University of Virginia Library


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15. XV.

So Roger Chillingworth—a deformed old figure,
with a face that haunted men's memories longer than
they liked—took leave of Hester Prynne, and went
stooping away along the earth. He gathered here and
there an herb, or grubbed up a root, and put it into the
basket on his arm. His gray beard almost touched the
ground, as he crept onward. Hester gazed after him
a little while, looking with a half-fantastic curiosity to
see whether the tender grass of early spring would not
be blighted beneath him, and show the wavering track
of his footsteps, sere and brown, across its cheerful
verdure. She wondered what sort of herbs they were,
which the old man was so sedulous to gather. Would
not the earth, quickened to an evil purpose by the sympathy
of his eye, greet him with poisonous shrubs, of
species hitherto unknown, that would start up under his
fingers? Or might it suffice him, that every wholesome
growth should be converted into something deleterious
and malignant at his touch? Did the sun, which shone
so brightly everywhere else, really fall upon him? Or
was there, as it rather seemed, a circle of ominous
shadow moving along with his deformity, whichever
way he turned himself? And whither was he now


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going? Would he not suddenly sink into the earth,
leaving a barren and blasted spot, where, in due
course of time, would be seen deadly nightshade,
dogwood, henbane, and whatever else of vegetable
wickedness the climate could produce, all flourishing
with hideous luxuriance? Or would he spread
bat's wings and flee away, looking so much the uglier,
the higher he rose towards heaven?

“Be it sin or no,” said Hester Prynne bitterly, as
she still gazed after him, “I hate the man!”

She upbraided herself for the sentiment, but could
not overcome or lessen it. Attempting to do so, she
thought of those long-past days, in a distant land, when
he used to emerge at eventide from the seclusion of his
study, and sit down in the fire-light of their home, and
in the light of her nuptial smile. He needed to bask
himself in that smile, he said, in order that the chill of
so many lonely hours among his books might be taken
off the scholar's heart. Such scenes had once appeared
not otherwise than happy, but now, as viewed through
the dismal medium of her subsequent life, they classed
themselves among her ugliest remembrances. She
marvelled how such scenes could have been! She
marvelled how she could ever have been wrought upon
to marry him! She deemed it her crime most to be
repented of, that she had ever endured, and reciprocated,
the lukewarm grasp of his hand, and had suffered
the smile of her lips and eyes to mingle and
melt into his own. And it seemed a fouler offence
committed by Roger Chillingworth, than any which
had since been done him, that, in the time when her


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heart knew no better, he had persuaded her to fancy
herself happy by his side.

“Yes, I hate him!” repeated Hester, more bitterly
than before. “He betrayed me! He has done me
worse wrong than I did him!”

Let men tremble to win the hand of woman, unless
they win along with it the utmost passion of her heart!
Else it may be their miserable fortune, as it was Roger
Chillingworth's, when some mightier touch than their
own may have awakened all her sensibilities, to be reproached
even for the calm content, the marble image
of happiness, which they will have imposed upon her
as the warm reality. But Hester ought long ago to
have done with this injustice. What did it betoken?
Had seven long years, under the torture of the scarlet
letter, inflicted so much of misery, and wrought out no

The emotions of that brief space, while she stood
gazing after the crooked figure of old Roger Chillingworth,
threw a dark light on Hester's state of mind,
revealing much that she might not otherwise have
acknowledged to herself.

He being gone, she summoned back her child.

“Pearl! Little Pearl! Where are you?”

Pearl, whose activity of spirit never flagged, had
been at no loss for amusement while her mother talked
with the old gatherer of herbs. At first, as already
told, she had flirted fancifully with her own image in
a pool of water, beckoning the phantom forth, and—
as it declined to venture—seeking a passage for herself
into its sphere of impalpable earth and unattainable


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sky. Soon finding, however, that either she or
the image was unreal, she turned elsewhere for better
pastime. She made little boats out of birch-bark, and
freighted them with snail-shells, and sent out more
ventures on the mighty deep than any merchant in
New England; but the larger part of them foundered
near the shore. She seized a live horseshoe by
the tail, and made prize of several five-fingers, and laid
out a jelly-fish to melt in the warm sun. Then she
took up the white foam, that streaked the line of the
advancing tide, and threw it upon the breeze, scampering
after it with winged footsteps, to catch the great
snow-flakes ere they fell. Perceiving a flock of beach-birds,
that fed and fluttered along the shore, the naughty
child picked up her apron full of pebbles, and, creeping
from rock to rock after these small sea-fowl, displayed
remarkable dexterity in pelting them. One little
gray bird, with a white breast, Pearl was almost
sure, had been hit by a pebble, and fluttered away with
a broken wing. But then the elf-child sighed, and gave
up her sport; because it grieved her to have done
harm to a little being that was as wild as the sea-breeze,
or as wild as Pearl herself.

Her final employment was to gather sea-weed, of
various kinds, and make herself a scarf, or mantle, and
a head-dress, and thus assume the aspect of a little
mermaid. She inherited her mother's gift for devising
drapery and costume. As the last touch to her mermaid's
garb, Pearl took some eel-grass, and imitated,
as best she could, on her own bosom, the decoration
with which she was so familiar on her mother's. A


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letter,—the letter A,—but freshly green, instead of
scarlet! The child bent her chin upon her breast, and
contemplated this device with strange interest; even as
if the one only thing for which she had been sent into
the world was to make out its hidden import.

“I wonder if mother will ask me what it means!”
thought Pearl.

Just then, she heard her mother's voice, and, flitting
along as lightly as one of the little sea-birds, appeared
before Hester Prynne, dancing, laughing, and pointing
her finger to the ornament upon her bosom.

“My little Pearl,” said Hester, after a moment's silence,
“the green letter, and on thy childish bosom,
has no purport. But dost thou know, my child, what
this letter means which thy mother is doomed to

“Yes, mother,” said the child. “It is the great letter
A. Thou hast taught it me in the horn-book.”

Hester looked steadily into her little face; but,
though there was that singular expression which she
had so often remarked in her black eyes, she could not
satisfy herself whether Pearl really attached any meaning
to the symbol. She felt a morbid desire to ascertain
the point.

“Dost thou know, child, wherefore thy mother wears
this letter?”

“Truly do I!” answered Pearl, looking brightly into
her mother's face. “It is for the same reason that the
minister keeps his hand over his heart!”

“And what reason is that?” asked Hester, half
smiling at the absurd incongruity of the child's observation;


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but, on second thoughts, turning pale. “What
has the letter to do with any heart, save mine?”

“Nay, mother, I have told all I know,” said Pearl,
more seriously than she was wont to speak. “Ask
yonder old man whom thou hast been talking with! It
may be he can tell. But in good earnest now, mother
dear, what does this scarlet letter mean?—and why
dost thou wear it on thy bosom?—and why does the
minister keep his hand over his heart?”

She took her mother's hand in both her own, and
gazed into her eyes with an earnestness that was seldom
seen in her wild and capricious character. The
thought occurred to Hester, that the child might really
be seeking to approach her with childlike confidence,
and doing what she could, and as intelligently as she
knew how, to establish a meeting-point of sympathy.
It showed Pearl in an unwonted aspect. Heretofore,
the mother, while loving her child with the intensity of
a sole affection, had schooled herself to hope for little
other return than the waywardness of an April breeze;
which spends its time in airy sport, and has its gusts
of inexplicable passion, and is petulant in its best of
moods, and chills oftener than caresses you, when you
take it to your bosom; in requital of which misdemeanours,
it will sometimes, of its own vague purpose, kiss
your cheek with a kind of doubtful tenderness, and
play gently with your hair, and then begone about its
other idle business, leaving a dreamy pleasure at your
heart. And this, moreover, was a mother's estimate of
the child's disposition. Any other observer might have
seen few but unamiable traits, and have given them a


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far darker coloring. But now the idea came strongly
into Hester's mind, that Pearl, with her remarkable
precocity and acuteness, might already have approached
the age when she could be made a friend, and intrusted
with as much of her mother's sorrows as could
be imparted, without irreverence either to the parent or
the child. In the little chaos of Pearl's character, there
might be seen emerging—and could have been, from
the very first—the stedfast principles of an unflinching
courage,—an uncontrollable will,—a sturdy pride,
which might be disciplined into self-respect,—and a
bitter scorn of many things, which, when examined,
might be found to have the taint of falsehood in them.
She possessed affections, too, though hitherto acrid and
disagreeable, as are the richest flavors of unripe fruit.
With all these sterling attributes, thought Hester, the evil
which she inherited from her mother must be great indeed,
if a noble woman do not grow out of this elfish

Pearl's inevitable tendency to hover about the enigma
of the scarlet letter seemed an innate quality of
her being. From the earliest epoch of her conscious
life, she had entered upon this as her appointed mission.
Hester had often fancied that Providence had a
design of justice and retribution, in endowing the child
with this marked propensity; but never, until now, had
she bethought herself to ask, whether, linked with that
design, there might not likewise be a purpose of mercy
and beneficence. If little Pearl were entertained with
faith and trust, as a spirit-messenger no less than an
earthly child, might it not be her errand to soothe away


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the sorrow that lay cold in her mother's heart, and
converted it into a tomb?—and to help her to overcome
the passion, once so wild, and even yet neither
dead nor asleep, but only imprisoned within the same
tomb-like heart?

Such were some of the thoughts that now stirred in
Hester's mind, with as much vivacity of impression as
if they had actually been whispered into her ear. And
there was little Pearl, all this while, holding her mother's
hand in both her own, and turning her face upward,
while she put these searching questions, once,
and again, and still a third time.

“What does the letter mean, mother?—and why
dost thou wear it?—and why does the minister keep
his hand over his heart?”

“What shall I say?” thought Hester to herself.—
“No! If this be the price of the child's sympathy, I
cannot pay it!”

Then she spoke aloud.

“Silly Pearl,” said she, “what questions are these?
There are many things in this world that a child must
not ask about. What know I of the minister's heart?
And as for the scarlet letter, I wear it for the sake of
its gold thread!”

In all the seven bygone years, Hester Prynne had
never before been false to the symbol on her bosom.
It may be that it was the talisman of a stern and
severe, but yet a guardian spirit, who now forsook her;
as recognizing that, in spite of his strict watch over her
heart, some new evil had crept into it, or some old one
had never been expelled. As for little Pearl, the earnestness
soon passed out of her face.


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But the child did not see fit to let the matter drop.
Two or three times, as her mother and she went homeward,
and as often at supper-time, and while Hester
was putting her to bed, and once after she seemed to
be fairly asleep, Pearl looked up, with mischief gleaming
in her black eyes.

“Mother,” said she, “what does the scarlet letter

And the next morning, the first indication the child
gave of being awake was by popping up her head
from the pillow, and making that other inquiry, which
she had so unaccountably connected with her investigations
about the scarlet letter:—

“Mother!—Mother!—Why does the minister keep
his hand over his heart?”

“Hold thy tongue, naughty child!” answered her
mother, with an asperity that she had never permitted
to herself before. “Do not tease me; else I shall shut
thee into the dark closet!”