University of Virginia Library


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3. III.

From this intense consciousness of being the object
of severe and universal observation, the wearer of the
scarlet letter was at length relieved by discerning, on
the outskirts of the crowd, a figure which irresistibly
took possession of her thoughts. An Indian, in his
native garb, was standing there; but the red men were
not so infrequent visitors of the English settlements,
that one of them would have attracted any notice from
Hester Prynne, at such a time; much less would he
have excluded all other objects and ideas from her
mind. By the Indian's side, and evidently sustaining a
companionship with him, stood a white man, clad in a
strange disarray of civilized and savage costume.

He was small in stature, with a furrowed visage,
which, as yet, could hardly be termed aged. There
was a remarkable intelligence in his features, as of a
person who had so cultivated his mental part that it
could not fail to mould the physical to itself, and become
manifest by unmistakable tokens. Although, by
a seemingly careless arrangement of his heterogeneous
garb, he had endeavoured to conceal or abate the peculiarity,
it was sufficiently evident to Hester Prynne, that
one of this man's shoulders rose higher than the other.


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Again, at the first instant of perceiving that thin visage,
and the slight deformity of the figure, she pressed her
infant to her bosom, with so convulsive a force that the
poor babe uttered another cry of pain. But the mother
did not seem to hear it.

At his arrival in the market-place, and some time before
she saw him, the stranger had bent his eyes on
Hester Prynne. It was carelessly, at first, like a man
chiefly accustomed to look inward, and to whom external
matters are of little value and import, unless they
bear relation to something within his mind. Very soon,
however, his look became keen and penetrative. A
writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a
snake gliding swiftly over them, and making one little
pause, with all its wreathed intervolutions in open sight.
His face darkened with some powerful emotion, which,
nevertheless, he so instantaneously controlled by an
effort of his will, that, save at a single moment, its expression
might have passed for calmness. After a
brief space, the convulsion grew almost imperceptible,
and finally subsided into the depths of his nature.
When he found the eyes of Hester Prynne fastened
on his own, and saw that she appeared to recognize
him, he slowly and calmly raised his finger, made a
gesture with it in the air, and laid it on his lips.

Then, touching the shoulder of a townsman who
stood next to him, he addressed him in a formal and
courteous manner.

“I pray you, good Sir,” said he, “who is this
woman?—and wherefore is she here set up to public


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“You must needs be a stranger in this region, friend,”
answered the townsman, looking curiously at the questioner
and his savage companion; “else you would
surely have heard of Mistress Hester Prynne, and her
evil doings. She hath raised a great scandal, I promise
you, in godly Master Dimmesdale's church.”

“You say truly,” replied the other. “I am a stranger,
and have been a wanderer, sorely against my will.
I have met with grievous mishaps by sea and land, and
have been long held in bonds among the heathen-folk,
to the southward; and am now brought hither by this
Indian, to be redeemed out of my captivity. Will it
please you, therefore, to tell me of Hester Prynne's,
—have I her name rightly?—of this woman's offences,
and what has brought her to yonder scaffold?”

“Truly, friend, and methinks it must gladden your
heart, after your troubles and sojourn in the wilderness,”
said the townsman, “to find yourself, at length,
in a land where iniquity is searched out, and punished
in the sight of rulers and people; as here in our godly
New England. Yonder woman, Sir, you must know,
was the wife of a certain learned man, English by
birth, but who had long dwelt in Amsterdam, whence,
some good time agone, he was minded to cross over
and cast in his lot with us of the Massachusetts. To
this purpose, he sent his wife before him, remaining
himself to look after some necessary affairs. Marry,
good Sir, in some two years, or less, that the woman
has been a dweller here in Boston, no tidings have
come of this learned gentleman, Master Prynne; and
his young wife, look you, being left to her own misguidance—”


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“Ah!—aha!—I conceive you,” said the stranger,
with a bitter smile. “So learned a man as you speak
of should have learned this too in his books. And who,
by your favor, Sir, may be the father of yonder babe
—it is some three or four months old, I should judge
—which Mistress Prynne is holding in her arms?”

“Of a truth, friend, that matter remaineth a riddle;
and the Daniel who shall expound it is yet a-wanting,”
answered the townsman. “Madam Hester absolutely
refuseth to speak, and the magistrates have laid their
heads together in vain. Peradventure the guilty one
stands looking on at this sad spectacle, unknown of
man, and forgetting that God sees him.”

“The learned man,” observed the stranger, with
another smile, “should come himself to look into the

“It behooves him well, if he be still in life,” responded
the townsman. “Now, good Sir, our Massachusetts
magistracy, bethinking themselves that this
woman is youthful and fair, and doubtless was strongly
tempted to her fall;—and that, moreover, as is most
likely, her husband may be at the bottom of the sea;
—they have not been bold to put in force the extremity
of our righteous law against her. The penalty
thereof is death. But, in their great mercy and tenderness
of heart, they have doomed Mistress Prynne to
stand only a space of three hours on the platform of the
pillory, and then and thereafter, for the remainder of
her natural life, to wear a mark of shame upon her

“A wise sentence!” remarked the stranger, gravely


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bowing his head. “Thus she will be a living sermon
against sin, until the ignominious letter be engraved
upon her tombstone. It irks me, nevertheless, that the
partner of her iniquity should not, at least, stand on
the scaffold by her side. But he will be known!—he
will be known!—he will be known!”

He bowed courteously to the communicative townsman,
and, whispering a few words to his Indian attendant,
they both made their way through the crowd.

While this passed, Hester Prynne had been standing
on her pedestal, still with a fixed gaze towards the
stranger; so fixed a gaze, that, at moments of intense
absorption, all other objects in the visible world seemed
to vanish, leaving only him and her. Such an interview,
perhaps, would have been more terrible than even
to meet him as she now did, with the hot, midday sun
burning down upon her face, and lighting up its shame;
with the scarlet token of infamy on her breast; with
the sin-born infant in her arms; with a whole people,
drawn forth as to a festival, staring at the features that
should have been seen only in the quiet gleam of the
fireside, in the happy shadow of a home, or beneath
a matronly veil, at church. Dreadful as it was, she
was conscious of a shelter in the presence of these
thousand witnesses. It was better to stand thus, with
so many betwixt him and her, than to greet him, face
to face, they two alone. She fled for refuge, as it were,
to the public exposure, and dreaded the moment when
its protection should be withdrawn from her. Involved
in these thoughts, she scarcely heard a voice behind
her, until it had repeated her name more than once,


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in a loud and solemn tone, audible to the whole

“Hearken unto me, Hester Prynne!” said the voice.

It has already been noticed, that directly over the
platform on which Hester Prynne stood was a kind of
balcony, or open gallery, appended to the meeting-house.
It was the place whence proclamations were
wont to be made, amidst an assemblage of the magistracy,
with all the ceremonial that attended such public
observances in those days. Here, to witness the scene
which we are describing, sat Governor Bellingham
himself, with four sergeants about his chair, bearing
halberds, as a guard of honor. He wore a dark feather
in his hat, a border of embroidery on his cloak, and a
black velvet tunic beneath; a gentleman advanced in
years, and with a hard experience written in his wrinkles.
He was not ill fitted to be the head and representative
of a community, which owed its origin and
progress, and its present state of development, not to
the impulses of youth, but to the stern and tempered
energies of manhood, and the sombre sagacity of age;
accomplishing so much, precisely because it imagined
and hoped so little. The other eminent characters, by
whom the chief ruler was surrounded, were distinguished
by a dignity of mien, belonging to a period
when the forms of authority were felt to possess the
sacredness of divine institutions. They were, doubtless,
good men, just, and sage. But, out of the whole
human family, it would not have been easy to select
the same number of wise and virtuous persons, who
should be less capable of sitting in judgment on an


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erring woman's heart, and disentangling its mesh of
good and evil, than the sages of rigid aspect towards
whom Hester Prynne now turned her face. She
seemed conscious, indeed, that whatever sympathy she
might expect lay in the larger and warmer heart of the
multitude; for, as she lifted her eyes towards the balcony,
the unhappy woman grew pale and trembled.

The voice which had called her attention was that
of the reverend and famous John Wilson, the eldest
clergyman of Boston, a great scholar, like most of his
contemporaries in the profession, and withal a man of
kind and genial spirit. This last attribute, however,
had been less carefully developed than his intellectual
gifts, and was, in truth, rather a matter of shame than
self-congratulation with him. There he stood, with a
border of grizzled locks beneath his skull-cap; while
his gray eyes, accustomed to the shaded light of his
study, were winking, like those of Hester's infant, in
the unadulterated sunshine. He looked like the darkly
engraved portraits which we see prefixed to old volumes
of sermons; and had no more right than one of those
portraits would have, to step forth, as he now did, and
meddle with a question of human guilt, passion, and

“Hester Prynne,” said the clergyman, “I have striven
with my young brother here, under whose preaching
of the word you have been privileged to sit,”—here
Mr. Wilson laid his hand on the shoulder of a pale
young man beside him,—“I have sought, I say, to
persuade this godly youth, that he should deal with you,
here in the face of Heaven, and before these wise and


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upright rulers, and in hearing of all the people, as
touching the vileness and blackness of your sin. Knowing
your natural temper better than I, he could the
better judge what arguments to use, whether of tenderness
or terror, such as might prevail over your hardness
and obstinacy; insomuch that you should no longer
hide the name of him who tempted you to this grievous
fall. But he opposes to me, (with a young man's oversoftness,
albeit wise beyond his years,) that it were
wronging the very nature of woman to force her to
lay open her heart's secrets in such broad daylight,
and in presence of so great a multitude. Truly, as I
sought to convince him, the shame lay in the commission
of the sin, and not in the showing of it forth.
What say you to it, once again, brother Dimmesdale?
Must it be thou or I that shall deal with this poor sinner's

There was a murmur among the dignified and reverend
occupants of the balcony; and Governor Bellingham
gave expression to its purport, speaking in an
authoritative voice, although tempered with respect
towards the youthful clergyman whom he addressed.

“Good Master Dimmesdale,” said he, “the responsibility
of this woman's soul lies greatly with you. It
behooves you, therefore, to exhort her to repentance,
and to confession, as a proof and consequence thereof.”

The directness of this appeal drew the eyes of the
whole crowd upon the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale; a
young clergyman, who had come from one of the great
English universities, bringing all the learning of the
age into our wild forest-land. His eloquence and religious


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fervor had already given the earnest of high eminence
in his profession. He was a person of very
striking aspect, with a white, lofty, and impending
brow, large, brown, melancholy eyes, and a mouth
which, unless when he forcibly compressed it, was apt
to be tremulous, expressing both nervous sensibility and
a vast power of self-restraint. Notwithstanding his
high native gifts and scholar-like attainments, there was
an air about this young minister,—an apprehensive,
a startled, a half-frightened look,—as of a being who
felt himself quite astray and at a loss in the pathway of
human existence, and could only be at ease in some
seclusion of his own. Therefore, so far as his duties
would permit, he trode in the shadowy by-paths, and
thus kept himself simple and childlike; coming forth,
when occasion was, with a freshness, and fragrance,
and dewy purity of thought, which, as many people
said, affected them like the speech of an angel.

Such was the young man whom the Reverend Mr.
Wilson and the Governor had introduced so openly to
the public notice, bidding him speak, in the hearing of
all men, to that mystery of a woman's soul, so sacred
even in its pollution. The trying nature of his position
drove the blood from his cheek, and made his lips tremulous.

“Speak to the woman, my brother,” said Mr. Wilson.
“It is of moment to her soul, and therefore, as
the worshipful Governor says, momentous to thine own,
in whose charge hers is. Exhort her to confess the

The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale bent his head, in
silent prayer, as it seemed, and then came forward.


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“Hester Prynne,” said he, leaning over the balcony,
and looking down steadfastly into her eyes, “thou
hearest what this good man says, and seest the accountability
under which I labor. If thou feelest it to
be for thy soul's peace, and that thy earthly punishment
will thereby be made more effectual to salvation,
I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner
and fellow-sufferer! Be not silent from any mistaken
pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me,
Hester, though he were to step down from a high place,
and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame,
yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart
through life. What can thy silence do for him, except
it tempt him—yea, compel him, as it were—to add
hypocrisy to sin? Heaven hath granted thee an open
ignominy, that thereby thou mayest work out an open
triumph over the evil within thee, and the sorrow without.
Take heed how thou deniest to him—who, perchance,
hath not the courage to grasp it for himself—
the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to
thy lips!”

The young pastor's voice was tremulously sweet,
rich, deep, and broken. The feeling that it so evidently
manifested, rather than the direct purport of the
words, caused it to vibrate within all hearts, and brought
the listeners into one accord of sympathy. Even the
poor baby, at Hester's bosom, was affected by the same
influence; for it directed its hitherto vacant gaze towards
Mr. Dimmesdale, and held up its little arms, with
a half pleased, half plaintive murmur. So powerful
seemed the minister's appeal, that the people could not


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believe but that Hester Prynne would speak out the
guilty name; or else that the guilty one himself, in
whatever high or lowly place he stood, would be drawn
forth by an inward and inevitable necessity, and compelled
to ascend the scaffold.

Hester shook her head.

“Woman, transgress not beyond the limits of Heaven's
mercy!” cried the Reverend Mr. Wilson, more
harshly than before. “That little babe hath been gifted
with a voice, to second and confirm the counsel which
thou hast heard. Speak out the name! That, and thy
repentance, may avail to take the scarlet letter off thy

“Never!” replied Hester Prynne, looking, not at
Mr. Wilson, but into the deep and troubled eyes of the
younger clergyman. “It is too deeply branded. Ye
cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his
agony, as well as mine!”

“Speak, woman!” said another voice, coldly and
sternly, proceeding from the crowd about the scaffold.
“Speak; and give your child a father!”

“I will not speak!” answered Hester, turning pale
as death, but responding to this voice, which she too
surely recognized. “And my child must seek a heavenly
Father; she shall never know an earthly one!”

“She will not speak!” murmured Mr. Dimmesdale,
who, leaning over the balcony, with his hand upon his
heart, had awaited the result of his appeal. He now
drew back, with a long respiration. “Wondrous
strength and generosity of a woman's heart! She
will not speak!”


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Discerning the impracticable state of the poor culprit's
mind, the elder clergyman, who had carefully
prepared himself for the occasion, addressed to the
multitude a discourse on sin, in all its branches, but
with continual reference to the ignominious letter. So
forcibly did he dwell upon this symbol, for the hour or
more during which his periods were rolling over the
people's heads, that it assumed new terrors in their
imagination, and seemed to derive its scarlet hue from
the flames of the infernal pit. Hester Prynne, meanwhile,
kept her place upon the pedestal of shame, with
glazed eyes, and an air of weary indifference. She
had borne, that morning, all that nature could endure;
and as her temperament was not of the order that
escapes from too intense suffering by a swoon, her
spirit could only shelter itself beneath a stony crust of
insensibility, while the faculties of animal life remained
entire. In this state, the voice of the preacher thundered
remorselessly, but unavailingly, upon her ears.
The infant, during the latter portion of her ordeal,
pierced the air with its wailings and screams; she
strove to hush it, mechanically, but seemed scarcely to
sympathize with its trouble. With the same hard demeanour,
she was led back to prison, and vanished from
the public gaze within its iron-clamped portal. It was
whispered, by those who peered after her, that the
scarlet letter threw a lurid gleam along the dark passage-way
of the interior.