University of Virginia Library


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4. IV.

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


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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


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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
certain 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 recognize
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

“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


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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

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

“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 any thing. 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


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I do better for my object than to let thee live,—than
to give thee medicines against all harm and peril of life,
—so that this burning shame may still blaze upon thy
bosom?”—As he spoke, he laid his long forefinger
on the scarlet letter, which forthwith seemed to scorch
into Hester's breast, as if it had been red-hot. He noticed
her involuntary gesture, and smiled.—“Live,
therefore, and bear about thy doom with thee, in the
eyes of men and women,—in the eyes of him whom
thou didst call thy husband,—in the eyes of yonder
child! And, that thou mayest live, take off this

Without further expostulation or delay, Hester
Prynne drained the cup, and, at the motion of the man
of skill, seated herself on the bed where the child was
sleeping; while he drew the only chair which the room
afforded, and took his own seat beside her. She could
not but tremble at these preparations; for she felt that
—having now done all that humanity, or principle, or,
if so it were, a refined cruelty, impelled him to do, for
the relief of physical suffering—he was next to treat
with her as the man whom she had most deeply and
irreparably injured.

“Hester,” said he, “I ask not wherefore, nor how,
thou hast fallen into the pit, or say rather, thou hast
ascended to the pedestal of infamy, on which I found
thee. The reason is not far to seek. It was my folly,
and thy weakness. I,—a man of thought,—the bookworm
of great libraries,—a man already in decay,
having given my best years to feed the hungry dream
of knowledge,—what had I to do with youth and


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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.


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“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
philosophized in vain, I seek no vengeance, plot no
evil against thee. Between thee and me, the scale
hangs fairly balanced. But, Hester, the man lives who
has wronged us both! Who is he?”

“Ask me not!” replied Hester Prynne, looking
firmly into his face. “That thou shalt never know!”

“Never, sayest thou?” rejoined he, with a smile of
dark and self-relying intelligence. “Never know him!
Believe me, Hester, there are few things,—whether in
the outward world, or, to a certain depth, in the invisible
sphere of thought,—few things hidden from the
man, who devotes himself earnestly and unreservedly
to the solution of a mystery. Thou mayest cover up
thy secret from the prying multitude. Thou mayest
conceal it, too, from the ministers and magistrates,
even as thou didst this day, when they sought to wrench
the name out of thy heart, and give thee a partner on
thy pedestal. But, as for me, I come to the inquest
with other senses than they possess. I shall seek
this man, as I have sought truth in books; as I have
sought gold in alchemy. There is a sympathy that
will make me conscious of him. I shall see him tremble.
I shall feel myself shudder, suddenly and unawares.
Sooner or later, he must needs be mine!”

The eyes of the wrinkled scholar glowed so intensely
upon her, that Hester Prynne clasped her hands over
her heart, dreading lest he should read the secret there
at once.


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“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
honor, if he may! Not the less he shall be

“Thy acts are like mercy,” said Hester, bewildered
and appalled. “But thy words interpret thee as a

“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

“Wherefore dost thou desire it?” inquired Hester,


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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.

“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!”