Screenland – May 1926
The Scarlet Letter
By Nathaniel Hawthorne
This masterpiece of literature contains a number of passages so great and complete that a thrilling short story in Hawthorne’s own words is made by their narration, A few connecting explanations are added.
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 inhabitants of Boston; all with their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door. . . .
The door of the jail being flung open from within, there appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into sunshine, the grim and grisly presence of the town-beadle, with a sword by his side, and his staff of office in his hand. . . . Stretching forth the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward; until, on the threshold of the prison-door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free will. She bore in her arms a child, a baby of some three months old, who winked and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of day; because its existence, heretofore, had brought it acquainted only with the gray twilight of a dungeon, or other darksome apartment of the prison. . .
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. . . . And never had Hester Prynne appeared more ladylike. . . . 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. . . . Her attire, which, indeed, she had wrought for the occasion, in prison, and had modeled 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. . . . was the 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 inclosing her in a sphere by herself. . . .
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 Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine! Come along, Madam Hester, and show your scarlet letter in the market-place!”
So, in one of the most moving passages of all literature, Hawthorne introduces us to the young matron Hester Prynne who, having left her aged husband in England some two years before and come to the New World, stood now upon the scaffold of the marketplace, with her nameless baby girl in her arms and on her breast the significant scarlet “A” which proclaimed her shame to all beholders.
The curious throng of neighbors and former friends gathered around as Hester took her place there, with little Pearl in her arms, pressed closer as that eminent divine, the Rev. John Wilson, the oldest minister of Boston, exhorted her to reveal the name of the sharer of her guilt. But Hester was silent under Mr. Wilson s pleading; silent under the gentler exhortation of her own clergyman, the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale. She would not purchase permission to remove that letter from her breast by revealing the identity of him for whose sake she bore it; and at last, the duration of her punishment in the market-place being over, the young woman who was henceforth to walk as an outcast among her kind, was allowed to return to the prison; the crowd dispersed and life in that stern Puritan community resumed its accustomed course.
There were, however, two hearts — in addition to the sorely troubled heart that beat beneath the scarlet letter in which the events of the day had left a deep impression.
Hester’s husband, arriving in the colony in time to witness that scene in the marketplace, had not seen fit to claim his wife before the crowd, but followed her to the prison and gained admission to her as Roger Chillingworth, a physician, whose skill would be of assistance to her in her present state of nervous collapse and exhaustion. “Hester,” said he, “I ask not wherefore, or 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 forseen 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. . . .”
“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 a 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. … I shall seek this man, as I have sought truth in books; as I have sought gold in alchemy. There is a sympathy that will make me conscious of him. I shall see him tremble. I shall feel myself shudder, suddenly and unawares. Sooner or later, he must needs be mine!” The eyes of the wrinkled scholar glowed so intensely upon her, that Hester Prynne clasped her hands over her heart, dreading lest he should read the secret there at once. “Thou wilt not reveal his name? Not the less he is mine,” resumed he, with a look of confidence, as if destiny were at once 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 honor, 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 dishonor 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. Recognize 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. Mercy or the most refined cruelty? No wonder Hester was perplexed at the old scholar’s attitude. But she had given her promise and would keep it. So, after her release from the jail, for seven years she went about the village with two secrets locked in her breast. Bitterness, at first, was hers, and suffering, as she watched her child grow, almost as the wild things of the forest, knowing no companionship other than her mother’s. Pearl became a pretty little girl, elfin and fairylike, but the great “A” which seemed to Hester to burn ever deeper into her very flesh, set Pearl apart from the normal life of the village as it set her mother apart from it. Yet, little by little, the attitude of those who had so bitterly condemned the mother changed. Accepting her ostracism as a means of atoning for her sin, Hester made no effort to regain her former social position. She went her way unobtrusively, gaining a livelihood for herself and child with her clever needlework, always ready to nurse the sick or prepare the dead for burial a self-appointed sister of mercy, winning, by her self-sacrificing devotion, the grudging admiration of the townspeople. But what of Roger Chillingworth — and that unknown other?
Chillingworth had attached himself to the young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale seemed, indeed, greatly in need of a physician’s services. He had grown ever thinner and paler since the day when he had reluctantly added his exhortations to those of the Rev. John Wilson on the market-place scaffold, and he had contracted a habit of placing his hand over his heart as if some secret sorrow rankled there — as if, as in the case of Hester Prynne, some brand, though unseen by the eyes of men, burned ever deeper into his flesh. Chillingworth’s herbs seemed to have no effect upon his health. Chillingworth’s pleased that he discuss whatever was troubling him with his physician were as unavailing.
Then one day (in a scene so beautiful that it must be given in the master’s own words), the minister whom all his little world regarded as a saint and the woman who was visibly branded as a sinner, chanced to meet in the forest. Slowly as the minister walked, he had almost gone by, before Hester Prynne could gather enough voice to attract his observation.
At length she succeeded. “Arthur Dimmesdale!”’ she said, faintly at first; then louder, but hoarseley. “Arthur Dimmesdale!” “Who speaks?” answered the minister. . . Throwing his eyes anxiously in the direction of the voice, he distinctly beheld a form under the trees, clad in garments so somber, and so little relieved from the gray twilight into which the clouded sky and the heavy foliage had darkened the noontide, that he knew not whether it was a woman or a shadow. It may be, that his pathway through life was haunted thus, by a specter that had stolen out from among his thoughts. He made a step nearer, and discovered the scarlet letter.
“Hester! Hester Prynne!” said he. “Is it thou? Art thou in life?”
“Even so!” she answered. “In such lire as has been mine these seven years past! And thou, Arthur Dimmesdale, dost thou yet live?”
It was no wonder that they thus questioned one another’s actual and bodily existence, and even doubted of their own. So strangely did they meet, in the dim wood, that it was like the first encounter, in the world beyond the grave, of two spirits who had been intimately connected in their former life, but now stood coldly shuddering, in mutual dread: as not yet familiar with their state, nor wonted to the companionship of disembodied beings. . . .
Without a word more spoken — neither he nor she assuming the guidance, but with an unexpected consent — they glided back into the shadow of the woods, whence Hester had emerged, and sat down on the heap of moss where she and Pearl had before been sitting. When they found voice to speak, it was, at first, only to utter remarks and inquiries such as any two acquaintances might have made, about the gloomy sky, the threatening storm, and, next, the health of each. Thus they went onward, not boldly, but step by step, into the themes that were brooding deepest in their hearts. So long estranged by fate and circumstances, they needed something slight and casual to run before, and throw open the doors of intercourse, so that their real thoughts might be led across the threshold. After a while, the minister fixed his eyes on Hester Prynne’s.
“Hester,” said he, “hast thou found peace?”
She smiled drearily, looking down upon her bosom.
“Hast thou?” she asked.
“None ! — nothing but despair!” he answered. “What else could I look for, being what I am, and leading such a life as mine? Were I an atheist — a man devoid of conscience — a wretch of coarse and brutal instincts — I might have found peace, long ere now. Nay, I never should have lost it. But, as matters stand with my soul, whatever of good capacity there originally was in me, all of God*s gifts that were the choicest have become the ministers of spiritual torment. Hester, I am most miserable!” Hester reminded him of the reverence with which the community regarded him —but this only increased his despair.
“You wrong yourself in this,” said Hester gently. “You have deeply and sorely repented.
Your sin is left behind you, in the days long past. Your present life is not less holy, in very truth, than it seems in people’s eyes. Is there no reality in the penitence thus sealed and witnessed by good works? And wherefore shall it not bring you peace?”
The unhappy man responded that of penance, self-inflicted, he had had enough, but this seemed to him unavailing. If he might have one friend with whom he might share his secret —a friend or even an enemy who knew the sin that he hid from the knowledge of those who trusted and revered him, lest the scandal of it do unutterable harm to the community.
Hester Prynne looked into his face, hesitated to speak. Yet, uttering his long restrained emotions so vehemently as he did. his words here offered her the very point of circumstances in which to interpose whatever she came to say. She conquered her fears, and spoke.
“Such a friend as thou hast even now wished for,” said she, “with whom to weep over thy sin, thou hast in me, the partner of it!”—Again she hesitated, but brought out the words with an effort—”Thou hast long had such an enemy, and dwellest with him, under the same roof!” The minister started to his feet, gasping for breath, and clutching at his heart, as if he would have torn it out of his bosom. “Oh, Arthur,” cried she, “forgive me! In all things else I have striven to be true! Truth was the one virtue which I might have held fast, and did hold fast, through all extremity, save when thy good—thy life — thy fame—were put in question! Then I consented to a deception. But a lie is never good, even though death threaten on the other side! Dost thou not see what I would say? That old man!—the physician!—he whom they call Roger Chillingworth!—he was my husband!”
The minister looked at her for an instant with all that violence of passion which intermixed, in more shapes than one, with his higher, purer, softer qualities—was, ir fact, the portion of him which the Devil claimed, and through which he sought to win the rest. Never was there a blacker and fiercer frown than Hester now encountered. For the brief space that it lasted it was a dark transfiguration. But his character had been so much enfeebled by suffering that even its lower energies were incapable of more than a temporary struggle. He sank down on the ground, and buried his face in his hands.
“I might have known it.” murmured he. “I did know it! Was not the secret told me in the natural recoil of my heart at the first sight of him, and as often as I have seen him since? Why did I not understand? O Hester Prynne, thou little, little knowest all the horror of this thing! And the shame! — the indelicacy! —the horrible ugliness of this exposure of a sick and guilty heart to the very eye that would gloat over it! Woman, woman, thou art accountable for this! I cannot forgive thee!”
“Thou shalt forgive me!” cried Hester, flinging herself on the fallen leaves beside him. “Let God punish! Thou shalt forgive!” With sudden and desperate tenderness ;he threw her arms around him, and pressed his head against her bosom, little caring though his cheek rested on the scarlet letter. He would have released himself, but strove in vain to do so. Hester would not set him free, lest he should look her sternly in the face. All the world had frowned on her — for seven long years it had frowned upon this lonely woman—and still she bore it all, nor ever once turned away her firm, sad eyes. Heaven, likewise, had frowned upon her, and she had not died. But the frown of this pale, weak, sinful, and sorrowstricken man was what Hester could not bear and live!
“Wilt thou yet forgive me!” she repeated over and over again. “Wilt thou frown? Wilt thou not forgive?”
“I do forgive you, Hester,” replied the minister, at length, with a deep utterance, out of an abyss of sadness, but no anger. “I freely forgive you now. May God forgive us both! We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. . . . That old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so!”
“Never, never!” whispered she. “What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other! Hast thou forgotten it?”
“Hush, Hester!” said Arthur Dimmesdale, rising from the ground. “No; I have not forgotten!”
They sat down again, side by side, and hand clasped in hand, on the mossy trunk of the fallen tree. Life had never brought them a gloomier hour; it was the point whither their pathway had so long been tending, and darkening ever as it stole along —and yet it inclosed a charm that made them linger upon it, and claim another and another, and, after all, another moment. The forest was obscure around them, and creaked with a blast that was passing through it. The boughs were tossing heavily above their heads; while one solemn old tree groaned dolefully to another, as if telling the sad story of the pair that sat beneath, or constrained to forbode evil to come. And yet they lingered. How dreary looked the forest-tract that led backward to the settlement, where Hester Prynne must take up again the burden of ignominy, and the minister the hollow mockery of his good name! So they lingered an instant longer. No golden light had ever been so precious as the gloom of this dark forest. Here, seen only by his eyes, the scarlet letter need not burn into the bosom of the fallen woman! Here, seen only by her eyes, Arthur Dimmesdale, false to God and man, might be for one moment true! He started at the thought that suddenly occurred to him.
“Hester,” cried he, “here is a new horror! Roger Chillingworth knows your purpose to reveal his true character. Will he continue, then, to keep our secret? What will now be the course of his revenge?”
“There is a strange secrecy in his nature,” replied Hester thoughtfully; “and it has grown upon him by the hidden practices of his revenge. I deem it not likely that he will betray the secret. He will doubtless seek other means of satiating his dark passion.”
“And I!—how am I to live longer, breathing the same air with this deadly enemy?” exclaimed Arthur Dimmesdale, shrinking within himself, and pressing his hand nervously against his heart—a gesture that had grown involuntary with him. “Think for me, Hester! Thou art strong. Resolve for me!”
“Thou must dwell no longer with this man,” said Hester, slowly and firmly. “Thy heart must be no longer under his evil eye.” “It were far worse than death!” replied the minister. “But how to avoid it? What choice remains to me? Shall I lie down again on these withered leaves, where I cast myself when thou didst tell me what he was? Must I sink down there, and die at once.
“Is the world, then, so narrow?” exclaimed Hester Prynne, fixing her deep eyes on the minister’s, and instinctively exercising a magnetic power over a spirit so shattered and subdued that it could hardly hold itself erect. “Doth the universe lie within the compass of yonder town, which only a little time ago was but a leaf-strewn desert, as lonely as this around us? Whither leads yonder forest track? Backward to the settlement, thou sayest! Yes, but onward, too. Deeper it goes, and deeper, into the wilderness, less plainly to be seen at every step; until, some few miles hence, the yellow leaves will show no vestige of the white man’s tread. There thou art free! So brief a journey would bring thee from a world where thou hast been most wretched to one where thou mayest still be happy! Is there not shade enough in all this boundless forest to hide thy heart from the gaze of Roger Chillingworth?”
“Yes, Hester; but only under the fallen leaves!” replied the minister, with a sad smile.
“Then there is the broad pathway of the sea!” continued Hester. “It brought thee hither. If thou so choose, it will bear thee back again. In our native land, whether in some remote rural village or in vast London— or surely in Germany, in France, or in pleasant Italy—thou wouldst be beyond his power and knowledge! And what hast thou to do with all these iron men and their opinions? They have kept thy better part in bondage too long already!”
“It cannot be!” answered the minister, listening as if he were called upon to realise a dream. “I am powerless to go! Wretched and sinful as I am, I have had no other thought than to drag on my earthly existence in the sphere where Providence hath placed me. Lost as my own soul is, I would still do what I may for other human souls! I dare not quit my post, though an unfaithful sentinel, whose sure reward is death and dishonor, when his dreary watch shall come to an end!”
“Thou art crushed under this seven years’ weight of misery,” replied Hester, fervently resolved to buoy him up with her own- energy. “But thou shalt leave it all behind thee! . . . Leave this wreck and ruin here where it hath happened. . . ‘. The future is yet full of trial and success. There is happiness to be enjoyed! There is good to be done! Exchange this false life of thine for a true one. Be, if thy spirit summon thee to such a mission, the teacher and apostle of the red men. Or—as it is more thy nature—be a scholar and a sage among the wisest and the most renowned of the cultivated world. Preach! Write! Act! Do anything save to lie down and die! Give up this name of Arthur Dimmesdale, and make thyself another, and a high one, such as thou canst wear without fear or shame. Why shouldst thou tarry so much as one other day in the torments that have so gnawed into thy life!—that have made thee feeble to will and to do!—that will leave thee powerless even to repent! Up and away!”
“O Hester!” cried Arthur Dimmesdale, in whose eyes a fitful light, kindled by her enthusiasm, flashed up and died away, “thou tellest of running a race to a man whose
knees are tottering beneath him! I must die here! There is not strength or courage left me to venture into the wide, strange, difficult world alone!” It was the last expression of the despondency of a broken spirit. He lacked energy to grasp the better fortune that seemed within his reach. He repeated the word. “Alone, Hester!”
“Thou shalt not go alone!” answered she in a deep whisper. Then all was spoken!
One strange loyalty to duty— one pathetic link of pride — delayed the young minister’s flight with Hester and little Pearl on the ship that even now awaited them in the harbor. He was to deliver the Election Sermon — an event of the year— and that task he resolved to perform before he left his flock forever. Before a rapt audience that filled the church and extended into the square before it, he delivered it. Never had he spoken so brilliantly. Never had his eloquence been so moving. “Thus,” (again in the author’s own words) there had come to the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale— as to most men, in their various spheres, though seldom recognized until they see it far behind them—an epoch of life more brilliant and full of triumph than any previous one, or than any which could thereafter be. He stood at this moment on the very proudest eminence of superiority to which the gifts of, intellect, rich lore, prevailing eloquence, and a reputation of whitest sanctity, could exalt a clergyman in New England’s earliest days, when the professional character was of itself a lofty pedestal. Such was the position which the minister occupied, as he bowed his head forward on the cushions of the pulpit, at the close of his Election Sermon. Meanwhile Hester Prynne was standing be,side the scaffold of the pillory, with the scarlet letter still burning on her breast! Now was heard again the clangor of the music, and the measured tramp of the military escort, issuing from the church door. The procession was to be marshaled thence to the town hall, where a solemn banquet would complete the ceremonies of the day.
But in that moment of his triumph, Arthur Dimmesdale’s tortured spirit had found itself unable to endure its burden longer. Suddenly, as the procession moved forward, he forced his way through the crowd to the foot of the Pearl. He extended his hand to the woman of the scarlet letter. “Come, Hester, come. Support me up yonder scaffold!” The crowd was in a tumult. The men of rank and dignity, who stood more immediately around the clergyman, were so taken by surprise, and so perplexed as to the purport of what they saw—unable to receive the explanation which most readily presented itself, or to imagine any other—that they remained silent and inactive spectators of the judgment which Providence seemed about to work. They beheld the minister, leaning on Hester’s shoulder, and supported by her arm around him, approach the scaffold, and ascend its steps; while still the little hand of the sin-born child was clasped in his. Old Roger Chillingworth followed, as one intimately connected with the drama of guilt and sorrow in which they had all been actors, and well entitled, therefore, to be present at its closing scene.
“Hadst thou sought the whole earth over,” said he, looking darkly at the clergy man, “there was no one place so secret — no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me—save on this very scaffold!”
“Thanks be to Him who hath led me hither!” answered the minister.
Yet he trembled, and turned to Hester with an expression of doubt and anxiety in his eyes, not the less evidently betrayed, that there was a feeble smile upon his lips.
“Is not this better,” murmured he, “than what we dreamed of in the forest?”
“I know not! I know not!” she hurriedly replied. “Better? Yea; so we may both die, and little Pearl die with us!” “For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order,” said the minister; “and God is merciful! Let me now do the will which he hath made plain before my sight. For, Hester, I am a dying man. So let me make haste to take my shame upon me!” Partly supported by Hester Prynne, and holding one hand of little Pearl’s, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale turned to the dignified and venerable rulers; to the holy ministers, who were his brethren; to the people, whose great heart was thoroughly appalled, yet overflowing with tearful sympathy, as knowing that some deep life matter—which, if full of sin, was full of anguish and repentance likewise—was now to be laid open to them. . . .
“People of New England!” cried he, with a voice that rose over them, high, solemn, and majestic—yet had always a tremor through it, and sometimes a. shriek, struggling up out of a fathomless depth of remorse and woe—-“ye, that have loved, me!
—ye, that have deemed me holy!—behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last! —at last!—I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood; here, with this- woman, whose arm, more than the little strength wherewith I have crept hitherward, sustains me, at this dreadful moment, from groveling down upon my face! Lo, the scarlet letter which Hester wears! Ye have all shuddered at it! Wherever her walk hath been —wherever, so miserably burdened, she may have hoped to find repose— it hath cast a lurid gleam of awe and horrible repugnance round about her. But there stood one in the midst of you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!”
It seemed, at this point, as if the minister must leave the remainder of his secret undisclosed. But he fought back the bodily weakness—and, still more, the faintness of heart — that was striving for the mastery with him. … “It was on him!” he continued, with a kind of fierceness; so determined was he to speak out the whole. “God’s eye beheld it!
The angels were forever pointing at it! The Devil knew it well, and fretted it continually with the touch of his burning finger! But he hid it cunningly from men, and walked among you with the mein of a spirit, mournful, because so pure in a sinful world! —and sad, because he missed his heavenly kindred! Now, at the death hour, he stands up before you! He bids you look again at Hester’s scarlet letter! He tells you that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! Stand any here that question God’s judgment on a sinner? Behold! Behold a dreadful witness of it!” With a convulsive motion, he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe that revelation. For an instant, the gaze of the horror-stricken multitude was concentrated on the ghastly miracle; while the minister stood, with a flush of triumph in his face, as one who in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory. Then, down he sank upon the scaffold! Hester partly raised him, and supported his head against her bosom. Old Roger Chillingworth knelt down beside him, with a blank, dull countenance, out of which the life seemed to have departed. “Thou hast escaped me!” he repeated more than once. “Thou hast escaped me!” “May God forgive thee!” said the minister.
“Thou, too, hast depely sinned!” He withdrew his dying eyes from the old man and fixed them on the woman and the child.
“My little Pearl,” said he feebly — and there was a sweet and gentle smile over his face, as of a spirit sinking into deep repose; nay, now that the burden was removed, it seemed almost as if he would be sportive with the child—-“dear little Pearl; wilt thou kiss me now? Thou wouldst not, yonder, in the forest! But now thou wilt?” Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies, and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it. Toward her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.
“Hester,” said the clergyman, “farewell!”
“Shall we not meet again?” whispered she, bending her face down close to his.
“Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe! Thou lookest far into eternity, with those bright, dying eyes! Then tell me what thou seest?”
“Hush, Hester, hush!” said he, with a tremulous solemnity. “The law we broke! —the sin here so awfully revealed!—let these alone be thy thoughts! I fear! I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God—when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul—it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion. God knows; and he is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat! By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost forever!
Praised be His name! His will be done! Farewell!”
That final word came forth with the minister’s expiring breath. The multitude, silent till then, broke out in a strange, deep voice of awe and wonder, which could not as yet find utterance, save in this murmur that rolled so heavily after the departed spirit. So passed Arthur Dimmesdale.
Roger Chillingworth, we are told, withered slowly to his death as if, with Hester’s secret known and the possibility of revenge taken out of his hands, he had no further interest in living. Hester lived on, respected but aloof, in the community that had witnessed her shame and her life-long atonement. Pearl, upon reaching young womanhood, married and went to live in a kindlier and more tolerant society. And out of the sin and the suffering of these characters—whether they actually lived or were only figments of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s imagination — has been woven one of the greatest novels which the genius of America has ever produced.