University of Virginia Library


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6. VI.

We have as yet hardly spoken of the infant; that
little creature, whose innocent life had sprung, by the
inscrutable decree of Providence, a lovely and immortal
flower, out of the rank luxuriance of a guilty passion.
How strange it seemed to the sad woman, as she
watched the growth, and the beauty that became every
day more brilliant, and the intelligence that threw its
quivering sunshine over the tiny features of this child!
Her Pearl!—For so had Hester called her; not as a
name expressive of her aspect, which had nothing of
the calm, white, unimpassioned lustre that would be
indicated by the comparison. But she named the infant
“Pearl,” as being of great price,—purchased
with all she had,—her mother's only treasure! How
strange, indeed! Man had marked this woman's sin
by a scarlet letter, which had such potent and disastrous
efficacy that no human sympathy could reach her, save
it were sinful like herself. God, as a direct consequence
of the sin which man thus punished, had given
her a lovely child, whose place was on that same dishonored
bosom, to connect her parent for ever with the
race and descent of mortals, and to be finally a blessed
soul in heaven! Yet these thoughts affected Hester


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Prynne less with hope than apprehension. She knew
that her deed had been evil; she could have no faith,
therefore, that its result would be for good. Day after
day, she looked fearfully into the child's expanding
nature; ever dreading to detect some dark and wild
peculiarity, that should correspond with the guiltiness
to which she owed her being.

Certainly, there was no physical defect. By its perfect
shape, its vigor, and its natural dexterity in the use
of all its untried limbs, the infant was worthy to
have been brought forth in Eden; worthy to have been
left there, to be the plaything of the angels, after the
world's first parents were driven out. The child had a
native grace which does not invariably coexist with
faultless beauty; its attire, however simple, always impressed
the beholder as if it were the very garb that
precisely became it best. But little Pearl was not clad
in rustic weeds. Her mother, with a morbid purpose
that may be better understood hereafter, had bought
the richest tissues that could be procured, and allowed
her imaginative faculty its full play in the arrangement
and decoration of the dresses which the child wore,
before the public eye. So magnificent was the small
figure, when thus arrayed, and such was the splendor
of Pearl's own proper beauty, shining through the
gorgeous robes which might have extinguished a paler
loveliness, that there was an absolute circle of radiance
around her, on the darksome cottage-floor. And yet
a russet gown, torn and soiled with the child's rude
play, made a picture of her just as perfect. Pearl's
aspect was imbued with a spell of infinite variety; in


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this one child there were many children, comprehending
the full scope between the wild-flower prettiness of a
peasant-baby, and the pomp, in little, of an infant
princess. Throughout all, however, there was a trait
of passion, a certain depth of hue, which she never
lost; and if, in any of her changes, she had grown
fainter or paler, she would have ceased to be herself;
—it would have been no longer Pearl!

This outward mutability indicated, and did not more
than fairly express, the various properties of her inner
life. Her nature appeared to possess depth, too, as
well as variety; but—or else Hester's fears deceived
her—it lacked reference and adaptation to the world
into which she was born. The child could not be
made amenable to rules. In giving her existence, a
great law had been broken; and the result was a being,
whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant,
but all in disorder; or with an order peculiar to themselves,
amidst which the point of variety and arrangement
was difficult or impossible to be discovered. Hester
could only account for the child's character—and
even then, most vaguely and imperfectly—by recalling
what she herself had been, during that momentous
period while Pearl was imbibing her soul from the spiritual
world, and her bodily frame from its material of
earth. The mother's impassioned state had been the
medium through which were transmitted to the unborn
infant the rays of its moral life; and, however white
and clear originally, they had taken the deep stains of
crimson and gold, the fiery lustre, the black shadow,
and the untempered light, of the intervening substance.


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Above all, the warfare of Hester's spirit, at that epoch,
was perpetuated in Pearl. She could recognize her
wild, desperate, defiant mood, the flightiness of her
temper, and even some of the very cloud-shapes of
gloom and despondency that had brooded in her heart.
They were now illuminated by the morning radiance
of a young child's disposition, but, later in the day of
earthly existence, might be prolific of the storm and

The discipline of the family, in those days, was of a
far more rigid kind than now. The frown, the harsh
rebuke, the frequent application of the rod, enjoined by
Scriptural authority, were used, not merely in the way
of punishment for actual offences, but as a wholesome
regimen for the growth and promotion of all childish
virtues. Hester Prynne, nevertheless, the lonely
mother of this one child, ran little risk of erring on the
side of undue severity. Mindful, however, or her own
errors and misfortunes, she early sought to impose a
tender, but strict, control over the infant immortality that
was committed to her charge. But the task was beyond
her skill. After testing both smiles and frowns,
and proving that neither mode of treatment possessed
any calculable influence, Hester was ultimately compelled
to stand aside, and permit the child to be swayed
by her own impulses. Physical compulsion or restraint
was effectual, of course, while it lasted. As to any
other kind of discipline, whether addressed to her mind
or heart, little Pearl might or might not be within its
reach, in accordance with the caprice that ruled the
moment. Her mother, while Pearl was yet an infant,


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grew acquainted with a certain peculiar look, that warned
her when it would be labor thrown away to insist,
persuade, or plead. It was a look so intelligent, yet
inexplicable, so perverse, sometimes so malicious, but
generally accompanied by a wild flow of spirits, that
Hester could not help questioning, at such moments,
whether Pearl was a human child. She seemed rather
an airy sprite, which, after playing its fantastic sports
for a little while upon the cottage-floor, would flit away
with a mocking smile. Whenever that look appeared
in her wild, bright, deeply black eyes, it invested her
with a strange remoteness and intangibility; it was as
if she were hovering in the air and might vanish, like
a glimmering light that comes we know not whence,
and goes we know not whither. Beholding it, Hester
was constrained to rush towards the child,—to pursue
the little elf in the flight which she invariably began,—
to snatch her to her bosom, with a close pressure and
earnest kisses,—not so much from overflowing love,
as to assure herself that Pearl was flesh and blood, and
not utterly delusive. But Pearl's laugh, when she was
caught, though full of merriment and music, made her
mother more doubtful than before.

Heart-smitten at this bewildering and baffling spell,
that so often came between herself and her sole treasure,
whom she had bought so dear, and who was all
her world, Hester sometimes burst into passionate tears.
Then, perhaps,—for there was no foreseeing how it
might affect her,—Pearl would frown, and clench her
little fist, and harden her small features into a stern,
unsympathizing look of discontent. Not seldom, she


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would laugh anew, and louder than before, like a thing
incapable and unintelligent of human sorrow. Or—
but this more rarely happened—she would be convulsed
with a rage of grief, and sob out her love for
her mother, in broken words, and seem intent on proving
that she had a heart, by breaking it. Yet Hester
was hardly safe in confiding herself to that gusty tenderness;
it passed, as suddenly as it came. Brooding
over all these matters, the mother felt like one who has
evoked a spirit, but, by some irregularity in the process
of conjuration, has failed to win the master-word that
should control this new and incomprehensible intelligence.
Her only real comfort was when the child lay
in the placidity of sleep. Then she was sure of her,
and tasted hours of quiet, sad, delicious happiness; until—perhaps
with that perverse expression glimmering
from beneath her opening lids—little Pearl awoke!

How soon—with what strange rapidity, indeed!—
did Pearl arrive at an age that was capable of social
intercourse, beyond the mother's ever-ready smile and
nonsense-words! And then what a happiness would
it have been, could Hester Prynne have heard her
clear, bird-like voice mingling with the uproar of other
childish voices, and have distinguished and unravelled
her own darling's tones, amid all the entangled outcry
of a group of sportive children! But this could never
be. Pearl was a born outcast of the infantile world.
An imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no
right among christened infants. Nothing was more
remarkable than the instinct, as it seemed, with which
the child comprehended her loneliness; the destiny that


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had drawn an inviolable circle round about her; the
whole peculiarity, in short, of her position in respect to
other children. Never, since her release from prison,
had Hester met the public gaze without her. In all her
walks about the town, Pearl, too, was there; first as
the babe in arms, and afterwards as the little girl, small
companion of her mother, holding a forefinger with her
whole grasp, and tripping along at the rate of three or
four footsteps to one of Hester's. She saw the children
of the settlement, on the grassy margin of the street,
or at the domestic thresholds, disporting themselves in
such grim fashion as the Puritanic nurture would permit;
playing at going to church, perchance; or at
scourging Quakers; or taking scalps in a sham-fight
with the Indians; or scaring one another with freaks of
imitative witchcraft. Pearl saw, and gazed intently,
but never sought to make acquaintance. If spoken to,
she would not speak again. If the children gathered
about her, as they sometimes did, Pearl would grow
positively terrible in her puny wrath, snatching up
stones to fling at them, with shrill, incoherent exclamations
that made her mother tremble, because they had
so much the sound of a witch's anathemas in some unknown

The truth was, that the little Puritans, being of the
most intolerant brood that ever lived, had got a vague
idea of something outlandish, unearthly, or at variance
with ordinary fashions, in the mother and child; and
therefore scorned them in their hearts, and not unfrequently
reviled them with their tongues. Pearl felt the
sentiment, and requited it with the bitterest hatred that


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can be supposed to rankle in a childish bosom. These
outbreaks of a fierce temper had a kind of value, and
even comfort, for her mother; because there was at
least an intelligible earnestness in the mood, instead of
the fitful caprice that so often thwarted her in the
child's manifestations. It appalled her, nevertheless,
to discern here, again, a shadowy reflection of the evil
that had existed in herself. All this enmity and passion
had Pearl inherited, by inalienable right, out of Hester's
heart. Mother and daughter stood together in the
same circle of seclusion from human society; and in
the nature of the child seemed to be perpetuated those
unquiet elements that had distracted Hester Prynne
before Pearl's birth, but had since begun to be soothed
away by the softening influences of maternity.

At home, within and around her mother's cottage,
Pearl wanted not a wide and various circle of acquaintance.
The spell of life went forth from her ever creative
spirit, and communicated itself to a thousand
objects, as a torch kindles a flame wherever it may be
applied. The unlikeliest materials, a stick, a bunch of
rags, a flower, were the puppets of Pearl's witchcraft,
and, without undergoing any outward change, became
spiritually adapted to whatever drama occupied the
stage of her inner world. Her one baby-voice served
a multitude of imaginary personages, old and young, to
talk withal. The pine-trees, aged, black, and solemn,
and flinging groans and other melancholy utterances on
the breeze, needed little transformation to figure as Puritan
elders; the ugliest weeds of the garden were
their children, whom Pearl smote down and uprooted,


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most unmercifully. It was wonderful, the vast variety
of forms into which she threw her intellect, with no
continuity, indeed, but darting up and dancing, always
in a state of preternatural activity,—soon sinking down,
as if exhausted by so rapid and feverish a tide of life,
—and succeeded by other shapes of a similar wild
energy. It was like nothing so much as the phantasmagoric
play of the northern lights. In the mere exercise
of the fancy, however, and the sportiveness of a
growing mind, there might be little more than was observable
in other children of bright faculties; except
as Pearl, in the dearth of human playmates, was thrown
more upon the visionary throng which she created.
The singularity lay in the hostile feelings with which
the child regarded all these offspring of her own heart
and mind. She never created a friend, but seemed always
to be sowing broadcast the dragon's teeth, whence
sprung a harvest of armed enemies, against whom she
rushed to battle. It was inexpressibly sad—then
what depth of sorrow to a mother, who felt in her own
heart the cause!—to observe, in one so young, this
constant recognition of an adverse world, and so fierce
a training of the energies that were to make good her
cause, in the contest that must ensue.

Gazing at Pearl, Hester Prynne often dropped her
work upon her knees, and cried out, with an agony
which she would fain have hidden, but which made
utterance for itself, betwixt speech and a groan,—
“O Father in Heaven,—if Thou art still my Father,
—what is this being which I have brought into the
world!” And Pearl, overhearing the ejaculation, or


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aware, through some more subtile channel, of those
throbs of anguish, would turn her vivid and beautiful
little face upon her mother, smile with sprite-like intelligence,
and resume her play.

One peculiarity of the child's deportment remains
yet to be told. The very first thing which she had
noticed, in her life, was—what?—not the mother's
smile, responding to it, as other babies do, by
that faint, embryo smile of the little mouth, remembered
so doubtfully afterwards, and with such fond
discussion whether it were indeed a smile. By no
means! But that first object of which Pearl seemed to
become aware was—shall we say it?—the scarlet
letter on Hester's bosom! One day, as her mother
stooped over the cradle, the infant's eyes had been
caught by the glimmering of the gold embroidery about
the letter; and, putting up her little hand, she grasped
at it, smiling, not doubtfully, but with a decided gleam
that gave her face the look of a much older child.
Then, gasping for breath, did Hester Prynne clutch
the fatal token, instinctively endeavouring to tear it
away; so infinite was the torture inflicted by the intelligent
touch of Pearl's baby-hand. Again, as if her
mother's agonized gesture were meant only to make
sport for her, did little Pearl look into her eyes, and
smile! From that epoch, except when the child was
asleep, Hester had never felt a moment's safety; not a
moment's calm enjoyment of her. Weeks, it is true,
would sometimes elapse, during which Pearl's gaze
might never once be fixed upon the scarlet letter; but
then, again, it would come at unawares, like the stroke


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of sudden death, and always with that peculiar smile,
and odd expression of the eyes.

Once, this freakish, elvish cast came into the child's
eyes, while Hester was looking at her own image in
them, as mothers are fond of doing; and, suddenly,—
for women in solitude, and with troubled hearts, are
pestered with unaccountable delusions,—she fancied
that she beheld, not her own miniature portrait, but
another face in the small black mirror of Pearl's eye.
It was a face, fiend-like, full of smiling malice, yet
bearing the semblance of features that she had known
full well, though seldom with a smile, and never with
malice, in them. It was as if an evil spirit possessed
the child, and had just then peeped forth in mockery.
Many a time afterwards had Hester been tortured,
though less vividly, by the same illusion.

In the afternoon of a certain summer's day, after
Pearl grew big enough to run about, she amused herself
with gathering handfuls of wild-flowers, and flinging
them, one by one, at her mother's bosom; dancing
up and down, like a little elf, whenever she hit the
scarlet letter. Hester's first motion had been to cover
her bosom with her clasped hands. But, whether from
pride or resignation, or a feeling that her penance might
best be wrought out by this unutterable pain, she resisted
the impulse, and sat erect, pale as death, looking
sadly into little Pearl's wild eyes. Still came the battery
of flowers, almost invariably hitting the mark,
and covering the mother's breast with hurts for which
she could find no balm in this world, nor knew how to
seek it in another. At last, her shot being all expended,


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the child stood still and gazed at Hester, with that
little, laughing image of a fiend peeping out—or,
whether it peeped or no, her mother so imagined it
—from the unsearchable abyss of her black eyes.

“Child, what art thou?” cried the mother.

“O, I am your little Pearl!” answered the child.

But, while she said it, Pearl laughed and began to
dance up and down, with the humorsome gesticulation
of a little imp, whose next freak might be to fly up the

“Art thou my child, in very truth?” asked Hester.

Nor did she put the question altogether idly, but, for
the moment, with a portion of genuine earnestness; for,
such was Pearl's wonderful intelligence, that her mother
half doubted whether she were not acquainted with
the secret spell of her existence, and might not now reveal

“Yes; I am little Pearl!” repeated the child, continuing
her antics.

“Thou art not my child! Thou art no Pearl of
mine!” said the mother, half playfully; for it was
often the case that a sportive impulse came over her,
in the midst of her deepest suffering. “Tell me, then,
what thou art, and who sent thee hither?”

“Tell me, mother!” said the child, seriously, coming
up to Hester, and pressing herself close to her
knees. “Do thou tell me!”

“Thy Heavenly Father sent thee!” answered Hester

But she said it with a hesitation that did not escape
the acuteness of the child. Whether moved only by


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her ordinary freakishness, or because an evil spirit
prompted her, she put up her small forefinger, and
touched the scarlet letter.

“He did not send me!” cried she, positively. “I
have no Heavenly Father!”

“Hush, Pearl, hush! Thou must not talk so!”
answered the mother, suppressing a groan. “He sent
us all into this world. He sent even me, thy mother.
Then, much more, thee! Or, if not, thou strange and
elfish child, whence didst thou come?”

“Tell me! Tell me!” repeated Pearl, no longer
seriously, but laughing, and capering about the floor.
“It is thou that must tell me!”

But Hester could not resolve the query, being herself
in a dismal labyrinth of doubt. She remembered—
betwixt a smile and a shudder—the talk of the neighbouring
townspeople; who, seeking vainly elsewhere
for the child's paternity, and observing some of her
odd attributes, had given out that poor little Pearl was
a demon offspring; such as, ever since old Catholic
times, had occasionally been seen on earth, through the
agency of their mothers' sin, and to promote some foul
and wicked purpose. Luther, according to the scandal
of his monkish enemies, was a brat of that hellish
breed; nor was Pearl the only child to whom this inauspicious
origin was assigned, among the New England