University of Virginia Library


Page 230

17. XVII.

Slowly as the minister walked, he had almost gone
by, before Hester Prynne could gather voice enough to
attract his observation. At length, she succeeded.

“Arthur Dimmesdale!” she said, faintly at first;
then louder, but hoarsely. “Arthur Dimmesdale!”

“Who speaks?” answered the minister.

Gathering himself quickly up, he stood more erect,
like a man taken by surprise in a mood to which he
was reluctant to have witnesses. Throwing his eyes
anxiously in the direction of the voice, he indistinctly
beheld a form under the trees, clad in garments so
sombre, 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
were a woman or a shadow. It may be, that his pathway
through life was haunted thus, by a spectre that
had stolen out from among his thoughts.

He made a step nigher, and discovered the scarlet

“Hester! Hester Prynne!” said he. “Is it thou?
Art thou in life?”

“Even so!” she answered. “In such life as has
been mine these seven years past! And thou, Arthur
Dimmesdale, dost thou yet live?”


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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. Each a ghost, and awe-stricken
at the other ghost! They were awe-stricken likewise
at themselves; because the crisis flung back to them
their consciousness, and revealed to each heart its history
and experience, as life never does, except at such
breathless epochs. The soul beheld its features in the
mirror of the passing moment. It was with fear, and
tremulously, and, as it were, by a slow, reluctant necessity,
that Arthur Dimmesdale put forth his hand,
chill as death, and touched the chill hand of Hester
Prynne. The grasp, cold as it was, took away what
was dreariest in the interview. They now felt themselves,
at least, inhabitants of the same sphere.

Without a word more spoken,—neither he nor she
assuming the guidance, but with an unexpressed 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 acquaintance
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,


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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

“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 with 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!”

“The people reverence thee,” said Hester. “And
surely thou workest good among them! Doth this
bring thee no comfort?”

“More misery, Hester!—only the more misery!”
answered the clergyman, with a bitter smile. “As
concerns the good which I may appear to do, I have
no faith in it. It must needs be a delusion. What can
a ruined soul, like mine, effect towards the redemption
of other souls?—or a polluted soul, towards their purification?
And as for the people's reverence, would
that it were turned to scorn and hatred! Canst thou


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deem it, Hester, a consolation, that I must stand up in
my pulpit, and meet so many eyes turned upward to my
face, as if the light of heaven were beaming from it!
—must see my flock hungry for the truth, and listening
to my words as if a tongue of Pentecost were
speaking!—and then look inward, and discern the
black reality of what they idolize? I have laughed, in
bitterness and agony of heart, at the contrast between
what I seem and what I am! And Satan laughs at

“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 should it not bring you peace?”

“No, Hester, no!” replied the clergyman. “There
is no substance in it! It is cold and dead, and can do
nothing for me! Of penance I have had enough! Of
penitence there has been none! Else, I should long
ago have thrown off these garments of mock holiness,
and have shown myself to mankind as they will see
me at the judgment-seat. Happy are you, Hester, that
wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine
burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief it
is, after the torment of a seven years' cheat, to look
into an eye that recognizes me for what I am! Had
I one friend,—or were it my worst enemy!—to whom,
when sickened with the praises of all other men, I
could daily betake myself, and be known as the vilest


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of all sinners, methinks my soul might keep itself alive
thereby. Even thus much of truth would save me!
But, now, it is all falsehood!—all emptiness!—all

Hester Prynne looked into his face, but 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 what
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.

“Ha! What sayest thou?” cried he. “An enemy!
And under mine own roof! What mean you?”

Hester Prynne was now fully sensible of the deep
injury for which she was responsible to this unhappy
man, in permitting him to lie for so many years, or,
indeed, for a single moment, at the mercy of one,
whose purposes could not be other than malevolent.
The very contiguity of his enemy, beneath whatever
mask the latter might conceal himself, was enough to
disturb the magnetic sphere of a being so sensitive as
Arthur Dimmesdale. There had been a period when
Hester was less alive to this consideration; or, perhaps,
in the misanthropy of her own trouble, she left the


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minister to bear what she might picture to herself as a
more tolerable doom. But of late, since the night of
his vigil, all her sympathies towards him had been both
softened and invigorated. She now read his heart
more accurately. She doubted not, that the continual
presence of Roger Chillingworth,—the secret poison
of his malignity, infecting all the air about him,—and
his authorized interference, as a physician, with the
minister's physical and spiritual infirmities,—that these
bad opportunities had been turned to a cruel purpose.
By means of them, the sufferer's conscience had been
kept in an irritated state, the tendency of which was,
not to cure by wholesome pain, but to disorganize and
corrupt his spiritual being. Its result, on earth, could
hardly fail to be insanity, and hereafter, that eternal
alienation from the Good and True, of which madness
is perhaps the earthly type.

Such was the ruin to which she had brought the
man, once,—nay, why should we not speak it?—
still so passionately loved! Hester felt that the sacrifice
of the clergyman's good name, and death itself, as
she had already told Roger Chillingworth, would have
been infinitely preferable to the alternative which she
had taken upon herself to choose. And now, rather
than have had this grievous wrong to confess, she
would gladly have lain down on the forest-leaves, and
died there, at Arthur Dimmesdale's feet.

“O 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,


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—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, in fact, the portion of him which the Devil
claimed, and through which he sought to win the rest.
Never was there a blacker or a 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!”


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With sudden and desperate tenderness, she 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 had
it 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
sorrow-stricken man was what Hester could not bear,
and live!

“Wilt thou yet forgive me?” she repeated, over
and over again. “Wilt thou not frown? Wilt thou

“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. There is one worse than
even the polluted priest! 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


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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 forebode evil to come.

And yet they lingered. How dreary looked the
forest-track that led backward to the settlement, where
Hester Prynne must take up again the burden of her
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,

He started at a thought that suddenly occurred to

“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


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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

“Alas, what a ruin has befallen thee!” said Hester,
with the tears gushing into her eyes. “Wilt thou die
for very weakness? There is no other cause!”

“The judgment of God is on me,” answered the
conscience-stricken priest. “It is too mighty for me
to struggle with!”

“Heaven would show mercy,” rejoined Hester,
“hadst thou but the strength to take advantage of it.”

“Be thou strong for me!” answered he. “Advise
me what to do.”

“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


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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, 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 realize 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


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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

“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! It shall not cumber thy steps, as
thou treadest along the forest-path; neither shalt thou
freight the ship with it, if thou prefer to cross the sea.
Leave this wreck and ruin here where it hath happened!
Meddle no more with it! Begin all anew!
Hast thou exhausted possibility in the failure of this
one trial? Not so! 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 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 any thing,
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


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man whose knees are tottering beneath him! I must
die here. There is not the strength or courage left
me to venture into the wide, strange, difficult world,

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

Then, all was spoken!