University of Virginia Library


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8. VIII.

Governor Bellingham, in a loose gown and easy
cap,—such as elderly gentlemen loved to indue themselves
with, in their domestic privacy,—walked foremost,
and appeared to be showing off his estate, and
expatiating on his projected improvements. The wide
circumference of an elaborate ruff, beneath his gray
beard, in the antiquated fashion of King James's reign,
caused his head to look not a little like that of John
the Baptist in a charger. The impression made by his
aspect, so rigid and severe, and frost-bitten with more
than autumnal age, was hardly in keeping with the
appliances of worldly enjoyment wherewith he had
evidently done his utmost to surround himself. But it
is an error to suppose that our grave forefathers—
though accustomed to speak and think of human existence
as a state merely of trial and warfare, and
though unfeignedly prepared to sacrifice goods and life
at the behest of duty—made it a matter of conscience
to reject such means of comfort, or even luxury, as lay
fairly within their grasp. This creed was never taught,
for instance, by the venerable pastor, John Wilson,
whose beard, white as a snow-drift, was seen over Governor
Bellingham's shoulder; while its wearer suggested


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that pears and peaches might yet be naturalized
in the New England climate, and that purple grapes
might possibly be compelled to flourish, against the
sunny garden-wall. The old clergyman, nurtured at
the rich bosom of the English Church, had a long
established and legitimate taste for all good and comfortable
things; and however stern he might show
himself in the pulpit, or in his public reproof of such
transgressions as that of Hester Prynne, still, the genial
benevolence of his private life had won him warmer
affection than was accorded to any of his professional

Behind the Governor and Mr. Wilson came two other
guests; one, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, whom
the reader may remember, as having taken a brief and
reluctant part in the scene of Hester Prynne's disgrace;
and, in close companionship with him, old Roger Chillingworth,
a person of great skill in physic, who, for
two or three years past, had been settled in the town.
It was understood that this learned man was the physician
as well as friend of the young minister, whose
health had severely suffered, of late, by his too unreserved
self-sacrifice to the labors and duties of the pastoral

The Governor, in advance of his visitors, ascended
one or two steps, and, throwing open the leaves of the
great hall window, found himself close to little Pearl.
The shadow of the curtain fell on Hester Prynne, and
partially concealed her.

“What have we here?” said Governor Bellingham,
looking with surprise at the scarlet little figure before


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him. “I profess, I have never seen the like, since my
days of vanity, in old King James's time, when I was
wont to esteem it a high favor to be admitted to a court
mask! There used to be a swarm of these small
apparitions, in holiday-time; and we called them children
of the Lord of Misrule. But how gat such a
guest into my hall?”

“Ay, indeed!” cried good old Mr. Wilson. “What
little bird of scarlet plumage may this be? Methinks
I have seen just such figures, when the sun has been
shining through a richly painted window, and tracing
out the golden and crimson images across the floor.
But that was in the old land. Prithee, young one, who
art thou, and what has ailed thy mother to bedizen
thee in this strange fashion? Art thou a Christian
child,—ha? Dost know thy catechism? Or art thou
one of those naughty elfs or fairies, whom we thought
to have left behind us, with other relics of Papistry, in
merry old England?”

“I am mother's child,” answered the scarlet vision,
“and my name is Pearl!”

“Pearl?—Ruby, rather!—or Coral!—or Red
Rose, at the very least, judging from thy hue!” responded
the old minister, putting forth his hand in a
vain attempt to pat little Pearl on the cheek. “But
where is this mother of thine? Ah! I see,” he added;
and, turning to Governor Bellingham, whispered,—
“This is the selfsame child of whom we have held
speech together; and behold here the unhappy woman,
Hester Prynne, her mother!”

“Sayest thou so?” cried the Governor. “Nay, we


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might have judged that such a child's mother must
needs be a scarlet woman, and a worthy type of her of
Babylon! But she comes at a good time; and we will
look into this matter forthwith.”

Governor Bellingham stepped through the window
into the hall, followed by his three guests.

“Hester Prynne,” said he, fixing his naturally stern
regard on the wearer of the scarlet letter, “there hath
been much question concerning thee, of late. The
point hath been weightily discussed, whether we, that
are of authority and influence, do well discharge our
consciences by trusting an immortal soul, such as there
is in yonder child, to the guidance of one who hath
stumbled and fallen, amid the pitfalls of this world.
Speak thou, the child's own mother! Were it not,
thinkest thou, for thy little one's temporal and eternal
welfare, that she be taken out of thy charge, and clad
soberly, and disciplined strictly, and instructed in the
truths of heaven and earth? What canst thou do for
the child, in this kind?”

“I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned
from this!” answered Hester Prynne, laying her finger
on the red token.

“Woman, it is thy badge of shame!” replied the
stern magistrate. “It is because of the stain which
that letter indicates, that we would transfer thy child
to other hands.”

“Nevertheless,” said the mother calmly, though
growing more pale, “this badge hath taught me,—it
daily teaches me,—it is teaching me at this moment,
—lessons whereof my child may be the wiser and
better, albeit they can profit nothing to myself.”


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“We will judge warily,” said Bellingham, “and
look well what we are about to do. Good Master Wilson,
I pray you, examine this Pearl,—since that is her
name,—and see whether she hath had such Christian
nurture as befits a child of her age.”

The old minister seated himself in an arm-chair,
and made an effort to draw Pearl betwixt his knees.
But the child, unaccustomed to the touch or familiarity
of any but her mother, escaped through the open window
and stood on the upper step, looking like a wild,
tropical bird, of rich plumage, ready to take flight into
the upper air. Mr. Wilson, not a little astonished at
this outbreak,—for he was a grandfatherly sort of
personage, and usually a vast favorite with children,—
essayed, however, to proceed with the examination.

“Pearl,” said he, with great solemnity, “thou must
take heed to instruction, that so, in due season, thou
mayest wear in thy bosom the pearl of great price.
Canst thou tell me, my child, who made thee?”

Now Pearl knew well enough who made her; for
Hester Prynne, the daughter of a pious home, very
soon after her talk with the child about her Heavenly
Father, had begun to inform her of those truths which
the human spirit, at whatever stage of immaturity,
imbibes with such eager interest. Pearl, therefore, so
large were the attainments of her three years' lifetime,
could have borne a fair examination in the New England
Primer, or the first column of the Westminster
Catechism, although unacquainted with the outward
form of either of those celebrated works. But that
perversity, which all children have more or less of, and


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of which little Pearl had a tenfold portion, now, at the
most inopportune moment, took thorough possession of
her, and closed her lips, or impelled her to speak words
amiss. After putting her finger in her mouth, with
many ungracious refusals to answer good Mr. Wilson's
question, the child finally announced that she had not
been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother
off the bush of wild roses, that grew by the prison-door.

This fantasy was probably suggested by the near
proximity of the Governor's red roses, as Pearl stood
outside of the window; together with her recollection
of the prison rose-bush, which she had passed in coming

Old Roger Chillingworth, with a smile on his face,
whispered something in the young clergyman's ear.
Hester Prynne looked at the man of skill, and even
then, with her fate hanging in the balance, was startled
to perceive what a change had come over his features,
—how much uglier they were,—how his dark complexion
seemed to have grown duskier, and his figure
more misshapen,—since the days when she had familiarly
known him. She met his eyes for an instant,
but was immediately constrained to give all her attention
to the scene now going forward.

“This is awful!” cried the Governor, slowly recovering
from the astonishment into which Pearl's response
had thrown him. “Here is a child of three years old,
and she cannot tell who made her! Without question,
she is equally in the dark as to her soul, its present depravity,
and future destiny! Methinks, gentlemen, we
need inquire no further.”


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Hester caught hold of Pearl, and drew her forcibly
into her arms, confronting the old Puritan magistrate
with almost a fierce expression. Alone in the world,
cast off by it, and with this sole treasure to keep her
heart alive, she felt that she possessed indefeasible
rights against the world, and was ready to defend them
to the death.

“God gave me the child!” cried she. “He gave
her, in requital of all things else, which ye had taken
from me. She is my happiness!—she is my torture,
none the less! Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl
punishes me too! See ye not, she is the scarlet letter,
only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a
million-fold the power of retribution for my sin? Ye
shall not take her! I will die first!”

“My poor woman,” said the not unkind old minister,
“the child shall be well cared for!—far better than
thou canst do it.”

“God gave her into my keeping,” repeated Hester
Prynne, raising her voice almost to a shriek. “I will
not give her up!”—And here, by a sudden impulse,
she turned to the young clergyman, Mr. Dimmesdale, at
whom, up to this moment, she had seemed hardly so
much as once to direct her eyes.—“Speak thou for
me!” cried she. “Thou wast my pastor, and hadst
charge of my soul, and knowest me better than these
men can. I will not lose the child! Speak for me!
Thou knowest,—for thou hast sympathies which these
men lack!—thou knowest what is in my heart, and
what are a mother's rights, and how much the stronger
they are, when that mother has but her child and the


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scarlet letter! Look thou to it! I will not lose the
child! Look to it!”

At this wild and singular appeal, which indicated that
Hester Prynne's situation had provoked her to little less
than madness, the young minister at once came forward,
pale, and holding his hand over his heart, as was
his custom whenever his peculiarly nervous temperament
was thrown into agitation. He looked now more
careworn and emaciated than as we described him at
the scene of Hester's public ignominy; and whether it
were his failing health, or whatever the cause might be,
his large dark eyes had a world of pain in their troubled
and melancholy depth.

“There is truth in what she says,” began the minister,
with a voice sweet, tremulous, but powerful, insomuch
that the hall reëchoed, and the hollow armour
rang with it,—“truth in what Hester says, and in the
feeling which inspires her! God gave her the child,
and gave her, too, an instinctive knowledge of its nature
and requirements,—both seemingly so peculiar,—
which no other mortal being can possess. And, moreover,
is there not a quality of awful sacredness in the
relation between this mother and this child?”

“Ay!—how is that, good Master Dimmesdale?”
interrupted the Governor. “Make that plain, I pray

“It must be even so,” resumed the minister. “For,
if we deem it otherwise, do we not thereby say that
the Heavenly Father, the Creator of all flesh, hath
lightly recognized a deed of sin, and made of no account
the distinction between unhallowed lust and holy


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love? This child of its father's guilt and its mother's
shame hath come from the hand of God, to work in
many ways upon her heart, who pleads so earnestly,
and with such bitterness of spirit, the right to keep her.
It was meant for a blessing; for the one blessing of her
life! It was meant, doubtless, as the mother herself
hath told us, for a retribution too; a torture, to be felt
at many an unthought of moment; a pang, a sting, an
ever-recurring agony, in the midst of a troubled joy!
Hath she not expressed this thought in the garb of the
poor child, so forcibly reminding us of that red symbol
which sears her bosom?”

“Well said, again!” cried good Mr. Wilson. “I
feared the woman had no better thought than to make
a mountebank of her child!”

“O, not so!—not so!” continued Mr. Dimmesdale.
“She recognizes, believe me, the solemn miracle which
God hath wrought, in the existence of that child. And
may she feel, too,—what, methinks, is the very truth,
—that this boon was meant, above all things else, to
keep the mother's soul alive, and to preserve her from
blacker depths of sin into which Satan might else have
sought to plunge her! Therefore it is good for this
poor, sinful woman that she hath an infant immortality,
a being capable of eternal joy or sorrow, confided to
her care,—to be trained up by her to righteousness,—
to remind her, at every moment, of her fall,—but yet
to teach her, as it were by the Creator's sacred pledge,
that, if she bring the child to heaven, the child also
will bring its parent thither! Herein is the sinful
mother happier than the sinful father. For Hester


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Prynne's sake, then, and no less for the poor child's
sake, let us leave them as Providence hath seen fit to
place them!”

“You speak, my friend, with a strange earnestness,”
said old Roger Chillingworth, smiling at him.

“And there is weighty import in what my young
brother hath spoken,” added the Reverend Mr. Wilson.
“What say you, worshipful Master Bellingham? Hath
he not pleaded well for the poor woman?”

“Indeed hath he,” answered the magistrate, “and
hath adduced such arguments, that we will even leave
the matter as it now stands; so long, at least, as there
shall be no further scandal in the woman. Care must
be had, nevertheless, to put the child to due and stated
examination in the catechism at thy hands or Master
Dimmesdale's. Moreover, at a proper season, the tithing-men
must take heed that she go both to school and
to meeting.”

The young minister, on ceasing to speak, had withdrawn
a few steps from the group, and stood with his
face partially concealed in the heavy folds of the window-curtain;
while the shadow of his figure, which the
sunlight cast upon the floor, was tremulous with the
vehemence of his appeal. Pearl, that wild and flighty
little elf, stole softly towards him, and, taking his hand
in the grasp of both her own, laid her cheek against it;
a caress so tender, and withal so unobtrusive, that her
mother, who was looking on, asked herself,—“Is that
my Pearl?” Yet she knew that there was love in the
child's heart, although it mostly revealed itself in passion,
and hardly twice in her lifetime had been softened


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by such gentleness as now. The minister,—for, save
the long-sought regards of woman, nothing is sweeter
than these marks of childish preference, accorded spontaneously
by a spiritual instinct, and therefore seeming
to imply in us something truly worthy to be loved,—
the minister looked round, laid his hand on the child's
head, hesitated an instant, and then kissed her brow.
Little Pearl's unwonted mood of sentiment lasted no
longer; she laughed, and went capering down the hall,
so airily, that old Mr. Wilson raised a question whether
even her tiptoes touched the floor.

“The little baggage hath witchcraft in her, I profess,”
said he to Mr. Dimmesdale. “She needs no old
woman's broomstick to fly withal!”

“A strange child!” remarked old Roger Chillingworth.
“It is easy to see the mother's part in her.
Would it be beyond a philosopher's research, think ye,
gentlemen, to analyze that child's nature, and, from its
make and mould, to give a shrewd guess at the

“Nay; it would be sinful, in such a question, to follow
the clew of profane philosophy,” said Mr. Wilson.
“Better to fast and pray upon it; and still better, it
may be, to leave the mystery as we find it, unless Providence
reveal it of its own accord. Thereby, every
good Christian man hath a title to show a father's kindness
towards the poor, deserted babe.”

The affair being so satisfactorily concluded, Hester
Prynne, with Pearl, departed from the house. As they
descended the steps, it is averred that the lattice of a
chamber-window was thrown open, and forth into the


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sunny day was thrust the face of Mistress Hibbins,
Governor Bellingham's bitter-tempered sister, and the
same who, a few years later, was executed as a witch.

“Hist, hist!” said she, while her ill-omened physiognomy
seemed to cast a shadow over the cheerful
newness of the house. “Wilt thou go with us to-night?
There will be a merry company in the forest; and I
wellnigh promised the Black Man that comely Hester
Prynne should make one.”

“Make my excuse to him, so please you!” answered
Hester, with a triumphant smile. “I must tarry at
home, and keep watch over my little Pearl. Had they
taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with
thee into the forest, and signed my name in the Black
Man's book too, and that with mine own blood!”

“We shall have thee there anon!” said the witch-lady,
frowning, as she drew back her head.

But here—if we suppose this interview betwixt Mistress
Hibbins and Hester Prynne to be authentic, and
not a parable—was already an illustration of the young
minister's argument against sundering the relation of a
fallen mother to the offspring of her frailty. Even thus
early had the child saved her from Satan's snare.