University of Virginia Library


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2. II.

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 the inhabitants
of Boston; all with their eyes intently fastened
on the iron-clamped oaken door. Amongst any
other population, or at a later period in the history of
New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the
bearded physiognomies of these good people would
have augured some awful business in hand. It could
have betokened nothing short of the anticipated execution
of some noted culprit, on whom the sentence of a
legal tribunal had but confirmed the verdict of public
sentiment. But, in that early severity of the Puritan
character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably
be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant,
or an undutiful child, whom his parents had
given over to the civil authority, was to be corrected at
the whipping-post. It might be, that an Antinomian,
a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be
scourged out of the town, or an idle and vagrant Indian,
whom the white man's fire-water had made riotous about
the streets, was to be driven with stripes into the shadow
of the forest. It might be, too, that a witch, like old


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Mistress Hibbins, the bitter-tempered widow of the
magistrate, was to die upon the gallows. In either
case, there was very much the same solemnity of demeanour
on the part of the spectators; as befitted a
people amongst whom religion and law were almost
identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly
interfused, that the mildest and the severest acts
of public discipline were alike made venerable and
awful. Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy
that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders
at the scaffold. On the other hand, a penalty
which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking
infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost
as stern a dignity as the punishment of death

It was a circumstance to be noted, on the summer
morning when our story begins its course, that the
women, of whom there were several in the crowd, appeared
to take a peculiar interest in whatever penal
infliction might be expected to ensue. The age had
not so much refinement, that any sense of impropriety
restrained the wearers of petticoat and farthingale from
stepping forth into the public ways, and wedging their
not unsubstantial persons, if occasion were, into the
throng nearest to the scaffold at an execution. Morally,
as well as materially, there was a coarser fibre in those
wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding,
than in their fair descendants, separated from them by
a series of six or seven generations; for, throughout
that chain of ancestry, every successive mother has
transmitted to her child a fainter bloom, a more delicate


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and briefer beauty, and a slighter physical frame, if not
a character of less force and solidity, than her own.
The women, who were now standing about the prison-door,
stood within less than half a century of the period
when the man-like Elizabeth had been the not altogether
unsuitable representative of the sex. They were her
countrywomen; and the beef and ale of their native
land, with a moral diet not a whit more refined, entered
largely into their composition. The bright morning
sun, therefore, shone on broad shoulders and well-developed
busts, and on round and ruddy cheeks, that had
ripened in the far-off island, and had hardly yet grown
paler or thinner in the atmosphere of New England.
There was, moreover, a boldness and rotundity of
speech among these matrons, as most of them seemed
to be, that would startle us at the present day, whether
in respect to its purport or its volume of tone.

“Goodwives,” said a hard-featured dame of fifty,
“I'll tell ye a piece of my mind. It would be greatly
for the public behoof, if we women, being of mature
age and church-members in good repute, should have
the handling of such malefactresses as this Hester
Prynne. What think ye, gossips? If the hussy stood
up for judgment before us five, that are now here in a
knot together, would she come off with such a sentence
as the worshipful magistrates have awarded? Marry,
I trow not!”

“People say,” said another, “that the Reverend
Master Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very
grievously to heart that such a scandal should have
come upon his congregation.”


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“The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but
merciful overmuch,—that is a truth,” added a third
autumnal matron. “At the very least, they should have
put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead.
Madam Hester would have winced at that, I
warrant me. But she,—the naughty baggage,—little
will she care what they put upon the bodice of her
gown! Why, look you, she may cover it with a
brooch, or such like heathenish adornment, and so
walk the streets as brave as ever!”

“Ah, but,” interposed, more softly, a young wife,
holding a child by the hand, “let her cover the mark as
she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart.”

“What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on
the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead?”
cried another female, the ugliest as well as the most
pitiless of these self-constituted judges. “This woman
has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is
there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture
and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates,
who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if
their own wives and daughters go astray!”

“Mercy on us, goodwife,” exclaimed a man in the
crowd, “is there no virtue in woman, save what springs
from a wholesome fear of the gallows? That is the
hardest word yet! Hush, now, gossips; for the lock
is turning in the prison-door, and here comes Mistress
Prynne herself.”

The door of the jail being flung open from within,
there appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow
emerging into the sunshine, the grim and grisly presence


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of the town-beadle, with a sword by his side and his
staff of office in his hand. This personage prefigured
and represented in his aspect the whole dismal severity
of the Puritanic code of law, which it was his business
to administer in its final and closest application to the
offender. 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.

When the young woman—the mother of this child
—stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to
be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her
bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection,
as that she might thereby conceal a certain token,
which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a
moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her
shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took
the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and
yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be
abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours.
On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth,
surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic
flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was


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so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous
luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a
last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she
wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance
with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was
allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

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 lady-like, too, after the manner
of the feminine gentility of those days; characterized
by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the
delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace, which is
now recognized as its indication. And never had
Hester Prynne appeared more lady-like, in the antique
interpretation of the term, 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. It may be true, that, to a sensitive
observer, there was something exquisitely painful
in it. Her attire, which, indeed, she had wrought
for the occasion, in prison, and had modelled 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


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drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer,
—so that both men and women, who had been familiarly
acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed
as if they beheld her for the first time,—was
that 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.

“She hath good skill at her needle, that's certain,”
remarked one of the female spectators; “but did ever
a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a
way of showing it! Why, gossips, what is it but to
laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates, and make
a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for
a punishment?”

“It were well,” muttered the most iron-visaged of the
old dames, “if we stripped Madam Hester's rich gown
off her dainty shoulders; and as for the red letter,
which she hath stitched so curiously, I'll bestow a rag
of mine own rheumatic flannel, to make a fitter one!”

“O, peace, neighbours, peace!” whispered their
youngest companion. “Do not let her hear you! Not
a stitch in that embroidered letter, but she has felt it
in her heart.”

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 the Massachusetts, where


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iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine! Come along,
Madam Hester, and show your scarlet letter in the market-place!”

A lane was forthwith opened through the crowd of
spectators. Preceded by the beadle, and attended by
an irregular procession of stern-browed men and unkindly-visaged
women, Hester Prynne set forth towards
the place appointed for her punishment. A crowd of
eager and curious schoolboys, understanding little of
the matter in hand, except that it gave them a half-holiday,
ran before her progress, turning their heads continually
to stare into her face, and at the winking baby
in her arms, and at the ignominious letter on her
breast. It was no great distance, in those days, from
the prison-door to the market-place. Measured by the
prisoner's experience, however, it might be reckoned a
journey of some length; for, haughty as her demeanour
was, she perchance underwent an agony from
every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if
her heart had been flung into the street for them all to
spurn and trample upon. In our nature, however,
there is a provision, alike marvellous and merciful, that
the sufferer should never know the intensity of what
he endures by its present torture, but chiefly by the
pang that rankles after it. With almost a serene deportment,
therefore, Hester Prynne passed through this
portion of her ordeal, and came to a sort of scaffold,
at the western extremity of the market-place. It stood
nearly beneath the eaves of Boston's earliest church,
and appeared to be a fixture there.

In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of a penal


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machine, which now, for two or three generations past,
has been merely historical and traditionary among us,
but was held, in the old time, to be as effectual an
agent in the promotion of good citizenship, as ever was
the guillotine among the terrorists of France. It was,
in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose
the framework of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned
as to confine the human head in its tight grasp,
and thus hold it up to the public gaze. The very ideal
of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this
contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage,
methinks, against our common nature,—whatever
be the delinquencies of the individual,—no outrage
more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face
for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to
do. In Hester Prynne's instance, however, as not unfrequently
in other cases, her sentence bore, that she
should stand a certain time upon the platform, but without
undergoing that gripe about the neck and confinement
of the head, the proneness to which was the most
devilish characteristic of this ugly engine. Knowing
well her part, she ascended a flight of wooden steps,
and was thus displayed to the surrounding multitude, at
about the height of a man's shoulders above the street.

Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans,
he might have seen in this beautiful woman, so
picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant
at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of
Divine Maternity, which so many illustrious painters
have vied with one another to represent; something
which should remind him, indeed, but only by contrast,


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of that sacred image of sinless motherhood, whose infant
was to redeem the world. Here, there was the
taint of deepest sin in the most sacred quality of human
life, working such effect, that the world was only the
darker for this woman's beauty, and the more lost for
the infant that she had borne.

The scene was not without a mixture of awe, such
as must always invest the spectacle of guilt and shame
in a fellow-creature, before society shall have grown
corrupt enough to smile, instead of shuddering, at it.
The witnesses of Hester Prynne's disgrace had not
yet passed beyond their simplicity. They were stern
enough to look upon her death, had that been the sentence,
without a murmur at its severity, but had none
of the heartlessness of another social state, which would
find only a theme for jest in an exhibition like the present.
Even had there been a disposition to turn the
matter into ridicule, it must have been repressed and
overpowered by the solemn presence of men no less
dignified than the Governor, and several of his counsellors,
a judge, a general, and the ministers of the town;
all of whom sat or stood in a balcony of the meeting-house,
looking down upon the platform. When such
personages could constitute a part of the spectacle,
without risking the majesty or reverence of rank and
office, it was safely to be inferred that the infliction of
a legal sentence would have an earnest and effectual
meaning. Accordingly, the crowd was sombre and
grave. The unhappy culprit sustained herself as best
a woman might, under the heavy weight of a thousand
unrelenting eyes, all fastened upon her, and


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concentred at her bosom. It was almost intolerable to
be borne. Of an impulsive and passionate nature, she
had fortified herself to encounter the stings and venomous
stabs of public contumely, wreaking itself in
every variety of insult; but there was a quality so
much more terrible in the solemn mood of the popular
mind, that she longed rather to behold all those rigid
countenances contorted with scornful merriment, and
herself the object. Had a roar of laughter burst from
the multitude,—each man, each woman, each little
shrill-voiced child, contributing their individual parts,—
Hester Prynne might have repaid them all with a bitter
and disdainful smile. But, under the leaden infliction
which it was her doom to endure, she felt, at moments,
as if she must needs shriek out with the full power of
her lungs, and cast herself from the scaffold down upon
the ground, or else go mad at once.

Yet there were intervals when the whole scene, in
which she was the most conspicuous object, seemed to
vanish from her eyes, or, at least, glimmered indistinctly
before them, like a mass of imperfectly shaped and
spectral images. Her mind, and especially her memory,
was preternaturally active, and kept bringing up
other scenes than this roughly hewn street of a little
town, on the edge of the Western wilderness; other
faces than were lowering upon her from beneath the
brims of those steeple-crowned hats. Reminiscences,
the most trifling and immaterial, passages of infancy
and school-days, sports, childish quarrels, and the little
domestic traits of her maiden years, came swarming
back upon her, intermingled with recollections of whatever


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was gravest in her subsequent life; one picture
precisely as vivid as another; as if all were of similar
importance, or all alike a play. Possibly, it was an instinctive
device of her spirit, to relieve itself, by the
exhibition of these phantasmagoric forms, from the
cruel weight and hardness of the reality.

Be that as it might, the scaffold of the pillory was a
point of view that revealed to Hester Prynne the entire
track along which she had been treading, since her
happy infancy. Standing on that miserable eminence,
she saw again her native village, in Old England, and
her paternal home; a decayed house of gray stone,
with a poverty-stricken aspect, but retaining a half-obliterated
shield of arms over the portal, in token of
antique gentility. She saw her father's face, with its
bald brow, and reverend white beard, that flowed over
the old-fashioned Elizabethan ruff; her mother's, too
with the look of heedful and anxious love which it always
wore in her remembrance, and which, even since
her death, had so often laid the impediment of a gentle
remonstrance in her daughter's pathway. She saw her
own face, glowing with girlish beauty, and illuminating
all the interior of the dusky mirror in which she had
been wont to gaze at it. There she beheld another
countenance, of a man well stricken in years, a pale,
thin, scholar-like visage, with eyes dim and bleared by
the lamp-light that had served them to pore over many
ponderous books. Yet those same bleared optics had a
strange, penetrating power, when it was their owner's
purpose to read the human soul. This figure of the
study and the cloister, as Hester Prynne's womanly


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fancy failed not to recall, was slightly deformed, with
the left shoulder a trifle higher than the right. Next
rose before her, in memory's picture-gallery, the intricate
and narrow thoroughfares, the tall, gray houses,
the huge cathedrals, and the public edifices, ancient in
date and quaint in architecture, of a Continental city;
where a new life had awaited her, still in connection
with the misshapen scholar; a new life, but feeding
itself on time-worn materials, like a tuft of green moss
on a crumbling wall. Lastly, in lieu of these shifting
scenes, came back the rude market-place of the Puritan
settlement, with all the townspeople assembled and
levelling their stern regards at Hester Prynne,—yes, at
herself,—who stood on the scaffold of the pillory, an
infant on her arm, and the letter A, in scarlet, fantastically
embroidered with gold thread, upon her bosom!

Could it be true? She clutched the child so fiercely
to her breast, that it sent forth a cry; she turned her
eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched
it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and
the shame were real. Yes!—these were her realities,
—all else had vanished!