University of Virginia Library


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18. XVIII.

Arthur Dimmesdale gazed into Hester's face with
a look in which hope and joy shone out, indeed, but
with fear betwixt them, and a kind of horror at her
boldness, who had spoken what he vaguely hinted at,
but dared not speak.

But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage
and activity, and for so long a period not merely
estranged, but outlawed, from society, had habituated
herself to such latitude of speculation as was altogether
foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without
rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as
intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest, amid the
gloom of which they were now holding a colloquy that
was to decide their fate. Her intellect and heart had
their home, as it were, in desert places, where she
roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. For
years past she had looked from this estranged point of
view at human institutions, and whatever priests or
legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly
more reverence than the Indian would feel for the
clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows,
the fireside, or the church. The tendency of
her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The


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scarlet letter was her passport into regions where
other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude!
These had been her teachers,—stern and wild
ones,—and they had made her strong, but taught her
much amiss.

The minister, on the other hand, had never gone
through an experience calculated to lead him beyond
the scope of generally received laws; although, in a
single instance, he had so fearfully transgressed one of
the most sacred of them. But this had been a sin of
passion, not of principle, nor even purpose. Since that
wretched epoch, he had watched, with morbid zeal and
minuteness, not his acts,—for those it was easy to arrange,—but
each breath of emotion, and his every
thought. At the head of the social system, as the clergymen
of that day stood, he was only the more trammelled
by its regulations, its principles, and even its
prejudices. As a priest, the framework of his order
inevitably hemmed him in. As a man who had once
sinned, but who kept his conscience all alive and painfully
sensitive by the fretting of an unhealed wound, he
might have been supposed safer within the line of virtue,
than if he had never sinned at all.

Thus, we seem to see that, as regarded Hester
Prynne, the whole seven years of outlaw and ignominy
had been little other than a preparation for this very
hour. But Arthur Dimmesdale! Were such a man
once more to fall, what plea could be urged in extenuation
of his crime? None; unless it avail him somewhat,
that he was broken down by long and exquisite
suffering; that his mind was darkened and confused by


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the very remorse which harrowed it; that, between
fleeing as an avowed criminal, and remaining as a hypocrite,
conscience might find it hard to strike the balance;
that it was human to avoid the peril of death
and infamy, and the inscrutable machinations of an
enemy; that, finally, to this poor pilgrim, on his dreary
and desert path, faint, sick, miserable, there appeared
a glimpse of human affection and sympathy, a new
life, and a true one, in exchange for the heavy doom
which he was now expiating. And be the stern and
sad truth spoken, that the breach which guilt has once
made into the human soul is never, in this mortal state,
repaired. It may be watched and guarded; so that the
enemy shall not force his way again into the citadel,
and might even, in his subsequent assaults, select some
other avenue, in preference to that where he had formerly
succeeded. But there is still the ruined wall,
and, near it, the stealthy tread of the foe that would
win over again his unforgotten triumph.

The struggle, if there were one, need not be described.
Let it suffice, that the clergyman resolved to
flee, and not alone.

“If, in all these past seven years,” thought he, “I
could recall one instant of peace or hope, I would yet
endure, for the sake of that earnest of Heaven's mercy.
But now,—since I am irrevocably doomed,—where-fore
should I not snatch the solace allowed to the condemned
culprit before his execution? Or, if this be
the path to a better life, as Hester would persuade me,
I surely give up no fairer prospect by pursuing it!
Neither can I any longer live without her companionship;


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so powerful is she to sustain,—so tender to
soothe! O Thou to whom I dare not lift mine eyes,
wilt Thou yet pardon me!”

“Thou wilt go!” said Hester calmly, as he met her

The decision once made, a glow of strange enjoyment
threw its flickering brightness over the trouble of
his breast. It was the exhilarating effect—upon a prisoner
just escaped from the dungeon of his own heart—
of breathing the wild, free atmosphere of an unredeemed,
unchristianized, lawless region. His spirit
rose, as it were, with a bound, and attained a nearer
prospect of the sky, than throughout all the misery
which had kept him grovelling on the earth. Of a
deeply religious temperament, there was inevitably a
tinge of the devotional in his mood.

“Do I feel joy again?” cried he, wondering at himself.
“Methought the germ of it was dead in me!
O Hester, thou art my better angel! I seem to have
flung myself—sick, sin-stained, and sorrow-blackened
—down upon these forest-leaves, and to have risen up
all made anew, and with new powers to glorify Him
that hath been merciful! This is already the better
life! Why did we not find it sooner?”

“Let us not look back,” answered Hester Prynne.
“The past is gone! Wherefore should we linger upon
it now? See! With this symbol, I undo it all, and
make it as it had never been!”

So speaking, she undid the clasp that fastened the
scarlet letter, and, taking it from her bosom, threw it
to a distance among the withered leaves. The mystic


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token alighted on the hither verge of the stream. With
a hand's breadth farther flight it would have fallen into
the water, and have given the little brook another woe
to carry onward, besides the unintelligible tale which it
still kept murmuring about. But there lay the embroidered
letter, glittering like a lost jewel, which some
ill-fated wanderer might pick up, and thenceforth be
haunted by strange phantoms of guilt, sinkings of the
heart, and unaccountable misfortune.

The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh,
in which the burden of shame and anguish departed
from her spirit. O exquisite relief! She had not
known the weight, until she felt the freedom! By
another impulse, she took off the formal cap that confined
her hair; and down it fell upon her shoulders,
dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its
abundance, and imparting the charm of softness to her
features. There played around her mouth, and beamed
out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile, that seemed
gushing from the very heart of womanhood. A crimson
flush was glowing on her cheek, that had been long
so pale. Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness
of her beauty, came back from what men call the
irrevocable past, and clustered themselves, with her
maiden hope, and a happiness before unknown, within
the magic circle of this hour. And, as if the gloom of
the earth and sky had been but the effluence of these
two mortal hearts, it vanished with their sorrow. All
at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst
the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure
forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the


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yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the
gray trunks of the solemn trees. The objects that had
made a shadow hitherto, embodied the brightness now.
The course of the little brook might be traced by its
merry gleam afar into the wood's heart of mystery,
which had become a mystery of joy.

Such was the sympathy of Nature—that wild,
heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human
law, nor illumined by higher truth—with the
bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born,
or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always
create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance,
that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the
forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in
Hester's eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale's!

Hester looked at him with the thrill of another joy.

“Thou must know Pearl!” said she. “Our little
Pearl! Thou hast seen her,—yes, I know it!—but
thou wilt see her now with other eyes. She is a
strange child! I hardly comprehend her! But thou
wilt love her dearly, as I do, and wilt advise me how to
deal with her.”

“Dost thou think the child will be glad to know
me?” asked the minister, somewhat uneasily. “I
have long shrunk from children, because they often
show a distrust,—a backwardness to be familiar with
me. I have even been afraid of little Pearl!”

“Ah, that was sad!” answered the mother. “But
she will love thee dearly, and thou her. She is not far
off. I will call her! Pearl! Pearl!”

“I see the child,” observed the minister. “Yonder


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she is, standing in a streak of sunshine, a good way off,
on the other side of the brook. So thou thinkest the
child will love me?”

Hester smiled, and again called to Pearl, who was
visible, at some distance, as the minister had described
her, like a bright-apparelled vision, in a sunbeam, which
fell down upon her through an arch of boughs. The
ray quivered to and fro, making her figure dim or distinct,—now
like a real child, now like a child's spirit,
—as the splendor went and came again. She heard
her mother's voice, and approached slowly through the

Pearl had not found the hour pass wearisomely,
while her mother sat talking with the clergyman. The
great black forest—stern as it showed itself to those
who brought the guilt and troubles of the world into its
bosom—became the playmate of the lonely infant, as
well as it knew how. Sombre as it was, it put on the
kindest of its moods to welcome her. It offered her
the partridge-berries, the growth of the preceding
autumn, but ripening only in the spring, and now red
as drops of blood upon the withered leaves. These
Pearl gathered, and was pleased with their wild flavor.
The small denizens of the wilderness hardly took pains
to move out of her path. A partridge, indeed, with a
brood of ten behind her, ran forward threateningly, but
soon repented of her fierceness, and clucked to her
young ones not to be afraid. A pigeon, alone on a low
branch, allowed Pearl to come beneath, and uttered a
sound as much of greeting as alarm. A squirrel, from
the lofty depths of his domestic tree, chattered either


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in anger or merriment,—for a squirrel is such a
choleric and humorous little personage that it is hard
to distinguish between his moods,—so he chattered
at the child, and flung down a nut upon her head. It
was a last year's nut, and already gnawed by his sharp
tooth. A fox, startled from his sleep by her light footstep
on the leaves, looked inquisitively at Pearl, as
doubting whether it were better to steal off, or renew
his nap on the same spot. A wolf, it is said,—but
here the tale has surely lapsed into the improbable,—
came up, and smelt of Pearl's robe, and offered his
savage head to be patted by her hand. The truth
seems to be, however, that the mother-forest, and these
wild things which it nourished, all recognized a kindred
wildness in the human child.

And she was gentler here than in the grassy-margined
streets of the settlement, or in her mother's cottage.
The flowers appeared to know it; and one and another
whispered, as she passed, “Adorn thyself with
me, thou beautiful child, adorn thyself with me!”—
and, to please them, Pearl gathered the violets, and
anemones, and columbines, and some twigs of the
freshest green, which the old trees held down before
her eyes. With these she decorated her hair, and her
young waist, and became a nymph-child, or an infant
dryad, or whatever else was in closest sympathy with
the antique wood. In such guise had Pearl adorned
herself, when she heard her mother's voice, and came
slowly back.

Slowly; for she saw the clergyman!