University of Virginia Library


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14. XIV.

Hester bade little Pearl run down to the margin of
the water, and play with the shells and tangled sea-weed,
until she should have talked awhile with yonder
gatherer of herbs. So the child flew away like a bird,
and, making bare her small white feet, went pattering
along the moist margin of the sea. Here and there,
she came to a full stop, and peeped curiously into a
pool, left by the retiring tide as a mirror for Pearl to
see her face in. Forth peeped at her, out of the pool,
with dark, glistening curls around her head, and an elf-smile
in her eyes, the image of a little maid, whom
Pearl, having no other playmate, invited to take her
hand and run a race with her. But the visionary little
maid, on her part, beckoned likewise, as if to say,—
“This is a better place! Come thou into the pool!”
And Pearl, stepping in, mid-leg deep, beheld her own
white feet at the bottom; while, out of a still lower
depth, came the gleam of a kind of fragmentary smile,
floating to and fro in the agitated water.

Meanwhile, her mother had accosted the physician.

“I would speak a word with you,” said she,—“a
word that concerns us much.”

“Aha! And is it Mistress Hester that has a word


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for old Roger Chillingworth?” answered he, raising
himself from his stooping posture. “With all my
heart! Why, Mistress, I hear good tidings of you on
all hands! No longer ago than yester-eve, a magistrate,
a wise and godly man, was discoursing of your
affairs, Mistress Hester, and whispered me that there
had been question concerning you in the council. It
was debated whether or no, with safety to the common
weal, yonder scarlet letter might be taken off your
bosom. On my life, Hester, I made my entreaty to the
worshipful magistrate that it might be done forthwith!”

“It lies not in the pleasure of the magistrates to take
off this badge,” calmly replied Hester. “Were I
worthy to be quit of it, it would fall away of its own
nature, or be transformed into something that should
speak a different purport.”

“Nay, then, wear it, if it suit you better,” rejoined
he. “A woman must needs follow her own fancy,
touching the adornment of her person. The letter is
gayly embroidered, and shows right bravely on your

All this while, Hester had been looking steadily at
the old man, and was shocked, as well as wonder-smitten,
to discern what a change had been wrought upon
him within the past seven years. It was not so much
that he had grown older; for though the traces of advancing
life were visible, he bore his age well, and
seemed to retain a wiry vigor and alertness. But the
former aspect of an intellectual and studious man, calm
and quiet, which was what she best remembered in him,


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had altogether vanished, and been succeeded by an
eager, searching, almost fierce, yet carefully guarded
look. It seemed to be his wish and purpose to mask
this expression with a smile; but the latter played him
false, and flickered over his visage so derisively, that
the spectator could see his blackness all the better for
it. Ever and anon, too, there came a glare of red light
out of his eyes; as if the old man's soul were on fire,
and kept on smouldering duskily within his breast, until,
by some casual puff of passion, it was blown into
a momentary flame. This he repressed as speedily as
possible, and strove to look as if nothing of the kind
had happened.

In a word, old Roger Chillingworth was a striking
evidence of man's faculty of transforming himself into
a devil, if he will only, for a reasonable space of time,
undertake a devil's office. This unhappy person had
effected such a transformation by devoting himself, for
seven years, to the constant analysis of a heart full of
torture, and deriving his enjoyment thence, and adding
fuel to those fiery tortures which he analyzed and gloated

The scarlet letter burned on Hester Prynne's bosom.
Here was another ruin, the responsibility of which
came partly home to her.

“What see you in my face,” asked the physician,
“that you look at it so earnestly?”

“Something that would make me weep, if there were
any tears bitter enough for it,” answered she. “But
let it pass! It is of yonder miserable man that I would


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“And what of him?” cried Roger Chillingworth
eagerly, as if he loved the topic, and were glad of an
opportunity to discuss it with the only person of whom
he could make a confidant. “Not to hide the truth,
Mistress Hester, my thoughts happen just now to be
busy with the gentleman. So speak freely; and I will
make answer.”

“When we last spake together,” said Hester, “now
seven years ago, it was your pleasure to extort a promise
of secrecy, as touching the former relation betwixt
yourself and me. As the life and good fame of
yonder man were in your hands, there seemed no
choice to me, save to be silent, in accordance with
your behest. Yet it was not without heavy misgivings
that I thus bound myself; for, having cast off all duty
towards other human beings, there remained a duty
towards him; and something whispered me that I was
betraying it, in pledging myself to keep your counsel.
Since that day, no man is so near to him as you. You
tread behind his every footstep. You are beside him,
sleeping and waking. You search his thoughts. You
burrow and rankle in his heart! Your clutch is on his
life, and you cause him to die daily a living death;
and still he knows you not. In permitting this, I have
surely acted a false part by the only man to whom the
power was left me to be true!”

“What choice had you?” asked Roger Chillingworth.
“My finger, pointed at this man, would have
hurled him from his pulpit into a dungeon,—thence,
peradventure, to the gallows!”

“It had been better so!” said Hester Prynne.


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“What evil have I done the man?” asked Roger
Chillingworth again. “I tell thee, Hester Prynne, the
richest fee that ever physician earned from monarch
could not have bought such care as I have wasted on
this miserable priest! But for my aid, his life would
have burned away in torments, within the first two
years after the perpetration of his crime and thine.
For, Hester, his spirit lacked the strength that could
have borne up, as thine has, beneath a burden like
thy scarlet letter. O, I could reveal a goodly secret!
But enough! What art can do, I have exhausted on
him. That he now breathes, and creeps about on
earth, is owing all to me!”

“Better he had died at once!” said Hester Prynne.

“Yea, woman, thou sayest truly!” cried old Roger
Chillingworth, letting the lurid fire of his heart blaze
out before her eyes. “Better had he died at once!
Never did mortal suffer what this man has suffered.
And all, all, in the sight of his worst enemy! He has
been conscious of me. He has felt an influence dwelling
always upon him like a curse. He knew, by some
spiritual sense,—for the Creator never made another
being so sensitive as this,—he knew that no friendly
hand was pulling at his heart-strings, and that an eye
was looking curiously into him, which sought only evil,
and found it. But he knew not that the eye and hand
were mine! With the superstition common to his
brotherhood, he fancied himself given over to a fiend,
to be tortured with frightful dreams, and desperate
thoughts, the sting of remorse, and despair of pardon;
as a foretaste of what awaits him beyond the grave.


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But it was the constant shadow of my presence!—the
closest propinquity of the man whom he had most vilely
wronged!—and who had grown to exist only by
this perpetual poison of the direst revenge! Yea, indeed!—he
did not err!—there was a fiend at his
elbow! A mortal man, with once a human heart, has
become a fiend for his especial torment!”

The unfortunate physician, while uttering these words,
lifted his hands with a look of horror, as if he had beheld
some frightful shape, which he could not recognize,
usurping the place of his own image in a glass.
It was one of those moments—which sometimes occur
only at the interval of years—when a man's moral
aspect is faithfully revealed to his mind's eye. Not
improbably, he had never before viewed himself as he
did now.

“Hast thou not tortured him enough?” said Hester,
noticing the old man's look. “Has he not paid thee

“No!—no!—He has but increased the debt!”
answered the physician; and, as he proceeded, his
manner lost its fiercer characteristics, and subsided
into gloom. “Dost thou remember me, Hester, as I
was nine years agone? Even then, I was in the
autumn of my days, nor was it the early autumn.
But all my life had been made up of earnest, studious,
thoughtful, quiet years, bestowed faithfully for the increase
of mine own knowledge, and faithfully, too,
though this latter object was but casual to the other,—
faithfully for the advancement of human welfare. No
life had been more peaceful and innocent than mine;


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few lives so rich with benefits conferred. Dost thou
remember me? Was I not, though you might deem
me cold, nevertheless a man thoughtful for others,
craving little for himself,—kind, true, just, and of constant,
if not warm affections? Was I not all this?”

“All this, and more,” said Hester.

“And what am I now?” demanded he, looking into
her face, and permitting the whole evil within him to
be written on his features. “I have already told thee
what I am! A fiend! Who made me so?”

“It was myself!” cried Hester, shuddering. “It
was I, not less than he. Why hast thou not avenged
thyself on me?”

“I have left thee to the scarlet letter,” replied Roger
Chillingworth. “If that have not avenged me, I can do
no more!”

He laid his finger on it, with a smile.

“It has avenged thee!” answered Hester Prynne.

“I judged no less,” said the physician. “And now,
what wouldst thou with me touching this man?”

“I must reveal the secret,” answered Hester, firmly.
“He must discern thee in thy true character.
What may be the result, I know not. But this long
debt of confidence, due from me to him, whose bane
and ruin I have been, shall at length be paid. So far
as concerns the overthrow or preservation of his fair
fame and his earthly state, and perchance his life, he
is in thy hands. Nor do I,—whom the scarlet letter
has disciplined to truth, though it be the truth of red-hot
iron, entering into the soul,—nor do I perceive
such advantage in his living any longer a life of ghastly


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emptiness, that I shall stoop to implore thy mercy.
Do with him as thou wilt! There is no good for him,
—no good for me,—no good for thee! There is no
good for little Pearl! There is no path to guide us
out of this dismal maze!”

“Woman, I could wellnigh pity thee!” said Roger
Chillingworth, unable to restrain a thrill of admiration
too; for there was a quality almost majestic in the despair
which she expressed. “Thou hadst great elements.
Peradventure, hadst thou met earlier with a
better love than mine, this evil had not been. I pity
thee, for the good that has been wasted in thy nature!”

“And I thee,” answered Hester Prynne, “for the
hatred that has transformed a wise and just man to a
fiend! Wilt thou yet purge it out of thee, and be once
more human? If not for his sake, then doubly for
thine own! Forgive, and leave his further retribution
to the Power that claims it! I said, but now, that
there could be no good event for him, or thee, or me,
who are here wandering together in this gloomy maze
of evil, and stumbling, at every step, over the guilt
wherewith we have strewn our path. It is not so!
There might be good for thee, and thee alone, since
thou hast been deeply wronged, and hast it at thy will
to pardon. Wilt thou give up that only privilege?
Wilt thou reject that priceless benefit?”

“Peace, Hester, peace!” replied the old man, with
gloomy sternness. “It is not granted me to pardon.
I have no such power as thou tellest me of. My old
faith, long forgotten, comes back to me, and explains
all that we do, and all we suffer. By thy first step


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awry, thou didst plant the germ of evil; but, since that
moment, it has all been a dark necessity. Ye that
have wronged me are not sinful, save in a kind of
typical illusion; neither am I fiend-like, who have
snatched a fiend's office from his hands. It is our
fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may! Now
go thy ways, and deal as thou wilt with yonder man.”

He waved his hand, and betook himself again to
his employment of gathering herbs.