University of Virginia Library


Page 177

12. XII.

Walking in the shadow of a dream, as it were, and
perhaps actually under the influence of a species of
somnambulism, Mr. Dimmesdale reached the spot,
where, now so long since, Hester Prynne had lived
through her first hour of public ignominy. The same
platform or scaffold, black and weather-stained with
the storm or sunshine of seven long years, and foot-worn,
too, with the tread of many culprits who had
since ascended it, remained standing beneath the balcony
of the meeting-house. The minister went up the

It was an obscure night of early May. An unvaried
pall of cloud muffled the whole expanse of sky from
zenith to horizon. If the same multitude which had
stood as eyewitnesses while Hester Prynne sustained
her punishment could now have been summoned forth,
they would have discerned no face above the platform,
nor hardly the outline of a human shape, in the dark
gray of the midnight. But the town was all asleep.
There was no peril of discovery. The minister might
stand there, if it so pleased him, until morning should
redden in the east, without other risk than that the dank
and chill night-air would creep into his frame, and


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stiffen his joints with rheumatism, and clog his throat
with catarrh and cough; thereby defrauding the expectant
audience of to-morrow's prayer and sermon. No
eye could see him, save that ever-wakeful one which
had seen him in his closet, wielding the bloody scourge.
Why, then, had he come hither? Was it but the mockery
of penitence? A mockery, indeed, but in which
his soul trifled with itself! A mockery at which angels
blushed and wept, while fiends rejoiced, with jeering
laughter! He had been driven hither by the impulse
of that Remorse which dogged him everywhere, and
whose own sister and closely linked companion was
that Cowardice which invariably drew him back, with
her tremulous gripe, just when the other impulse had
hurried him to the verge of a disclosure. Poor, miserable
man! what right had infirmity like his to burden
itself with crime? Crime is for the iron-nerved, who
have their choice either to endure it, or, if it press too
hard, to exert their fierce and savage strength for a
good purpose, and fling it off at once! This feeble and
most sensitive of spirits could do neither, yet continually
did one thing or another, which intertwined, in the
same inextricable knot, the agony of heaven-defying
guilt and vain repentance.

And thus, while standing on the scaffold, in this vain
show of expiation, Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with
a great horror of mind, as if the universe were gazing
at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over his
heart. On that spot, in very truth, there was, and
there had long been, the gnawing and poisonous tooth
of bodily pain. Without any effort of his will, or


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power to restrain himself, he shrieked aloud; an outcry
that went pealing through the night, and was beaten
back from one house to another, and reverberated from
the hills in the background; as if a company of devils,
detecting so much misery and terror in it, had made a
plaything of the sound, and were bandying it to and

“It is done!” muttered the minister, covering his
face with his hands. “The whole town will awake,
and hurry forth, and find me here!”

But it was not so. The shriek had perhaps sounded
with a far greater power, to his own startled ears, than
it actually possessed. The town did not awake; or, if
it did, the drowsy slumberers mistook the cry either for
something frightful in a dream, or for the noise of
witches; whose voices, at that period, were often heard
to pass over the settlements or lonely cottages, as they
rode with Satan through the air. The clergyman,
therefore, hearing no symptoms of disturbance, uncovered
his eyes and looked about him. At one of the
chamber-windows of Governor Bellingham's mansion,
which stood at some distance, on the line of another
street, he beheld the appearance of the old magistrate
himself, with a lamp in his hand, a white night-cap on
his head, and a long white gown enveloping his figure.
He looked like a ghost, evoked unseasonably from the
grave. The cry had evidently startled him. At another
window of the same house, moreover, appeared old
Mistress Hibbins, the Governor's sister, also with a
lamp, which, even thus far off, revealed the expression
of her sour and discontented face. She thrust forth


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her head from the lattice, and looked anxiously upward.
Beyond the shadow of a doubt, this venerable witch-lady
had heard Mr. Dimmesdale's outcry, and interpreted
it, with its multitudinous echoes and reverberations,
as the clamor of the fiends and night-hags, with
whom she was well known to make excursions into the

Detecting the gleam of Governor Bellingham's lamp,
the old lady quickly extinguished her own, and vanished.
Possibly, she went up among the clouds. The
minister saw nothing further of her motions. The
magistrate, after a wary observation of the darkness—
into which, nevertheless, he could see but little farther
than he might into a mill-stone—retired from the

The minister grew comparatively calm. His eyes,
however, were soon greeted by a little, glimmering light,
which, at first a long way off, was approaching up the
street. It threw a gleam of recognition on here a post,
and there a garden-fence, and here a latticed windowpane,
and there a pump, with its full trough of water,
and here, again, an arched door of oak, with an iron
knocker, and a rough log for the door-step. The Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale noted all these minute particulars,
even while firmly convinced that the doom of his
existence was stealing onward, in the footsteps which
he now heard; and that the gleam of the lantern would
fall upon him, in a few moments more, and reveal his
long-hidden secret. As the light drew nearer, he beheld,
within its illuminated circle, his brother clergyman,—or,
to speak more accurately, his professional


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father, as well as highly valued friend,—the Reverend
Mr. Wilson; who, as Mr. Dimmesdale now conjectured,
had been praying at the bedside of some dying
man. And so he had. The good old minister came
freshly from the death-chamber of Governor Winthrop,
who had passed from earth to heaven within that very
hour. And now, surrounded, like the saint-like personages
of olden times, with a radiant halo, that glorified
him amid this gloomy night of sin,—as if the departed
Governor had left him an inheritance of his glory, or
as if he had caught upon himself the distant shine of
the celestial city, while looking thitherward to see the
triumphant pilgrim pass within its gates,—now, in
short, good Father Wilson was moving homeward, aiding
his footsteps with a lighted lantern! The glimmer
of this luminary suggested the above conceits to Mr.
Dimmesdale, who smiled,—nay, almost laughed at
them,—and then wondered if he were going mad.

As the Reverend Mr. Wilson passed beside the scaffold,
closely muffling his Geneva cloak about him with
one arm, and holding the lantern before his breast with
the other, the minister could hardly restrain himself
from speaking.

“A good evening to you, venerable Father Wilson!
Come up hither, I pray you, and pass a pleasant hour
with me!”

Good heavens! Had Mr. Dimmesdale actually
spoken? For one instant, he believed that these words
had passed his lips. But they were uttered only within
his imagination. The venerable Father Wilson continued
to step slowly onward, looking carefully at the


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muddy pathway before his feet, and never once turning
his head towards the guilty platform. When the light
of the glimmering lantern had faded quite away, the
minister discovered, by the faintness which came over
him, that the last few moments had been a crisis of terrible
anxiety; although his mind had made an involuntary
effort to relieve itself by a kind of lurid playfulness.

Shortly afterwards, the like grisly sense of the humorous
again stole in among the solemn phantoms of
his thought. He felt his limbs growing stiff with the
unaccustomed chilliness of the night, and doubted
whether he should be able to descend the steps of the
scaffold. Morning would break, and find him there.
The neighbourhood would begin to rouse itself. The
earliest riser, coming forth in the dim twilight, would
perceive a vaguely defined figure aloft on the place of
shame; and, half crazed betwixt alarm and curiosity,
would go, knocking from door to door, summoning all
the people to behold the ghost—as he needs must
think it—of some defunct transgressor. A dusky
tumult would flap its wings from one house to another.
Then—the morning light still waxing stronger—old
patriarchs would rise up in great haste, each in his flannel
gown, and matronly dames, without pausing to put
off their night-gear. The whole tribe of decorous personages,
who had never heretofore been seen with a
single hair of their heads awry, would start into public
view, with the disorder of a nightmare in their aspects.
Old Governor Bellingham would come grimly forth,
with his King James's ruff fastened askew; and Mistress


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Hibbins, with some twigs of the forest clinging to her
skirts, and looking sourer than ever, as having hardly
got a wink of sleep after her night ride; and good
Father Wilson, too, after spending half the night at a
death-bed, and liking ill to be disturbed, thus early,
out of his dreams about the glorified saints. Hither,
likewise, would come the elders and deacons of Mr.
Dimmesdale's church, and the young virgins who so
idolized their minister, and had made a shrine for him
in their white bosoms; which, now, by the by, in their
hurry and confusion, they would scantly have given
themselves time to cover with their kerchiefs. All
people, in a word, would come stumbling over their
thresholds, and turning up their amazed and horror-stricken
visages around the scaffold. Whom would
they discern there, with the red eastern light upon his
brow? Whom, but the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale,
half frozen to death, overwhelmed with shame,
and standing where Hester Prynne had stood!

Carried away by the grotesque horror of this picture,
the minister, unawares, and to his own infinite alarm,
burst into a great peal of laughter. It was immediately
responded to by a light, airy, childish laugh, in which,
with a thrill of the heart,—but he knew not whether
of exquisite pain, or pleasure as acute,—he recognized
the tones of little Pearl.

“Pearl! Little Pearl!” cried he, after a moment's
pause; then, suppressing his voice,—“Hester! Hester
Prynne! Are you there?”

“Yes; it is Hester Prynne!” she replied, in a tone
of surprise; and the minister heard her footsteps approaching


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from the sidewalk, along which she had been
passing.—“It is I, and my little Pearl.”

“Whence come you, Hester?” asked the minister.
“What sent you hither?”

“I have been watching at a death-bed,” answered
Hester Prynne;—“at Governor Winthrop's death-bed,
and have taken his measure for a robe, and am now
going homeward to my dwelling.”

“Come up hither, Hester, thou and little Pearl,”
said the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. “Ye have both
been here before, but I was not with you. Come up
hither once again, and we will stand all three together!”

She silently ascended the steps, and stood on the
platform, holding little Pearl by the hand. The minister
felt for the child's other hand, and took it. The
moment that he did so, there came what seemed a tumultuous
rush of new life, other life than his own,
pouring like a torrent into his heart, and hurrying
through all his veins, as if the mother and the child
were communicating their vital warmth to his half-torpid
system. The three formed an electric chain.

“Minister!” whispered little Pearl.

“What wouldst thou say, child?” asked Mr. Dimmesdale.

“Wilt thou stand here with mother and me, to-morrow
noontide?” inquired Pearl.

“Nay; not so, my little Pearl!” answered the minister;
for, with the new energy of the moment, all the
dread of public exposure, that had so long been the
anguish of his life, had returned upon him; and he was


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already trembling at the conjunction in which—with
a strange joy, nevertheless—he now found himself.
“Not so, my child. I shall, indeed, stand with thy
mother and thee one other day, but not to-morrow!”

Pearl laughed, and attempted to pull away her hand.
But the minister held it fast.

“A moment longer, my child!” said he.

“But wilt thou promise,” asked Pearl, “to take my
hand, and mother's hand, to-morrow noontide?”

“Not then, Pearl,” said the minister, “but another

“And what other time?” persisted the child.

“At the great judgment day!” whispered the minister,—and,
strangely enough, the sense that he was a
professional teacher of the truth impelled him to answer
the child so. “Then, and there, before the
judgment-seat, thy mother, and thou, and I, must stand
together! But the daylight of this world shall not see
our meeting!”

Pearl laughed again.

But, before Mr. Dimmesdale had done speaking, a
light gleamed far and wide over all the muffled sky.
It was doubtless caused by one of those meteors, which
the night-watcher may so often observe burning out to
waste, in the vacant regions of the atmosphere. So
powerful was its radiance, that it thoroughly illuminated
the dense medium of cloud betwixt the sky and earth.
The great vault brightened, like the dome of an immense
lamp. It showed the familiar scene of the
street, with the distinctness of mid-day, but also with
the awfulness that is always imparted to familiar objects


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by an unaccustomed light. The wooden houses, with
their jutting stories and quaint gable-peaks; the door-steps
and thresholds, with the early grass springing up
about them; the garden-plots, black with freshly turned
earth; the wheel-track, little worn, and, even in the
market-place, margined with green on either side;—
all were visible, but with a singularity of aspect that
seemed to give another moral interpretation to the
things of this world than they had ever borne before.
And there stood the minister, with his hand over his
heart; and Hester Prynne, with the embroidered letter
glimmering on her bosom; and little Pearl, herself a
symbol, and the connecting link between those two.
They stood in the noon of that strange and solemn
splendor, as if it were the light that is to reveal all
secrets, and the daybreak that shall unite all who belong
to one another.

There was witchcraft in little Pearl's eyes; and her
face, as she glanced upward at the minister, wore that
naughty smile which made its expression frequently so
elvish. She withdrew her hand from Mr. Dimmesdale's,
and pointed across the street. But he clasped
both his hands over his breast, and cast his eyes towards
the zenith.

Nothing was more common, in those days, than to
interpret all meteoric appearances, and other natural
phenomena, that occurred with less regularity than the
rise and set of sun and moon, as so many revelations
from a supernatural source. Thus, a blazing spear, a
sword of flame, a bow, or a sheaf of arrows, seen in
the midnight sky, prefigured Indian warfare. Pestilence


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was known to have been foreboded by a shower of
crimson light. We doubt whether any marked event,
for good or evil, ever befell New England, from its settlement
down to Revolutionary times, of which the inhabitants
had not been previously warned by some
spectacle of this nature. Not seldom, it had been seen
by multitudes. Oftener, however, its credibility rested
on the faith of some lonely eyewitness, who beheld
the wonder through the colored, magnifying, and distorting
medium of his imagination, and shaped it more
distinctly in his after-thought. It was, indeed, a majestic
idea, that the destiny of nations should be revealed, in
these awful hieroglyphics, on the cope of heaven. A
scroll so wide might not be deemed too expansive for
Providence to write a people's doom upon. The belief
was a favorite one with our forefathers, as betokening
that their infant commonwealth was under a celestial
guardianship of peculiar intimacy and strictness. But
what shall we say, when an individual discovers a revelation,
addressed to himself alone, on the same vast
sheet of record! In such a case, it could only be the
symptom of a highly disordered mental state, when a
man, rendered morbidly self-contemplative by long,
intense, and secret pain, had extended his egotism over
the whole expanse of nature, until the firmament itself
should appear no more than a fitting page for his soul's
history and fate.

We impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his
own eye and heart, that the minister, looking upward
to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense
letter,—the letter A,—marked out in lines of


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dull red light. Not but the meteor may have shown
itself at that point, burning duskily through a veil of
cloud; but with no such shape as his guilty imagination
gave it; or, at least, with so little definiteness, that
another's guilt might have seen another symbol in it.

There was a singular circumstance that characterized
Mr. Dimmesdale's psychological state, at this
moment. All the time that he gazed upward to
the zenith, he was, nevertheless, perfectly aware that
little Pearl was pointing her finger towards old Roger
Chillingworth, who stood at no great distance from the
scaffold. The minister appeared to see him, with the
same glance that discerned the miraculous letter. To
his features, as to all other objects, the meteoric light
imparted a new expression; or it might well be that
the physician was not careful then, as at all other
times, to hide the malevolence with which he looked
upon his victim. Certainly, if the meteor kindled up
the sky, and disclosed the earth, with an awfulness that
admonished Hester Prynne and the clergyman of the
day of judgment, then might Roger Chillingworth
have passed with them for the arch-fiend, standing
there, with a smile and scowl, to claim his own. So
vivid was the expression, or so intense the minister's
perception of it, that it seemed still to remain painted
on the darkness, after the meteor had vanished, with
an effect as if the street and all things else were at
once annihilated.

“Who is that man, Hester?” gasped Mr. Dimmesdale,
overcome with terror. “I shiver at him! Dost
thou know the man? I hate him, Hester!”


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She remembered her oath, and was silent.

“I tell thee, my soul shivers at him,” muttered the
minister again. “Who is he? Who is he? Canst
thou do nothing for me? I have a nameless horror of
the man.”

“Minister,” said little Pearl, “I can tell thee who he

“Quickly, then, child!” said the minister, bending
his ear close to her lips. “Quickly!—and as low as
thou canst whisper.”

Pearl mumbled something into his ear, that sounded,
indeed, like human language, but was only such gibberish
as children may be heard amusing themselves with,
by the hour together. At all events, if it involved any
secret information in regard to old Roger Chillingworth,
it was in a tongue unknown to the erudite clergyman,
and did but increase the bewilderment of his mind.
The elvish child then laughed aloud.

“Dost thou mock me now?” said the minister.

“Thou wast not bold!—thou wast not true!” answered
the child. “Thou wouldst not promise to take
my hand, and mother's hand, to-morrow noontide!”

“Worthy Sir,” said the physician, who had now
advanced to the foot of the platform. “Pious Master
Dimmesdale! can this be you? Well, well, indeed!
We men of study, whose heads are in our books, have
need to be straitly looked after! We dream in our
waking moments, and walk in our sleep. Come, good
Sir, and my dear friend, I pray you, let me lead you

“How knewest thou that I was here?” asked the
minister, fearfully.


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“Verily, and in good faith,” answered Roger Chillingworth,
“I knew nothing of the matter. I had spent
the better part of the night at the bedside of the worshipful
Governor Winthrop, doing what my poor skill
might to give him ease. He going home to a better
world, I, likewise, was on my way homeward, when
this strange light shone out. Come with me, I beseech
you, Reverend Sir; else you will be poorly able to do
Sabbath duty to-morrow. Aha! see now, how they
trouble the brain,—these books!—these books! You
should study less, good Sir, and take a little pastime;
or these night-whimseys will grow upon you!”

“I will go home with you,” said Mr. Dimmesdale.

With a chill despondency, like one awaking, all
nerveless, from an ugly dream, he yielded himself to
the physician, and was led away.

The next day, however, being the Sabbath, he
preached a discourse which was held to be the richest
and most powerful, and the most replete with heavenly
influences, that had ever proceeded from his lips.
Souls, it is said, more souls than one, were brought to
the truth by the efficacy of that sermon, and vowed
within themselves to cherish a holy gratitude towards
Mr. Dimmesdale throughout the long hereafter. But,
as he came down the pulpit-steps, the gray-bearded sexton
met him, holding up a black glove, which the minister
recognized as his own.

“It was found,” said the sexton, “this morning, on
the scaffold, where evil-doers are set up to public
shame. Satan dropped it there, I take it, intending a
scurrilous jest against your reverence. But, indeed, he


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was blind and foolish, as he ever and always is. A
pure hand needs no glove to cover it!”

“Thank you, my good friend,” said the minister
gravely, but startled at heart; for, so confused was his
remembrance, that he had almost brought himself to
look at the events of the past night as visionary. “Yes,
it seems to be my glove indeed!”

“And, since Satan saw fit to steal it, your reverence
must needs handle him without gloves, henceforward,”
remarked the old sexton, grimly smiling. “But did
your reverence hear of the portent that was seen last
night? A great red letter in the sky,—the letter A,
—which we interpret to stand for Angel. For, as our
good Governor Winthrop was made an angel this past
night, it was doubtless held fit that there should be some
notice thereof!”

“No,” answered the minister. “I had not heard
of it.”