University of Virginia Library


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16. XVI.

Hester Prynne remained constant in her resolve to
make known to Mr. Dimmesdale, at whatever risk of
present pain or ulterior consequences, the true character
of the man who had crept into his intimacy. For
several days, however, she vainly sought an opportunity
of addressing him in some of the meditative
walks which she knew him to be in the habit of taking,
along the shores of the peninsula, or on the wooded
hills of the neighbouring country. There would have
been no scandal, indeed, nor peril to the holy whiteness
of the clergyman's good fame, had she visited him in
his own study; where many a penitent, ere now, had
confessed sins of perhaps as deep a die as the one betokened
by the scarlet letter. But, partly that she
dreaded the secret or undisguised interference of old
Roger Chillingworth, and partly that her conscious
heart imputed suspicion where none could have been
felt, and partly that both the minister and she would
need the whole wide world to breathe in, while they
talked together,—for all these reasons, Hester never
thought of meeting him in any narrower privacy than
beneath the open sky.

At last, while attending in a sick-chamber, whither


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the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale had been summoned to
make a prayer, she learnt that he had gone, the day
before, to visit the Apostle Eliot, among his Indian
converts. He would probably return, by a certain
hour, in the afternoon of the morrow. Betimes, therefore,
the next day, Hester took little Pearl,—who was
necessarily the companion of all her mother's expeditions,
however inconvenient her presence,—and set

The road, after the two wayfarers had crossed from
the peninsula to the mainland, was no other than a
footpath. It straggled onward into the mystery of the
primeval forest. This hemmed it in so narrowly, and
stood so black and dense on either side, and disclosed
such imperfect glimpses of the sky above, that, to Hester's
mind, it imaged not amiss the moral wilderness in
which she had so long been wandering. The day was
chill and sombre. Overhead was a gray expanse of
cloud, slightly stirred, however, by a breeze; so that a
gleam of flickering sunshine might now and then be
seen at its solitary play along the path. This flitting
cheerfulness was always at the farther extremity of
some long vista through the forest. The sportive sunlight—feebly
sportive, at best, in the predominant pensiveness
of the day and scene—withdrew itself as they
came nigh, and left the spots where it had danced the
drearier, because they had hoped to find them bright.

“Mother,” said little Pearl, “the sunshine does not
love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is
afraid of something on your bosom. Now, see! There
it is, playing, a good way off. Stand you here, and let


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me run and catch it. I am but a child. It will not flee
from me; for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!”

“Nor ever will, my child, I hope,” said Hester.

“And why not, mother?” asked Pearl, stopping
short, just at the beginning of her race. “Will not it
come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?”

“Run away, child,” answered her mother, “and
catch the sunshine! It will soon be gone.”

Pearl set forth, at a great pace, and, as Hester smiled
to perceive, did actually catch the sunshine, and stood
laughing in the midst of it, all brightened by its splendor,
and scintillating with the vivacity excited by rapid
motion. The light lingered about the lonely child, as
if glad of such a playmate, until her mother had drawn
almost nigh enough to step into the magic circle too.

“It will go now!” said Pearl, shaking her head.

“See!” answered Hester, smiling. “Now I can
stretch out my hand, and grasp some of it.”

As she attempted to do so, the sunshine vanished;
or, to judge from the bright expression that was dancing
on Pearl's features, her mother could have fancied
that the child had absorbed it into herself, and would
give it forth again, with a gleam about her path, as
they should plunge into some gloomier shade. There
was no other attribute that so much impressed her with
a sense of new and untransmitted vigor in Pearl's nature,
as this never-failing vivacity of spirits; she had
not the disease of sadness, which almost all children, in
these latter days, inherit, with the scrofula, from the
troubles of their ancestors. Perhaps this too was a
disease, and but the reflex of the wild energy with


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which Hester had fought against her sorrows, before
Pearl's birth. It was certainly a doubtful charm, imparting
a hard, metallic lustre to the child's character.
She wanted—what some people want throughout life
—a grief that should deeply touch her, and thus humanize
and make her capable of sympathy. But there
was time enough yet for little Pearl!

“Come, my child!” said Hester, looking about her,
from the spot where Pearl had stood still in the sunshine.
“We will sit down a little way within the wood,
and rest ourselves.”

“I am not aweary, mother,” replied the little girl.
“But you may sit down, if you will tell me a story

“A story, child!” said Hester. “And about

“O, a story about the Black Man!” answered Pearl,
taking hold of her mother's gown, and looking up, half
earnestly, half mischievously, into her face. “How he
haunts this forest, and carries a book with him,—a big,
heavy book, with iron clasps; and how this ugly Black
Man offers his book and an iron pen to every body that
meets him here among the trees; and they are to write
their names with their own blood. And then he sets
his mark on their bosoms! Didst thou ever meet the
Black Man, mother?”

“And who told you this story, Pearl?” asked her
mother, recognizing a common superstition of the

“It was the old dame in the chimney-corner, at the
house where you watched last night,” said the child.


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“But she fancied me asleep while she was talking of
it. She said that a thousand and a thousand people had
met him here, and had written in his book, and have
his mark on them. And that ugly-tempered lady, old
Mistress Hibbins, was one. And, mother, the old dame
said that this scarlet letter was the Black Man's mark
on thee, and that it glows like a red flame when thou
meetest him at midnight, here in the dark wood. Is
it true, mother? And dost thou go to meet him in the

“Didst thou ever awake, and find thy mother
gone?” asked Hester.

“Not that I remember,” said the child. “If thou
fearest to leave me in our cottage, thou mightest take
me along with thee. I would very gladly go! But,
mother, tell me now! Is there such a Black Man?
And didst thou ever meet him? And is this his

“Wilt thou let me be at peace, if I once tell thee?”
asked her mother.

“Yes, if thou tellest me all,” answered Pearl.

“Once in my life I met the Black Man!” said her
mother. “This scarlet letter is his mark!”

Thus conversing, they entered sufficiently deep into
the wood to secure themselves from the observation of
any casual passenger along the forest-track. Here they
sat down on a luxuriant heap of moss; which, at some
epoch of the preceding century, had been a gigantic
pine, with its roots and trunk in the darksome shade,
and its head aloft in the upper atmosphere. It was a
little dell where they had seated themselves, with a leaf-strewn


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bank rising gently on either side, and a brook
flowing through the midst, over a bed of fallen and
drowned leaves. The trees impending over it had
flung down great branches, from time to time, which
choked up the current, and compelled it to form eddies
and black depths at some points; while, in its swifter
and livelier passages, there appeared a channel-way of
pebbles, and brown, sparkling sand. Letting the eyes
follow along the course of the stream, they could catch
the reflected light from its water, at some short distance
within the forest, but soon lost all traces of it
amid the bewilderment of tree-trunks and underbrush,
and here and there a huge rock, covered over with
gray lichens. All these giant trees and boulders of
granite seemed intent on making a mystery of the
course of this small brook; fearing, perhaps, that, with
its never-ceasing loquacity, it should whisper tales out
of the heart of the old forest whence it flowed, or
mirror its revelations on the smooth surface of a pool.
Continually, indeed, as it stole onward, the streamlet
kept up a babble, kind, quiet, soothing, but melancholy,
like the voice of a young child that was spending its
infancy without playfulness, and knew not how to be
merry among sad acquaintance and events of sombre

“O brook! O foolish and tiresome little brook!”
cried Pearl, after listening awhile to its talk. “Why
art thou so sad? Pluck up a spirit, and do not be all
the time sighing and murmuring!”

But the brook, in the course of its little lifetime
among the forest-trees, had gone through so solemn an


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experience that it could not help talking about it, and
seemed to have nothing else to say. Pearl resembled
the brook, inasmuch as the current of her life gushed
from a well-spring as mysterious, and had flowed
through scenes shadowed as heavily with gloom. But,
unlike the little stream, she danced and sparkled, and
prattled airily along her course.

“What does this sad little brook say, mother?” inquired

“If thou hadst a sorrow of thine own, the brook
might tell thee of it,” answered her mother, “even as it
is telling me of mine! But now, Pearl, I hear a footstep
along the path, and the noise of one putting aside
the branches. I would have thee betake thyself to
play, and leave me to speak with him that comes yonder.”

“Is it the Black Man?” asked Pearl.

“Wilt thou go and play, child?” repeated her mother.
“But do not stray far into the wood. And take
heed that thou come at my first call.”

“Yes, mother,” answered Pearl. “But, if it be the
Black Man, wilt thou not let me stay a moment, and
look at him, with his big book under his arm?”

“Go, silly child!” said her mother, impatiently.
“It is no Black Man! Thou canst see him now
through the trees. It is the minister!”

“And so it is!” said the child. “And, mother, he
has his hand over his heart! Is it because, when the
minister wrote his name in the book, the Black Man
set his mark in that place? But why does he not
wear it outside his bosom, as thou dost, mother?”


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“Go now, child, and thou shalt tease me as thou
wilt another time” cried Hester Prynne. “But do
not stray far. Keep where thou canst hear the babble
of the brook.”

The child went singing away, following up the current
of the brook, and striving to mingle a more lightsome
cadence with its melancholy voice. But the little
stream would not be comforted, and still kept telling its
unintelligible secret of some very mournful mystery
that had happened—or making a prophetic lamentation
about something that was yet to happen—within
the verge of the dismal forest. So Pearl, who had
enough of shadow in her own little life, chose to break
off all acquaintance with this repining brook. She set
herself, therefore, to gathering violets and wood-anemones,
and some scarlet columbines that she found
growing in the crevices of a high rock.

When her elf-child had departed, Hester Prynne
made a step or two towards the track that led through
the forest, but still remained under the deep shadow of
the trees. She beheld the minister advancing along
the path, entirely alone, and leaning on a staff which
he had cut by the way-side. He looked haggard and
feeble, and betrayed a nerveless despondency in his
air, which had never so remarkably characterized him
in his walks about the settlement, nor in any other situation
where he deemed himself liable to notice. Here
it was wofully visible, in this intense seclusion of the
forest, which of itself would have been a heavy trial to
the spirits. There was a listlessness in his gait; as if
he saw no reason for taking one step farther, nor felt


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any desire to do so, but would have been glad, could he
be glad of any thing, to fling himself down at the root
of the nearest tree, and lie there passive for evermore.
The leaves might bestrew him, and the soil gradually
accumulate and form a little hillock over his frame, no
matter whether there were life in it or no. Death was
too definite an object to be wished for, or avoided.

To Hester's eye, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale exhibited
no symptom of positive and vivacious suffering,
except that, as little Pearl had remarked, he kept his
hand over his heart.