clasped hands.  But whether from pride or

resignation, or a feeling that her penance might best be wrought

out by this unutterable pain, she resisted the impulse, and sat

erect, pale as death, looking sadly into little Pearl's wild

eyes.  Still came the battery of flowers, almost invariably

hitting the mark, and covering the mother's breast with hurts

for which she could find no balm in this world, nor knew how to

seek it in another.  At last, her shot being all expended, the

child stood still and gazed at Hester, with that little laughing

image of a fiend peeping out--or, whether it peeped or no, her

mother so imagined it--from the unsearchable abyss of her black

eyes.

 

"Child, what art thou?" cried the mother.

 

"Oh, I am your little Pearl!" answered the child.

 

But while she said it, Pearl laughed, and began to dance up and

down with the humoursome gesticulation of a little imp, whose

next freak might be to fly up the chimney.

 

"Art thou my child, in very truth?" asked Hester.

 

Nor did she put the question altogether idly, but, for the

moment, with a portion of genuine earnestness; for, such was

Pearl's wonderful intelligence, that her mother half doubted

whether she were not acquainted with the secret spell of her

existence, and might not now reveal herself.

 

"Yes; I am little Pearl!" repeated the child, continuing her

antics.

 

"Thou art not my child!  Thou art no Pearl of mine!" said the

mother half playfully; for it was often the case that a sportive

impulse came over her in the midst of her deepest suffering.

"Tell me, then, what thou art, and who sent thee hither?"

 

"Tell me, mother!" said the child, seriously, coming up to

Hester, and pressing herself close to her knees.  "Do thou tell

me!"

 

"Thy Heavenly Father sent thee!" answered Hester Prynne.

 

But she said it with a hesitation that did not escape the

acuteness of the child.  Whether moved only by her ordinary

freakishness, or because an evil spirit prompted her, she put up

her small forefinger and touched the scarlet letter.

 

"He did not send me!" cried she, positively.  "I have no

Heavenly Father!"

 

"Hush, Pearl, hush!  Thou must not talk so!" answered the

mother, suppressing a groan.  "He sent us all into the world.  He

sent even me, thy mother.  Then, much more thee!  Or, if not, thou

strange and elfish child, whence didst thou come?"

 

"Tell me!  Tell me!" repeated Pearl, no longer seriously, but

laughing and capering about the floor.  "It is thou that must

tell me!"

 

But Hester could not resolve the query, being herself in a

dismal labyrinth of doubt.  She remembered--betwixt a smile and a

shudder--the talk of the neighbouring townspeople, who, seeking

vainly elsewhere for the child's paternity, and observing some

of her odd attributes, had given out that poor little Pearl was

a demon offspring: such as, ever since old Catholic times, had

occasionally been seen on earth, through the agency of their

mother's sin, and to promote some foul and wicked purpose.

Luther, according to the scandal of his monkish enemies, was a

brat of that hellish breed; nor was Pearl the only child to whom

this inauspicious origin was assigned among the New England

Puritans.

 

 

 

VII.  THE GOVERNOR'S HALL

 

Hester Prynne went one day to the mansion of Governor

Bellingham, with a pair of gloves which she had fringed and

embroidered to his order, and which were to be worn on some

great occasion of state; for, though the chances of a popular

election had caused this former ruler to descend a step or two

from the highest rank, he still held an honourable and

influential place among the colonial magistracy.

 

Another and far more important reason than the delivery of a

pair of embroidered gloves, impelled Hester, at this time, to

seek an interview with a personage of so much power and activity

in the affairs of the settlement.  It had reached her ears that

there was a design on the part of some of the leading

inhabitants, cherishing the more rigid order of principles in

religion and government, to deprive her of her child.  On the

supposition that Pearl, as already hinted, was of demon origin,

these good people not unreasonably argued that a Christian

interest in the mother's soul required them to remove such a

stumbling-block from her path.  If the child, on the other hand,

were really capable of moral and religious growth, and possessed

the elements of ultimate salvation, then, surely, it would enjoy

all the fairer prospect of these advantages by being transferred

to wiser and better guardianship than Hester Prynne's.  Among

those who promoted the design, Governor Bellingham was said to

be one of the most busy.  It may appear singular, and, indeed,

not a little ludicrous, that an affair of this kind, which in

later days would have been referred to no higher jurisdiction

than that of the select men of the town, should then have been a

question publicly discussed, and on which statesmen of eminence

took sides.  At that epoch of pristine simplicity, however,

matters of even slighter public interest, and of far less

intrinsic weight than the welfare of Hester and her child, were

strangely mixed up with the deliberations of legislators and

acts of state.  The period was hardly, if at all, earlier than

that of our story, when a dispute concerning the right of

property in a pig not only caused a fierce and bitter contest in

the legislative body of the colony, but resulted in an important

modification of the framework itself of the legislature.

 

Full of concern, therefore--but so conscious of her own right

that it seemed scarcely an unequal match between the public on

the one side, and a lonely woman, backed by the sympathies of

nature, on the other--Hester Prynne set forth from her solitary

cottage.  Little Pearl, of course, was her companion.  She was now

of an age to run lightly along by her mother's side, and,

constantly in motion from morn till sunset, could have

accomplished a much longer journey than that before her.  Often,

nevertheless, more from caprice than necessity, she demanded to

be taken up in arms; but was soon as imperious to be let down

again, and frisked onward before Hester on the grassy pathway,

with many a harmless trip and tumble.  We have spoken of Pearl's

rich and luxuriant beauty--a beauty that shone with deep and

vivid tints, a bright complexion, eyes possessing intensity both

of depth and glow, and hair already of a deep, glossy brown, and

which, in after years, would be nearly akin to black.  There was

fire in her and throughout her: she seemed the unpremeditated

offshoot of a passionate moment.  Her mother, in contriving the

child's garb, had allowed the gorgeous tendencies of her

imagination their full play, arraying her in a crimson velvet

tunic of a peculiar cut, abundantly embroidered in fantasies and

flourishes of gold thread.  So much strength of colouring, which

must have given a wan and pallid aspect to cheeks of a fainter

bloom, was admirably adapted to Pearl's beauty, and made her the

very brightest little jet of flame that ever danced upon the

earth.

 

But it was a remarkable attribute of this garb, and indeed, of

the child's whole appearance, that it irresistibly and

inevitably reminded the beholder of the token which Hester

Prynne was doomed to wear upon her bosom.  It was the scarlet

letter in another form: the scarlet letter endowed with life!

The mother herself--as if the red ignominy were so deeply

scorched into her brain that all her conceptions assumed its

form--had carefully wrought out the similitude, lavishing many

hours of morbid ingenuity to create an analogy between the

object of her affection and the emblem of her guilt and torture.

But, in truth, Pearl was the one as well as the other; and only

in consequence of that identity had Hester contrived so

perfectly to represent the scarlet letter in her appearance.

 

As the two wayfarers came within the precincts of the town, the

children of the Puritans looked up from their play,--or what

passed for play with those sombre little urchins--and spoke

gravely one to another.

 

"Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter: and

of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet

letter running along by her side!  Come, therefore, and let us

fling mud at them!"

 

But Pearl, who was a dauntless child, after frowning, stamping

her foot, and shaking her little hand with a variety of

threatening gestures, suddenly made a rush at the knot of her

enemies, and put them all to flight.  She resembled, in her

fierce pursuit of them, an infant pestilence--the scarlet fever,

or some such half-fledged angel of judgment--whose mission was

to punish the sins of the rising generation.  She screamed and

shouted, too, with a terrific volume of sound, which, doubtless,

caused the hearts of the fugitives to quake within them.  The

victory accomplished, Pearl returned quietly to her mother, and

looked up, smiling, into her face.

 

Without further adventure, they reached the dwelling of Governor

Bellingham.  This was a large wooden house, built in a fashion of

which there are specimens still extant in the streets of our

older towns now moss-grown, crumbling to decay, and melancholy

at heart with the many sorrowful or joyful occurrences,

remembered or forgotten, that have happened and passed away

within their dusky chambers.  Then, however, there was the

freshness of the passing year on its exterior, and the

cheerfulness, gleaming forth from the sunny windows, of a human

habitation, into which death had never entered.  It had, indeed,

a very cheery aspect, the walls being overspread with a kind of

stucco, in which fragments of broken glass were plentifully

intermixed; so that, when the sunshine fell aslant-wise over the

front of the edifice, it glittered and sparkled as if diamonds

had been flung against it by the double handful.  The brilliancy

might have be fitted Aladdin's palace rather than the mansion of

a grave old Puritan ruler.  It was further decorated with strange

and seemingly cabalistic figures and diagrams, suitable to the

quaint taste of the age which had been drawn in the stucco, when

newly laid on, and had now grown hard and durable, for the

admiration of after times.

 

Pearl, looking at this bright wonder of a house began to caper

and dance, and imperatively required that the whole breadth of

sunshine should be stripped off its front, and given her to play

with.

 

"No, my little Pearl!" said her mother; "thou must gather thine

own sunshine.  I have none to give thee!"

 

They approached the door, which was of an arched form, and

flanked on each side by a narrow tower or projection of the

edifice, in both of which were lattice-windows, the wooden

shutters to close over them at need.  Lifting the iron hammer

that hung at the portal, Hester Prynne gave a summons, which was

answered by one of the Governor's bond servant--a free-born

Englishman, but now a seven years' slave.  During that term he

was to be the property of his master, and as much a commodity of

bargain and sale as an ox, or a joint-stool.  The serf wore the

customary garb of serving-men at that period, and long before,

in the old hereditary halls of England.

 

"Is the worshipful Governor Bellingham within?" inquired Hester.

 

"Yea, forsooth," replied the bond-servant, staring with

wide-open eyes at the scarlet letter, which, being a new-comer

in the country, he had never before seen.  "Yea, his honourable

worship is within.  But he hath a godly minister or two with him,

and likewise a leech.  Ye may not see his worship now."

 

"Nevertheless, I will enter," answered Hester Prynne; and the

bond-servant, perhaps judging from the decision of her air, and

the glittering symbol in her bosom, that she was a great lady in

the land, offered no opposition.

 

So the mother and little Pearl were admitted into the hall of

entrance.  With many variations, suggested by the nature of his

building materials, diversity of climate, and a different mode

of social life, Governor Bellingham had planned his new

habitation after the residences of gentlemen of fair estate in

his native land.  Here, then, was a wide and reasonably lofty

hall, extending through the whole depth of the house, and

forming a medium of general communication, more or less

directly, with all the other apartments.  At one extremity, this

spacious room was lighted by the windows of the two towers,

which formed a small recess on either side of the portal.  At the

other end, though partly muffled by a curtain, it was more

powerfully illuminated by one of those embowed hall windows

which we read of in old books, and which was provided with a

deep and cushioned seat.  Here, on the cushion, lay a folio tome,

probably of the Chronicles of England, or other such substantial

literature; even as, in our own days, we scatter gilded volumes

on the centre table, to be turned over by the casual guest.  The

furniture of the hall consisted of some ponderous chairs, the

backs of which were elaborately carved with wreaths of oaken

flowers; and likewise a table in the same taste, the whole being

of the Elizabethan age, or perhaps earlier, and heirlooms,

transferred hither from the Governor's paternal home.  On the

table--in token that the sentiment of old English hospitality

had not been left behind--stood a large pewter tankard, at the

bottom of which, had Hester or Pearl peeped into it, they might

have seen the frothy remnant of a recent draught of ale.

 

On the wall hung a row of portraits, representing the

forefathers of the Bellingham lineage, some with armour on their

breasts, and others with stately ruffs and robes of peace.  All

were characterised by the sternness and severity which old

portraits so invariably put on, as if they were the ghosts,

rather than the pictures, of departed worthies, and were gazing

with harsh and intolerant criticism at the pursuits and

enjoyments of living men.

 

At about the centre of the oaken panels that lined the hall was

suspended a suit of mail, not, like the pictures, an ancestral

relic, but of the most modern date; for it had been manufactured

by a skilful armourer in London, the same year in which Governor

Bellingham came over to New England.  There was a steel

head-piece, a cuirass, a gorget and greaves, with a pair of

gauntlets and a sword hanging beneath; all, and especially the

helmet and breastplate, so highly burnished as to glow with

white radiance, and scatter an illumination everywhere about

upon the floor.  This bright panoply was not meant for mere idle

show, but had been worn by the Governor on many a solemn muster

and training field, and had glittered, moreover, at the head of

a regiment in the Pequod war.  For, though bred a lawyer, and

accustomed to speak of Bacon, Coke, Noye, and Finch, as his

professional associates, the exigencies of this new country had

transformed Governor Bellingham into a soldier, as well as a

statesman and ruler.

 

Little Pearl, who was as greatly pleased with the gleaming

armour as she had been with the glittering frontispiece of the

house, spent some time looking into the polished mirror of the

breastplate.

 

"Mother," cried she, "I see you here.  Look!  Look!"

 

Hester looked by way of humouring the child; and she saw that,

owing to the peculiar effect of this convex mirror, the scarlet

letter was represented in exaggerated and gigantic proportions,

so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her

appearance.  In truth, she seemed absolutely hidden behind it.

Pearl pointed upwards also, at a similar picture in the

head-piece; smiling at her mother, with the elfish intelligence

that was so familiar an expression on her small physiognomy.

That look of naughty merriment was likewise reflected in the

mirror, with so much breadth and intensity of effect, that it

made Hester Prynne feel as if it could not be the image of her

own child, but of an imp who was seeking to mould itself into

Pearl's shape.

 

"Come along, Pearl," said she, drawing her away, "Come and look

into this fair garden.  It may be we shall see flowers there;

more beautiful ones than we find in the woods."

 

Pearl accordingly ran to the bow-window, at the further end of

the hall, and looked along the vista of a garden walk, carpeted

with closely-shaven grass, and bordered with some rude and

immature attempt at shrubbery.  But the proprietor appeared

already to have relinquished as hopeless, the effort to

perpetuate on this side of the Atlantic, in a hard soil, and

amid the close struggle for subsistence, the native English

taste for ornamental gardening.  Cabbages grew in plain sight;

and a pumpkin-vine, rooted at some distance, had run across the

intervening space, and deposited one of its gigantic products

directly beneath the hall window, as if to warn the Governor

that this great lump of vegetable gold was as rich an ornament

as New England earth would offer him.  There were a few

rose-bushes, however, and a number of apple-trees, probably the

descendants of those planted by the Reverend Mr. Blackstone, the

first settler of the peninsula; that half mythological personage

who rides through our early annals, seated on the back of a

bull.

 

Pearl, seeing the rose-bushes, began to cry for a red rose, and

would not be pacified.

 

"Hush, child--hush!" said her mother, earnestly.  "Do not cry,

dear little Pearl!  I hear voices in the garden.  The Governor is

coming, and gentlemen along with him."

 

In fact, adown the vista of the garden avenue, a number of

persons were seen approaching towards the house.  Pearl, in utter

scorn of her mother's attempt to quiet her, gave an eldritch

scream, and then became silent, not from any notion of

obedience, but because the quick and mobile curiosity of her

disposition was excited by the appearance of those new

personages.

 

 

 

VIII.  THE ELF-CHILD AND THE MINISTER

 

Governor Bellingham, in a loose gown and easy cap--such as

elderly gentlemen loved to endue themselves with, in their

domestic privacy--walked foremost, and appeared to be showing

off his estate, and expatiating on his projected improvements.

The wide circumference of an elaborate ruff, beneath his grey

beard, in the antiquated fashion of King James's reign, caused

his head to look not a little like that of John the Baptist in a

charger.  The impression made by his aspect, so rigid and severe,

and frost-bitten with more than autumnal age, was hardly in

keeping with the appliances of worldly enjoyment wherewith he

had evidently done his utmost to surround himself.  But it is an

error to suppose that our great forefathers--though accustomed

to speak and think of human existence as a state merely of trial

and warfare, and though unfeignedly prepared to sacrifice goods

and life at the behest of duty--made it a matter of conscience

to reject such means of comfort, or even luxury, as lay fairly

within their grasp.  This creed was never taught, for instance,

by the venerable pastor, John Wilson, whose beard, white as a

snow-drift, was seen over Governor Bellingham's shoulders, while

its wearer suggested that pears and peaches might yet be

naturalised in the New England climate, and that purple grapes

might possibly be compelled to flourish against the sunny

garden-wall.  The old clergyman, nurtured at the rich bosom of

the English Church, had a long established and legitimate taste

for all good and comfortable things, and however stern he might

show himself in the pulpit, or in his public reproof of such

transgressions as that of Hester Prynne, still, the genial

benevolence of his private life had won him warmer affection

than was accorded to any of his professional contemporaries.

 

Behind the Governor and Mr. Wilson came two other guests--one,

the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, whom the reader may remember as

having taken a brief and reluctant part in the scene of Hester

Prynne's disgrace; and, in close companionship with him, old

Roger Chillingworth, a person of great skill in physic, who for

two or three years past had been settled in the town.  It was

understood that this learned man was the physician as well as

friend of the young minister, whose health had severely suffered

of late by his too unreserved self-sacrifice to the labours and

duties of the pastoral relation.

 

The Governor, in advance of his visitors, ascended one or two

steps, and, throwing open the leaves of the great hall window,

found himself close to little Pearl.  The shadow of the curtain

fell on Hester Prynne, and partially concealed her.

 

"What have we here?" said Governor Bellingham, looking with

surprise at the scarlet little figure before him.  "I profess, I

have never seen the like since my days of vanity, in old King

James's time, when I was wont to esteem it a high favour to be

admitted to a court mask!  There used to be a swarm of these

small apparitions in holiday time, and we called them children

of the Lord of Misrule.  But how gat such a guest into my hall?"

 

"Ay, indeed!" cried good old Mr. Wilson.  "What little bird of

scarlet plumage may this be?  Methinks I have seen just such

figures when the sun has been shining through a richly painted

window, and tracing out the golden and crimson images across the

floor.  But that was in the old land.  Prithee, young one, who art

thou, and what has ailed thy mother to bedizen thee in this

strange fashion?  Art thou a Christian child--ha?  Dost know thy

catechism?  Or art thou one of those naughty elfs or fairies whom

we thought to have left behind us, with other relics of

Papistry, in merry old England?"

 

"I am mother's child," answered the scarlet vision, "and my name

is Pearl!"

 

"Pearl?--Ruby, rather--or Coral!--or Red Rose, at the very

least, judging from thy hue!" responded the old minister,

putting forth his hand in a vain attempt to pat little Pearl on

the cheek.  "But where is this mother of thine?  Ah!  I see," he

added; and, turning to Governor Bellingham, whispered, "This is

the selfsame child of whom we have held speech together; and

behold here the unhappy woman, Hester Prynne, her mother!"

 

"Sayest thou so?" cried the Governor.  "Nay, we might have

judged that such a child's mother must needs be a scarlet woman,

and a worthy type of her of Babylon!  But she comes at a good

time, and we will look into this matter forthwith."

 

Governor Bellingham stepped through the window into the hall,

followed by his three guests.

 

"Hester Prynne," said he, fixing his naturally stern regard on

the wearer of the scarlet letter, "there hath been much question

concerning thee of late.  The point hath been weightily

discussed, whether we, that are of authority and influence, do

well discharge our consciences by trusting an immortal soul,

such as there is in yonder child, to the guidance of one who

hath stumbled and fallen amid the pitfalls of this world.  Speak

thou, the child's own mother!  Were it not, thinkest thou, for

thy little one's temporal and eternal welfare that she be taken

out of thy charge, and clad soberly, and disciplined strictly,

and instructed in the truths of heaven and earth?  What canst

thou do for the child in this kind?"

 

"I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this!"

answered Hester Prynne, laying her finger on the red token.

 

"Woman, it is thy badge of shame!" replied the stern magistrate.

"It is because of the stain which that letter indicates that we

would transfer thy child to other hands."

 

"Nevertheless," said the mother, calmly, though growing more

pale, "this badge hath taught me--it daily teaches me--it is

teaching me at this moment--lessons whereof my child may be the

wiser and better, albeit they can profit nothing to myself."

 

"We will judge warily," said Bellingham, "and look well what we

are about to do.  Good Master Wilson, I pray you, examine this

Pearl--since that is her name--and see whether she hath had such

Christian nurture as befits a child of her age."

 

The old minister seated himself in an arm-chair and made an

effort to draw Pearl betwixt his knees.  But the child,

unaccustomed to the touch or familiarity of any but her mother,

escaped through the open window, and stood on the upper step,

looking like a wild tropical bird of rich plumage, ready to take

flight into the upper air.  Mr. Wilson, not a little astonished

at this outbreak--for he was a grandfatherly sort of personage,

and usually a vast favourite with children--essayed, however, to

proceed with the examination.

 

"Pearl," said he, with great solemnity, "thou must take heed to

instruction, that so, in due season, thou mayest wear in thy

bosom the pearl of great price.  Canst thou tell me, my child,

who made thee?"

 

Now Pearl knew well enough who made her, for Hester Prynne, the

daughter of a pious home, very soon after her talk with the

child about her Heavenly Father, had begun to inform her of

those truths which the human spirit, at whatever stage of

immaturity, imbibes with such eager interest.  Pearl,

therefore--so large were the attainments of her three years'

lifetime--could have borne a fair examination in the New England

Primer, or the first column of the Westminster Catechisms,

although unacquainted with the outward form of either of those

celebrated works.  But that perversity, which all children have

more or less of, and of which little Pearl had a tenfold

portion, now, at the most inopportune moment, took thorough

possession of her, and closed her lips, or impelled her to speak

words amiss.  After putting her finger in her mouth, with many

ungracious refusals to answer good Mr. Wilson's question, the

child finally announced that she had not been made at all, but

had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses that

grew by the prison-door.

 

This phantasy was probably suggested by the near proximity of

the Governor's red roses, as Pearl stood outside of the window,

together with her recollection of the prison rose-bush, which

she had passed in coming hither.

 

Old Roger Chillingworth, with a smile on his face, whispered

something in the young clergyman's ear.  Hester Prynne looked at

the man of skill, and even then, with her fate hanging in the

balance, was startled to perceive what a change had come over

his features--how much uglier they were, how his dark complexion

seemed to have grown duskier, and his figure more

misshapen--since the days when she had familiarly known him.  She

met his eyes for an instant, but was immediately constrained to

give all her attention to the scene now going forward.

 

"This is awful!" cried the Governor, slowly recovering from the

astonishment into which Pearl's response had thrown him.  "Here

is a child of three years old, and she cannot tell who made her!

Without question, she is equally in the dark as to her soul, its

present depravity, and future destiny!  Methinks, gentlemen, we

need inquire no further."

 

Hester caught hold of Pearl, and drew her forcibly into her

arms, confronting the old Puritan magistrate with almost a

fierce expression.  Alone in the world, cast off by it, and with

this sole treasure to keep her heart alive, she felt that she

possessed indefeasible rights against the world, and was ready

to defend them to the death.

 

"God gave me the child!" cried she.  "He gave her in requital of

all things else which ye had taken from me.  She is my

happiness--she is my torture, none the less!  Pearl keeps me here

in life!  Pearl punishes me, too!  See ye not, she is the scarlet

letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a

millionfold the power of retribution for my sin?  Ye shall not

take her!  I will die first!"

 

"My poor woman," said the not unkind old minister, "the child

shall be well cared for--far better than thou canst do for it."

 

"God gave her into my keeping!" repeated Hester Prynne, raising

her voice almost to a shriek.  "I will not give her up!"  And here

by a sudden impulse, she turned to the young clergyman, Mr.

Dimmesdale, at whom, up to this moment, she had seemed hardly so

much as once to direct her eyes.  "Speak thou for me!" cried she.

"Thou wast my pastor, and hadst charge of my soul, and knowest

me better than these men can.  I will not lose the child!  Speak

for me!  Thou knowest--for thou hast sympathies which these men

lack--thou knowest what is in my heart, and what are a mother's

rights, and how much the stronger they are when that mother has

but her child and the scarlet letter!  Look thou to it!  I will

not lose the child!  Look to it!"

 

At this wild and singular appeal, which indicated that Hester

Prynne's situation had provoked her to little less than madness,

the young minister at once came forward, pale, and holding his

hand over his heart, as was his custom whenever his peculiarly

nervous temperament was thrown into agitation.  He looked now

more careworn and emaciated than as we described him at the

scene of Hester's public ignominy; and whether it were his

failing health, or whatever the cause might be, his large dark

eyes had a world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depth.

 

"There is truth in what she says," began the minister, with a

voice sweet, tremulous, but powerful, insomuch that the hall

re-echoed and the hollow armour rang with it--"truth in what

Hester says, and in the feeling which inspires her!  God gave her

the child, and gave her, too, an instinctive knowledge of its

nature and requirements--both seemingly so peculiar--which no

other mortal being can possess.  And, moreover, is there not a

quality of awful sacredness in the relation between this mother

and this child?"

 

"Ay--how is that, good Master Dimmesdale?" interrupted the

Governor.  "Make that plain, I pray you!"

 

"It must be even so," resumed the minister.  "For, if we deem it

otherwise, do we not thereby say that the Heavenly Father, the

creator of all flesh, hath lightly recognised a deed of sin, and

made of no account the distinction between unhallowed lust and

holy love?  This child of its father's guilt and its mother's

shame has come from the hand of God, to work in many ways upon

her heart, who pleads so earnestly and with such bitterness of

spirit the right to keep her.  It was meant for a blessing--for

the one blessing of her life!  It was meant, doubtless, the

mother herself hath told us, for a retribution, too; a torture

to be felt at many an unthought-of moment; a pang, a sting, an

ever-recurring agony, in the midst of a troubled joy!  Hath she

not expressed this thought in the garb of the poor child, so

forcibly reminding us of that red symbol which sears her bosom?"

 

"Well said again!" cried good Mr. Wilson.  "I feared the woman

had no better thought than to make a mountebank of her child!"

 

"Oh, not so!--not so!" continued Mr. Dimmesdale.  "She

recognises, believe me, the solemn miracle which God hath

wrought in the existence of that child.  And may she feel,

too--what, methinks, is the very truth--that this boon was

meant, above all things else, to keep the mother's soul alive,

and to preserve her from blacker depths of sin into which Satan

might else have sought to plunge her!  Therefore it is good for

this poor, sinful woman, that she hath an infant immortality, a

being capable of eternal joy or sorrow, confided to her care--to

be trained up by her to righteousness, to remind her, at every

moment, of her fall, but yet to teach her, as if it were by the

Creator's sacred pledge, that, if she bring the child to heaven,

the child also will bring its parents thither!  Herein is the

sinful mother happier than the sinful father.  For Hester

Prynne's sake, then, and no less for the poor child's sake, let

us leave them as Providence hath seen fit to place them!"

 

"You speak, my friend, with a strange earnestness," said old

Roger Chillingworth, smiling at him.

 

"And there is a weighty import in what my young brother hath

spoken," added the Rev.  Mr. Wilson.

 

"What say you, worshipful Master Bellingham?  Hath he not

pleaded well for the poor woman?"

 

"Indeed hath he," answered the magistrate; "and hath adduced

such arguments, that we will even leave the matter as it now

stands; so long, at least, as there shall be no further scandal

in the woman.  Care must be had nevertheless, to put the child to

due and stated examination in the catechism, at thy hands or

Master Dimmesdale's.  Moreover, at a proper season, the

tithing-men must take heed that she go both to school and to

meeting."

 

The young minister, on ceasing to speak had withdrawn a few

steps from the group, and stood with his face partially

concealed in the heavy folds of the window-curtain; while the

shadow of his figure, which the sunlight cast upon the floor,

was tremulous with the vehemence of his appeal.  Pearl, that wild

and flighty little elf stole softly towards him, and taking his

hand in the grasp of both her own, laid her cheek against it; a

caress so tender, and withal so unobtrusive, that her mother,

who was looking on, asked herself--"Is that my Pearl?" Yet she

knew that there was love in the child's heart, although it

mostly revealed itself in passion, and hardly twice in her

lifetime had been softened by such gentleness as now.  The

minister--for, save the long-sought regards of woman, nothing is

sweeter than these marks of childish preference, accorded

spontaneously by a spiritual instinct, and therefore seeming to

imply in us something truly worthy to be loved--the minister

looked round, laid his hand on the child's head, hesitated an

instant, and then kissed her brow.  Little Pearl's unwonted mood

of sentiment lasted no longer; she laughed, and went capering

down the hall so airily, that old Mr. Wilson raised a question

whether even her tiptoes touched the floor.

 

"The little baggage hath witchcraft in her, I profess," said he

to Mr. Dimmesdale.  "She needs no old woman's broomstick to fly

withal!"

 

"A strange child!" remarked old Roger Chillingworth.  "It is

easy to see the mother's part in her.  Would it be beyond a

philosopher's research, think ye, gentlemen, to analyse that

child's nature, and, from it make a mould, to give a shrewd

guess at the father?"

 

"Nay; it would be sinful, in such a question, to follow the clue

of profane philosophy," said Mr. Wilson.  "Better to fast and

pray upon it; and still better, it may be, to leave the mystery

as we find it, unless Providence reveal it of its own accord.

Thereby, every good Christian man hath a title to show a

father's kindness towards the poor, deserted babe."

 

The affair being so satisfactorily concluded, Hester Prynne,

with Pearl, departed from the house.  As they descended the

steps, it is averred that the lattice of a chamber-window was

thrown open, and forth into the sunny day was thrust the face of

Mistress Hibbins, Governor Bellingham's bitter-tempered sister,

and the same who, a few years later, was executed as a witch.

 

"Hist, hist!" said she, while her ill-omened physiognomy seemed

to cast a shadow over the cheerful newness of the house.  "Wilt

thou go with us to-night?  There will be a merry company in the

forest; and I well-nigh promised the Black Man that comely

Hester Prynne should make one."

 

"Make my excuse to him, so please you!" answered Hester, with a

triumphant smile.  "I must tarry at home, and keep watch over my

little Pearl.  Had they taken her from me, I would willingly have

gone with thee into the forest, and signed my name in the Black

Man's book too, and that with mine own blood!"

 

"We shall have thee there anon!" said the witch-lady, frowning,

as she drew back her head.

 

But here--if we suppose this interview betwixt Mistress Hibbins

and Hester Prynne to be authentic, and not a parable--was

already an illustration of the young minister's argument against

sundering the relation of a fallen mother to the offspring of

her frailty.  Even thus early had the child saved her from

Satan's snare.

 

 

 

IX.  THE LEECH

 

Under the appellation of Roger Chillingworth, the reader will

remember, was hidden another name, which its former wearer had

resolved should never more be spoken.  It has been related, how,

in the crowd that witnessed Hester Prynne's ignominious

exposure, stood a man, elderly, travel-worn, who, just emerging

from the perilous wilderness, beheld the woman, in whom he hoped

to find embodied the warmth and cheerfulness of home, set up as

a type of sin before the people.  Her matronly fame was trodden

under all men's feet.  Infamy was babbling around her in the

public market-place.  For her kindred, should the tidings ever

reach them, and for the companions of her unspotted life, there

remained nothing but the contagion of her dishonour; which would

not fail to be distributed in strict accordance and proportion

with the intimacy and sacredness of their previous relationship.

Then why--since the choice was with himself--should the

individual, whose connexion with the fallen woman had been the

most intimate and sacred of them all, come forward to vindicate

his claim to an inheritance so little desirable?  He resolved not

to be pilloried beside her on her pedestal of shame.  Unknown to

all but Hester Prynne, and possessing the lock and key of her

silence, he chose to withdraw his name from the roll of mankind,

and, as regarded his former ties and interest, to vanish out of

life as completely as if he indeed lay at the bottom of the

ocean, whither rumour had long ago consigned him.  This purpose

once effected, new interests would immediately spring up, and

likewise a new purpose; dark, it is true, if not guilty, but of

force enough to engage the full strength of his faculties.

 

In pursuance of this resolve, he took up his residence in the

Puritan town as Roger Chillingworth, without other introduction

than the learning and intelligence of which he possessed more

than a common measure.  As his studies, at a previous period of

his life, had made him extensively acquainted with the medical

science of the day, it was as a physician that he presented

himself and as such was cordially received.  Skilful men, of the

medical and chirurgical profession, were of rare occurrence in

the colony.  They seldom, it would appear, partook of the

religious zeal that brought other emigrants across the Atlantic.

In their researches into the human frame, it may be that the

higher and more subtle faculties of such men were materialised,

and that they lost the spiritual view of existence amid the

intricacies of that wondrous mechanism, which seemed to involve

art enough to comprise all of life within itself.  At all events,

the health of the good town of Boston, so far as medicine had

aught to do with it, had hitherto lain in the guardianship of an

aged deacon and apothecary, whose piety and godly deportment

were stronger testimonials in his favour than any that he could

have produced in the shape of a diploma.  The only surgeon was

one who combined the occasional exercise of that noble art with

the daily and habitual flourish of a razor.  To such a

professional body Roger Chillingworth was a brilliant

acquisition.  He soon manifested his familiarity with the

ponderous and imposing machinery of antique physic; in which

every remedy contained a multitude of far-fetched and

heterogeneous ingredients, as elaborately compounded as if the

proposed result had been the Elixir of Life.  In his Indian

captivity, moreover, he had gained much knowledge of the

properties of native herbs and roots; nor did he conceal from

his patients that these simple medicines, Nature's boon to the

untutored savage, had quite as large a share of his own

confidence as the European Pharmacopoeia, which so many learned

doctors had spent centuries in elaborating.

 

This learned stranger was exemplary as regarded at least the

outward forms of a religious life; and early after his arrival,

had chosen for his spiritual guide the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale.

The young divine, whose scholar-like renown still lived in

Oxford, was considered by his more fervent admirers as little

less than a heavenly ordained apostle, destined, should he live

and labour for the ordinary term of life, to do as great deeds,

for the now feeble New England Church, as the early Fathers had

achieved for the infancy of the Christian faith.  About this

period, however, the health of Mr. Dimmesdale had evidently

begun to fail.  By those best acquainted with his habits, the

paleness of the young minister's cheek was accounted for by his

too earnest devotion to study, his scrupulous fulfilment of

parochial duty, and more than all, to the fasts and vigils of

which he made a frequent practice, in order to keep the

grossness of this earthly state from clogging and obscuring his

spiritual lamp.  Some declared, that if Mr. Dimmesdale were

really going to die, it was cause enough that the world was not

worthy to be any longer trodden by his feet.  He himself, on the

other hand, with characteristic humility, avowed his belief that

if Providence should see fit to remove him, it would be because

of his own unworthiness to perform its humblest mission here on

earth.  With all this difference of opinion as to the cause of

his decline, there could be no question of the fact.  His form

grew emaciated; his voice, though still rich and sweet, had a

certain melancholy prophecy of decay in it; he was often

observed, on any slight alarm or other sudden accident, to put

his hand over his heart with first a flush and then a paleness,

indicative of pain.

 

Such was the young clergyman's condition, and so imminent the

prospect that his dawning light would be extinguished, all

untimely, when Roger Chillingworth made his advent to the town.

His first entry on the scene, few people could tell whence,

dropping down as it were out of the sky or starting from the

nether earth, had an aspect of mystery, which was easily

heightened to the miraculous.  He was now known to be a man of

skill; it was observed that he gathered herbs and the blossoms

of wild-flowers, and dug up roots and plucked off twigs from the

forest-trees like one acquainted with hidden virtues in what was

valueless to common eyes.  He was heard to speak of Sir Kenelm

Digby and other famous men--whose scientific attainments were

esteemed hardly less than supernatural--as having been his

correspondents or associates.  Why, with such rank in the learned

world, had he come hither?  What, could he, whose sphere was in

great cities, be seeking in the wilderness?  In answer to this

query, a rumour gained ground--and however absurd, was

entertained by some very sensible people--that Heaven had

wrought an absolute miracle, by transporting an eminent Doctor

of Physic from a German university bodily through the air and

setting him down at the door of Mr. Dimmesdale's study!

Individuals of wiser faith, indeed, who knew that Heaven

promotes its purposes without aiming at the stage-effect of what

is called miraculous interposition, were inclined to see a

providential hand in Roger Chillingworth's so opportune arrival.

 

This idea was countenanced by the strong interest which the

physician ever manifested in the young clergyman; he attached

himself to him as a parishioner, and sought to win a friendly

regard and confidence from his naturally reserved sensibility.

He expressed great alarm at his pastor's state of health, but

was anxious to attempt the cure, and, if early undertaken,

seemed not despondent of a favourable result.  The elders, the

deacons, the motherly dames, and the young and fair maidens of

Mr. Dimmesdale's flock, were alike importunate that he should

make trial of the physician's frankly offered skill.  Mr.

Dimmesdale gently repelled their entreaties.

 

"I need no medicine," said he.

 

But how could the young minister say so, when, with every

successive Sabbath, his cheek was paler and thinner, and his

voice more tremulous than before--when it had now become a

constant habit, rather than a casual gesture, to press his hand

over his heart?  Was he weary of his labours?  Did he wish to die?

These questions were solemnly propounded to Mr. Dimmesdale by

the elder ministers of Boston, and the deacons of his church,

who, to use their own phrase, "dealt with him," on the sin of

rejecting the aid which Providence so manifestly held out.  He

listened in silence, and finally promised to confer with the

physician.

 

"Were it God's will," said the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, when, in

fulfilment of this pledge, he requested old Roger

Chillingworth's professional advice, "I could be well content

that my labours, and my sorrows, and my sins, and my pains,

should shortly end with me, and what is earthly of them be

buried in my grave, and the spiritual go with me to my eternal

state, rather than that you should put your skill to the proof

in my behalf."

 

"Ah," replied Roger Chillingworth, with that quietness, which,

whether imposed or natural, marked all his deportment, "it is

thus that a young clergyman is apt to speak.  Youthful men, not

having taken a deep root, give up their hold of life so easily!

And saintly men, who walk with God on earth, would fain be away,

to walk with him on the golden pavements of the New Jerusalem."

 

"Nay," rejoined the young minister, putting his hand to his

heart, with a flush of pain flitting over his brow, "were I

worthier to walk there, I could be better content to toil here."

 

"Good men ever interpret themselves too meanly," said the

physician.

 

In this manner, the mysterious old Roger Chillingworth became

the medical adviser of the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale.  As not only

the disease interested the physician, but he was strongly moved

to look into the character and qualities of the patient, these

two men, so different in age, came gradually to spend much time

together.  For the sake of the minister's health, and to enable

the leech to gather plants with healing balm in them, they took

long walks on the sea-shore, or in the forest; mingling various

walks with the splash and murmur of the waves, and the solemn

wind-anthem among the tree-tops.  Often, likewise, one was the

guest of the other in his place of study and retirement.  There

was a fascination for the minister in the company of the man of

science, in whom he recognised an intellectual cultivation of no

moderate depth or scope; together with a range and freedom of

ideas, that he would have vainly looked for among the members of

his own profession.  In truth, he was startled, if not shocked,

to find this attribute in the physician.  Mr. Dimmesdale was a

true priest, a true religionist, with the reverential sentiment

largely developed, and an order of mind that impelled itself

powerfully along the track of a creed, and wore its passage

continually deeper with the lapse of time.  In no state of

society would he have been what is called a man of liberal

views; it would always be essential to his peace to feel the

pressure of a faith about him, supporting, while it confined him

within its iron framework.  Not the less, however, though with a

tremulous enjoyment, did he feel the occasional relief of

looking at the universe through the medium of another kind of

intellect than those with which he habitually held converse.  It

was as if a window were thrown open, admitting a freer

atmosphere into the close and stifled study, where his life was

wasting itself away, amid lamp-light, or obstructed day-beams,

and the musty fragrance, be it sensual or moral, that exhales

from books.  But the air was too fresh and chill to be long

breathed with comfort.  So the minister, and the physician with

him, withdrew again within the limits of what their Church

defined as orthodox.

 

Thus Roger Chillingworth scrutinised his patient carefully, both

as he saw him in his ordinary life, keeping an accustomed

pathway in the range of thoughts familiar to him, and as he

appeared when thrown amidst other moral scenery, the novelty of

which might call out something new to the surface of his

character.  He deemed it essential, it would seem, to know the

man, before attempting to do him good.  Wherever there is a heart

and an intellect, the diseases of the physical frame are tinged

with the peculiarities of these.  In Arthur Dimmesdale, thought

and imagination were so active, and sensibility so intense, that

the bodily infirmity would be likely to have its groundwork

there.  So Roger Chillingworth--the man of skill, the kind and

friendly physician--strove to go deep into his patient's bosom,

delving among his principles, prying into his recollections, and

probing everything with a cautious touch, like a treasure-seeker

in a dark cavern.  Few secrets can escape an investigator, who

has opportunity and licence to undertake such a quest, and skill

to follow it up.  A man burdened with a secret should especially

avoid the intimacy of his physician.  If the latter possess

native sagacity, and a nameless something more,--let us call it

intuition; if he show no intrusive egotism, nor disagreeable

prominent characteristics of his own; if he have the power,

which must be born with him, to bring his mind into such

affinity with his patient's, that this last shall unawares have

spoken what he imagines himself only to have thought; if such

revelations be received without tumult, and acknowledged not so

often by an uttered sympathy as by silence, an inarticulate

breath, and here and there a word to indicate that all is

understood; if to these qualifications of a confidant be joined

the advantages afforded by his recognised character as a

physician;--then, at some inevitable moment, will the soul of

the sufferer be dissolved, and flow forth in a dark but

transparent stream, bringing all its mysteries into the

daylight.

 

Roger Chillingworth possessed all, or most, of the attributes

above enumerated.  Nevertheless, time went on; a kind of

intimacy, as we have said, grew up between these two cultivated

minds, which had as wide a field as the whole sphere of human

thought and study to meet upon; they discussed every topic of

ethics and religion, of public affairs, and private character;

they talked much, on both sides, of matters that seemed personal

to themselves; and yet no secret, such as the physician fancied

must exist there, ever stole out of the minister's consciousness

into his companion's ear.  The latter had his suspicions, indeed,

that even the nature of Mr. Dimmesdale's bodily disease had

never fairly been revealed to him.  It was a strange reserve!

 

After a time, at a hint from Roger Chillingworth, the friends of

Mr. Dimmesdale effected an arrangement by which the two were

lodged in the same house; so that every ebb and flow of the

minister's life-tide might pass under the eye of his anxious and

attached physician.  There was much joy throughout the town when

this greatly desirable object was attained.  It was held to be

the best possible measure for the young clergyman's welfare;

unless, indeed, as often urged by such as felt authorised to do

so, he had selected some one of the many blooming damsels,

spiritually devoted to him, to become his devoted wife.  This

latter step, however, there was no present prospect that Arthur

Dimmesdale would be prevailed upon to take; he rejected all

suggestions of the kind, as if priestly celibacy were one of his

articles of Church discipline.  Doomed by his own choice,

therefore, as Mr. Dimmesdale so evidently was, to eat his

unsavoury morsel always at another's board, and endure the

life-long chill which must be his lot who seeks to warm himself

only at another's fireside, it truly seemed that this sagacious,

experienced, benevolent old physician, with his concord of

paternal and reverential love for the young pastor, was the very

man, of all mankind, to be constantly within reach of his voice.

 

The new abode of the two friends was with a pious widow, of good

social rank, who dwelt in a house covering pretty nearly the

site on which the venerable structure of King's Chapel has since

been built.  It had the graveyard, originally Isaac Johnson's

home-field, on one side, and so was well adapted to call up

serious reflections, suited to their respective employments, in

both minister and man of physic.  The motherly care of the good

widow assigned to Mr. Dimmesdale a front apartment, with a sunny

exposure, and heavy window-curtains, to create a noontide shadow

when desirable.  The walls were hung round with tapestry, said to

be from the Gobelin looms, and, at all events, representing the

Scriptural story of David and Bathsheba, and Nathan the Prophet,