University of Virginia Library


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11. XI.

After the incident last described, the intercourse
between the clergyman and the physician, though externally
the same, was really of another character than
it had previously been. The intellect of Roger Chillingworth
had now a sufficiently plain path before it.
It was not, indeed, precisely that which he had laid out
for himself to tread. Calm, gentle, passionless, as he
appeared, there was yet, we fear, a quiet depth of
malice, hitherto latent, but active now, in this unfortunate
old man, which led him to imagine a more intimate
revenge than any mortal had ever wreaked upon
an enemy. To make himself the one trusted friend,
to whom should be confided all the fear, the remorse,
the agony, the ineffectual repentance, the backward
rush of sinful thoughts, expelled in vain! All that
guilty sorrow, hidden from the world, whose great heart
would have pitied and forgiven, to be revealed to him,
the Pitiless, to him, the Unforgiving! All that dark
treasure to be lavished on the very man, to whom
nothing else could so adequately pay the debt of vengeance!

The clergyman's shy and sensitive reserve had
balked this scheme. Roger Chillingworth, however,


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was inclined to be hardly, if at all, less satisfied with
the aspect of affairs, which Providence—using the
avenger and his victim for its own purposes, and, perchance,
pardoning, where it seemed most to punish—
had substituted for his black devices. A revelation, he
could almost say, had been granted to him. It mattered
little, for his object, whether celestial, or from what
other region. By its aid, in all the subsequent relations
betwixt him and Mr. Dimmesdale, not merely the external
presence, but the very inmost soul of the latter
seemed to be brought out before his eyes, so that he
could see and comprehend its every movement. He
became, thenceforth, not a spectator only, but a chief
actor, in the poor minister's interior world. He could
play upon him as he chose. Would he arouse him
with a throb of agony? The victim was for ever on
the rack; it needed only to know the spring that controlled
the engine;—and the physician knew it well!
Would he startle him with sudden fear? As at the
waving of a magician's wand, uprose a grisly phantom,
—uprose a thousand phantoms,—in many shapes, of
death, or more awful shame, all flocking round about
the clergyman, and pointing with their fingers at his

All this was accomplished with a subtlety so perfect,
that the minister, though he had constantly a dim perception
of some evil influence watching over him, could
never gain a knowledge of its actual nature. True,
he looked doubtfully, fearfully,—even, at times, with
horror and the bitterness of hatred,—at the deformed
figure of the old physician. His gestures, his gait, his


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grizzled beard, his slightest and most indifferent acts,
the very fashion of his garments, were odious in the
clergyman's sight; a token, implicitly to be relied on,
of a deeper antipathy in the breast of the latter than
he was willing to acknowledge to himself. For, as it
was impossible to assign a reason for such distrust and
abhorrence, so Mr. Dimmesdale, conscious that the poison
of one morbid spot was infecting his heart's entire
substance, attributed all his presentiments to no other
cause. He took himself to task for his bad sympathies
in reference to Roger Chillingworth, disregarded the
lesson that he should have drawn from them, and did
his best to root them out. Unable to accomplish this,
he nevertheless, as a matter of principle, continued his
habits of social familiarity with the old man, and thus
gave him constant opportunities for perfecting the purpose
to which—poor, forlorn creature that he was, and
more wretched than his victim—the avenger had devoted

While thus suffering under bodily disease, and gnawed
and tortured by some black trouble of the soul, and
given over to the machinations of his deadliest enemy,
the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale had achieved a brilliant
popularity in his sacred office. He won it, indeed, in
great part, by his sorrows. His intellectual gifts, his
moral perceptions, his power of experiencing and communicating
emotion, were kept in a state of preternatural
activity by the prick and anguish of his daily life.
His fame, though still on its upward slope, already
overshadowed the soberer reputations of his fellow-clergymen,
eminent as several of them were. There


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were scholars among them, who had spent more years
in acquiring abstruse lore, connected with the divine
profession, than Mr. Dimmesdale had lived; and who
might well, therefore, be more profoundly versed in
such solid and valuable attainments than their youthful
brother. There were men, too, of a sturdier texture of
mind than his, and endowed with a far greater share of
shrewd, hard, iron or granite understanding; which,
duly mingled with a fair proportion of doctrinal ingredient,
constitutes a highly respectable, efficacious, and
unamiable variety of the clerical species. There were
others, again, true saintly fathers, whose faculties had
been elaborated by weary toil among their books, and by
patient thought, and etherealized, moreover, by spiritual
communications with the better world, into which their
purity of life had almost introduced these holy personages,
with their garments of mortality still clinging to
them. All that they lacked was the gift that descended
upon the chosen disciples, at Pentecost, in tongues of
flame; symbolizing, it would seem, not the power of
speech in foreign and unknown languages, but that of
addressing the whole human brotherhood in the heart's
native language. These fathers, otherwise so apostolic,
lacked Heaven's last and rarest attestation of their
office, the Tongue of Flame. They would have vainly
sought—had they ever dreamed of seeking—to express
the highest truths through the humblest medium
of familiar words and images. Their voices came
down, afar and indistinctly, from the upper heights
where they habitually dwelt.

Not improbably, it was to this latter class of men that


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Mr. Dimmesdale, by many of his traits of character,
naturally belonged. To their high mountain-peaks of
faith and sanctity he would have climbed, had not the
tendency been thwarted by the burden, whatever it
might be, of crime or anguish, beneath which it was his
doom to totter. It kept him down, on a level with the
lowest; him, the man of ethereal attributes, whose
voice the angles might else have listened to and answered!
But this very burden it was, that gave him
sympathies so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of
mankind; so that his heart vibrated in unison with
theirs, and received their pain into itself, and sent its
own throb of pain through a thousand other hearts, in
gushes of sad, persuasive eloquence. Oftenest persuasive,
but sometimes terrible! The people knew not
the power that moved them thus. They deemed the
young clergyman a miracle of holiness. They fancied
him the mouth-piece of Heaven's messages of wisdom,
and rebuke, and love. In their eyes, the very ground
on which he trod was sanctified. The virgins of his
church grew pale around him, victims of a passion so
imbued with religious sentiment that they imagined it
to be all religion, and brought it openly, in their white
bosoms, as their most acceptable sacrifice before the
altar. The aged members of his flock, beholding Mr.
Dimmesdale's frame so feeble, while they were themselves
so rugged in their infirmity, believed that he
would go heavenward before them, and enjoined it
upon their children, that their old bones should be buried
close to their young pastor's holy grave. And, all
this time, perchance, when poor Mr. Dimmesdale was


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thinking of his grave, he questioned with himself
whether the grass would ever grow on it, because an
accursed thing must there be buried!

It is inconceivable, the agony with which this public
veneration tortured him! It was his genuine impulse
to adore the truth, and to reckon all things shadow-like,
and utterly devoid of weight or value, that had not its
divine essence as the life within their life. Then, what
was he?—a substance?—or the dimmest of all shadows?
He longed to speak out, from his own pulpit, at
the full height of his voice, and tell the people what he
was. “I, whom you behold in these black garments of
the priesthood,—I, who ascend the sacred desk, and
turn my pale face heavenward, taking upon myself to
hold communion, in your behalf, with the Most High
Omniscience,—I, in whose daily life you discern the
sanctity of Enoch,—I, whose footsteps, as you suppose,
leave a gleam along my earthly track, whereby
the pilgrims that shall come after me may be guided
to the regions of the blest,—I, who have laid the hand
of baptism upon your children,—I, who have breathed
the parting prayer over your dying friends, to whom
the Amen sounded faintly from a world which they had
quitted,—I, your pastor, whom you so reverence and
trust, am utterly a pollution and a lie!”

More than once, Mr. Dimmesdale had gone into the
pulpit, with a purpose never to come down its steps,
until he should have spoken words like the above.
More than once, he had cleared his throat, and drawn
in the long, deep, and tremulous breath, which, when
sent forth again, would come burdened with the black


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secret of his soul. More than once—nay, more than
a hundred times—he had actually spoken! Spoken!
But how? He had told his hearers that he was altogether
vile, a viler companion of the vilest, the worst
of sinners, an abomination, a thing of unimaginable
iniquity; and that the only wonder was, that they did
not see his wretched body shrivelled up before their
eyes, by the burning wrath of the Almighty! Could
there be plainer speech than this? Would not the
people start up in their seats, by a simultaneous impulse,
and tear him down out of the pulpit which he
defiled? Not so, indeed! They heard it all, and did
but reverence him the more. They little guessed what
deadly purport lurked in those self-condemning words.
“The godly youth!” said they among themselves.
“The saint on earth! Alas, if he discern such sinfulness
in his own white soul, what horrid spectacle
would he behold in thine or mine!” The minister
well knew—subtle, but remorseful hypocrite that he
was!—the light in which his vague confession would
be viewed. He had striven to put a cheat upon himself
by making the avowal of a guilty conscience, but
had gained only one other sin, and a self-acknowledged
shame, without the momentary relief of being self-deceived.
He had spoken the very truth, and transformed
it into the veriest falsehood. And yet, by the
constitution of his nature, he loved the truth, and
loathed the lie, as few men ever did. Therefore,
above all things else, he loathed his miserable self!

His inward trouble drove him to practices, more in
accordance with the old, corrupted faith of Rome, than


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with the better light of the church in which he had
been born and bred. In Mr. Dimmesdale's secret
closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge.
Oftentimes, this Protestant and Puritan divine had plied
it on his own shoulders; laughing bitterly at himself
the while, and smiting so much the more pitilessly, because
of that bitter laugh. It was his custom, too, as
it has been that of many other pious Puritans, to fast,
—not, however, like them, in order to purify the body
and render it the fitter medium of celestial illumination,
—but rigorously, and until his knees trembled beneath
him, as an act of penance. He kept vigils, likewise,
night after night, sometimes in utter darkness; sometimes
with a glimmering lamp; and sometimes, viewing
his own face in a looking-glass, by the most powerful
light which he could throw upon it. He thus
typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured,
but could not purify, himself. In these lengthened
vigils, his brain often reeled, and visions seemed to flit
before him; perhaps seen doubtfully, and by a faint
light of their own, in the remote dimness of the chamber,
or more vividly, and close beside him, within the
looking-glass. Now it was a herd of diabolic shapes,
that grinned and mocked at the pale minister, and
beckoned him away with them; now a group of shining
angels, who flew upward heavily, as sorrow-laden, but
grew more ethereal as they rose. Now came the dead
friends of his youth, and his white-bearded father, with
a saint-like frown, and his mother, turning her face
away as she passed by. Ghost of a mother,—thinnest
fantasy of a mother,—methinks she might yet


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have thrown a pitying glance towards her son! And
now, through the chamber which these spectral thoughts
had made so ghastly, glided Hester Prynne, leading
along little Pearl, in her scarlet garb, and pointing her
forefinger, first, at the scarlet letter on her bosom, and
then at the clergyman's own breast.

None of these visions ever quite deluded him. At
any moment, by an effort of his will, he could discern
substances through their misty lack of substance, and
convince himself that they were not solid in their
nature, like yonder table of carved oak, or that big,
square, leathern-bound and brazen-clasped volume of
divinity. But, for all that, they were, in one sense,
the truest and most substantial things which the poor
minister now dealt with. It is the unspeakable misery
of a life so false as his, that it steals the pith and substance
out of whatever realities there are around us,
and which were meant by Heaven to be the spirit's joy
and nutriment. To the untrue man, the whole universe
is false,—it is impalpable,—it shrinks to nothing within
his grasp. And he himself, in so far as he shows
himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed,
ceases to exist. The only truth, that continued to give
Mr. Dimmesdale a real existence on this earth, was the
anguish in his inmost soul, and the undissembled expression
of it in his aspect. Had he once found power
to smile, and wear a face of gayety, there would have
been no such man!

On one of those ugly nights, which we have faintly
hinted at, but forborne to picture forth, the minister
started from his chair. A new thought had struck him.


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There might be a moment's peace in it. Attiring himself
with as much care as if it had been for public
worship, and precisely in the same manner, he stole
softly down the staircase, undid the door, and issued