University of Virginia Library


Page 261

20. XX.

As the minister departed, in advance of Hester
Prynne and little Pearl, he threw a backward glance;
half expecting that he should discover only some faintly
traced features or outline of the mother and the child,
slowly fading into the twilight of the woods. So great
a vicissitude in his life could not at once be received
as real. But there was Hester, clad in her gray robe,
still standing beside the tree-trunk, which some blast
had overthrown a long antiquity ago, and which time
had ever since been covering with moss, so that these
two fated ones, with earth's heaviest burden on them,
might there sit down together, and find a single hour's
rest and solace. And there was Pearl, too, lightly
dancing from the margin of the brook,—now that the
intrusive third person was gone,—and taking her old
place by her mother's side. So the minister had not
fallen asleep, and dreamed!

In order to free his mind from this indistinctness and
duplicity of impression, which vexed it with a strange
disquietude, he recalled and more thoroughly defined
the plans which Hester and himself had sketched for
their departure. It had been determined between them,
that the Old World, with its crowds and cities, offered


Page 262
them a more eligible shelter and concealment than the
wilds of New England, or all America, with its alternatives
of an Indian wigwam, or the few settlements of
Europeans, scattered thinly along the seaboard. Not
to speak of the clergyman's health, so inadequate to
sustain the hardships of a forest life, his native gifts,
his culture, and his entire development would secure
him a home only in the midst of civilization and refinement;
the higher the state, the more delicately
adapted to it the man. In furtherance of this choice,
it so happened that a ship lay in the harbour; one of
those questionable cruisers, frequent at that day, which,
without being absolutely outlaws of the deep, yet
roamed over its surface with a remarkable irresponsibility
of character. This vessel had recently arrived
from the Spanish Main, and, within three days' time,
would sail for Bristol. Hester Prynne—whose vocation,
as a self-enlisted Sister of Charity, had brought
her acquainted with the captain and crew—could take
upon herself to secure the passage of two individuals
and a child, with all the secrecy which circumstances
rendered more than desirable.

The minister had inquired of Hester, with no little
interest, the precise time at which the vessel might be
expected to depart. It would probably be on the fourth
day from the present. “That is most fortunate!”
he had then said to himself. Now, why the Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale considered it so very fortunate, we
hesitate to reveal. Nevertheless,—to hold nothing
back from the reader,—it was because, on the third
day from the present, he was to preach the Election


Page 263
Sermon; and, as such an occasion formed an honorable
epoch in the life of a New England clergyman, he
could not have chanced upon a more suitable mode
and time of terminating his professional career. “At
least, they shall say of me,” thought this exemplary
man, “that I leave no public duty unperformed, nor
ill performed!” Sad, indeed, that an introspection so
profound and acute as this poor minister's should be so
miserably deceived! We have had, and may still
have, worse things to tell of him; but none, we apprehend,
so pitiably weak; no evidence, at once so slight
and irrefragable, of a subtle disease, that had long since
begun to eat into the real substance of his character.
No man, for any considerable period, can wear one
face to himself, and another to the multitude, without
finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.

The excitement of Mr. Dimmesdale's feelings, as he
returned from his interview with Hester, lent him unaccustomed
physical energy, and hurried him townward
at a rapid pace. The pathway among the woods
seemed wilder, more uncouth with its rude natural obstacles,
and less trodden by the foot of man, than he
remembered it on his outward journey. But he leaped
across the plashy places, thrust himself through the
clinging underbrush, climbed the ascent, plunged into
the hollow, and overcame, in short, all the difficulties
of the track, with an unweariable activity that astonished
him. He could not but recall how feebly, and
with what frequent pauses for breath, he had toiled
over the same ground only two days before. As he
drew near the town, he took an impression of change


Page 264
from the series of familiar objects that presented themselves.
It seemed not yesterday, not one, nor two, but
many days, or even years ago, since he had quitted
them. There, indeed, was each former trace of the
street, as he remembered it, and all the peculiarities of
the houses, with the due multitude of gable-peaks, and
a weathercock at every point where his memory suggested
one. Not the less, however, came this importunately
obtrusive sense of change. The same was
true as regarded the acquaintances whom he met, and
all the well-known shapes of human life, about the little
town. They looked neither older nor younger,
now; the beards of the aged were no whiter, nor could
the creeping babe of yesterday walk on his feet today;
it was impossible to describe in what respect they
differed from the individuals on whom he had so recently
bestowed a parting glance; and yet the minister's
deepest sense seemed to inform him of their mutability.
A similar impression struck him most remarkably, as
he passed under the walls of his own church. The
edifice had so very strange, and yet so familiar, an
aspect, that Mr. Dimmesdale's mind vibrated between
two ideas; either that he had seen it only in a dream
hitherto, or that he was merely dreaming about it now.

This phenomenon, in the various shapes which it assumed,
indicated no external change, but so sudden and
important a change in the spectator of the familiar
scene, that the intervening space of a single day had
operated on his consciousness like the lapse of years.
The minister's own will, and Hester's will, and the fate
that grew between them, had wrought this transformation.


Page 265
It was the same town as heretofore; but the
same minister returned not from the forest. He might
have said to the friends who greeted him,—“I am not
the man for whom you take me! I left him yonder in
the forest, withdrawn into a secret dell, by a mossy
tree-trunk, and near a melancholy brook! Go, seek
your minister, and see if his emaciated figure, his thin
cheek, his white, heavy, pain-wrinkled brow, be not
flung down there like a cast-off garment!” His friends,
no doubt, would still have insisted with him,—“Thou
art thyself the man!”—but the error would have been
their own, not his.

Before Mr. Dimmesdale reached home, his inner
man gave him other evidences of a revolution in the
sphere of thought and feeling. In truth, nothing short
of a total change of dynasty and moral code, in that
interior kingdom, was adequate to account for the impulses
now communicated to the unfortunate and startled
minister. At every step he was incited to do
some strange, wild, wicked thing or other, with a
sense that it would be at once involuntary and intentional;
in spite of himself, yet growing out of a profounder
self than that which opposed the impulse.
For instance, he met one of his own deacons. The
good old man addressed him with the paternal affection
and patriarchal privilege, which his venerable age,
his upright and holy character, and his station in the
Church, entitled him to use; and, conjoined with this,
the deep, almost worshipping respect, which the minister's
professional and private claims alike demanded.
Never was there a more beautiful example of how the


Page 266
majesty of age and wisdom may comport with the
obeisance and respect enjoined upon it, as from a lower
social rank and inferior order of endowment, towards
a higher. Now, during a conversation of some two or
three moments between the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale
and this excellent and hoary-bearded deacon, it was
only by the most careful self-control that the former
could refrain from uttering certain blasphemous suggestions
that rose into his mind, respecting the communion-supper.
He absolutely trembled and turned
pale as ashes, lest his tongue should wag itself, in
utterance of these horrible matters, and plead his own
consent for so doing, without his having fairly given it.
And, even with this terror in his heart, he could hardly
avoid laughing to imagine how the sanctified old
patriarchal deacon would have been petrified by his
minister's impiety!

Again, another incident of the same nature. Hurrying
along the street, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale encountered
the eldest female member of his church; a
most pious and exemplary old dame; poor, widowed,
lonely, and with a heart as full of reminiscences about
her dead husband and children, and her dead friends of
long ago, as a burial-ground is full of storied gravestones.
Yet all this, which would else have been such
heavy sorrow, was made almost a solemn joy to her
devout old soul by religious consolations and the truths
of Scripture, wherewith she had fed herself continually
for more than thirty years. And, since Mr. Dimmesdale
had taken her in charge, the good grandam's chief
earthly comfort—which, unless it had been likewise a


Page 267
heavenly comfort, could have been none at all—was
to meet her pastor, whether casually, or of set purpose,
and be refreshed with a word of warm, fragrant,
heaven-breathing Gospel truth from his beloved lips
into her dulled, but rapturously attentive ear. But, on
this occasion, up to the moment of putting his lips to
the old woman's ear, Mr. Dimmesdale, as the great
enemy of souls would have it, could recall no text of
Scripture, nor aught else, except a brief, pithy, and, as
it then appeared to him, unanswerable argument against
the immortality of the human soul. The instilment
thereof into her mind would probably have caused this
aged sister to drop down dead, at once, as by the effect
of an intensely poisonous infusion. What he really
did whisper, the minister could never afterwards recollect.
There was, perhaps, a fortunate disorder in his
utterance, which failed to impart any distinct idea to
the good widow's comprehension, or which Providence
interpreted after a method of its own. Assuredly, as
the minister looked back, he beheld an expression of
divine gratitude and ecstasy that seemed like the shine
of the celestial city on her face, so wrinkled and ashy

Again, a third instance. After parting from the old
church-member, he met the youngest sister of them all.
It was a maiden newly won—and won by the Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale's own sermon, on the Sabbath
after his vigil—to barter the transitory pleasures of the
world for the heavenly hope, that was to assume brighter
substance as life grew dark around her, and which would
gild the utter gloom with final glory. She was fair and


Page 268
pure as a lily that had bloomed in Paradise. The minister
knew well that he was himself enshrined within
the stainless sanctity of her heart, which hung its
snowy curtains about his image, imparting to religion
the warmth of love, and to love a religious purity.
Satan, that afternoon, had surely led the poor young
girl away from her mother's side, and thrown her into
the pathway of this sorely tempted, or—shall we not
rather say?—this lost and desperate man. As she
drew nigh, the arch-fiend whispered him to condense
into small compass and drop into her tender bosom a
germ of evil that would be sure to blossom darkly soon,
and bear black fruit betimes. Such was his sense of
power over this virgin soul, trusting him as she did,
that the minister felt potent to blight all the field of innocence
with but one wicked look, and develop all
its opposite with but a word. So—with a mightier
struggle than he had yet sustained—he held his Geneva
cloak before his face, and hurried onward, making
no sign of recognition, and leaving the young sister
to digest his rudeness as she might. She ransacked
her conscience,—which was full of harmless little
matters, like her pocket or her work-bag,—and took
herself to task, poor thing, for a thousand imaginary
faults; and went about her household duties with swollen
eyelids the next morning.

Before the minister had time to celebrate his victory
over this last temptation, he was conscious of another
impulse, more ludicrous, and almost as horrible. It
was,—we blush to tell it,—it was to stop short in the
road, and teach some very wicked words to a knot of


Page 269
little Puritan children who were playing there, and had
but just begun to talk. Denying himself this freak,
as unworthy of his cloth, he met a drunken seaman,
one of the ship's crew from the Spanish Main. And,
here, since he had so valiantly forborne all other wickedness,
poor Mr. Dimmesdale longed, at least, to shake
hands with the tarry blackguard, and recreate himself
with a few improper jests, such as dissolute sailors so
abound with, and a volley of good, round, solid, satisfactory,
and heaven-defying oaths! It was not so
much a better principle, as partly his natural good taste,
and still more his buckramed habit of clerical decorum,
that carried him safely through the latter crisis.

“What is it that haunts and tempts me thus?” cried
the minister to himself, at length, pausing in the street,
and striking his hand against his forehead. “Am I
mad? or am I given over utterly to the fiend? Did I
make a contract with him in the forest, and sign it with
my blood? And does he now summon me to its fulfilment,
by suggesting the performance of every wickedness
which his most foul imagination can conceive?”

At the moment when the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale
thus communed with himself, and struck his forehead
with his hand, old Mistress Hibbins, the reputed witch-lady,
is said to have been passing by. She made a
very grand appearance; having on a high head-dress,
a rich gown of velvet, and a ruff done up with the
famous yellow starch, of which Ann Turner, her
especial friend, had taught her the secret, before this
last good lady had been hanged for Sir Thomas Overbury's
murder. Whether the witch had read the minister's


Page 270
thoughts, or no, she came to a full stop, looked
shrewdly into his face, smiled craftily, and—though
little given to converse with clergymen—began a conversation.

“So, reverend Sir, you have made a visit into the
forest,” observed the witch-lady, nodding her high
head-dress at him. “The next time, I pray you to
allow me only a fair warning, and I shall be proud to
bear you company. Without taking overmuch upon
myself, my good word will go far towards gaining any
strange gentleman a fair reception from yonder potentate
you wot of!”

“I profess, madam,” answered the clergyman, with
a grave obeisance, such as the lady's rank demanded,
and his own good-breeding made imperative,—“I pro-fess,
on my conscience and character, that I am utterly
bewildered as touching the purport of your words! I
went not into the forest to seek a potentate; neither do
I, at any future time, design a visit thither, with a view
to gaining the favor of such personage. My one
sufficient object was to greet that pious friend of mine,
the Apostle Eliot, and rejoice with him over the many
precious souls he hath won from heathendom!”

“Ha, ha, ha!” cackled the old witch-lady, still nodding
her high head-dress at the minister. “Well, well,
we must needs talk thus in the daytime! You carry
it off like an old hand! But at midnight, and in the
forest, we shall have other talk together!”

She passed on with her aged stateliness, but often
turning back her head and smiling at him, like one
willing to recognize a secret intimacy of connection.


Page 271

“Have I then sold myself,” thought the minister,
“to the fiend whom, if men say true, this yellow-starched
and velveted old hag has chosen for her prince
and master!”

The wretched minister! He had made a bargain
very like it! Tempted by a dream of happiness, he
had yielded himself with deliberate choice, as he had
never done before, to what he knew was deadly sin.
And the infectious poison of that sin had been thus
rapidly diffused throughout his moral system. It had
stupefied all blessed impulses, and awakened into vivid
life the whole brotherhood of bad ones. Scorn, bitterness,
unprovoked malignity, gratuitous desire of ill,
ridicule of whatever was good and holy, all awoke, to
tempt, even while they frightened him. And his encounter
with old Mistress Hibbins, if it were a real
incident, did but show his sympathy and fellowship
with wicked mortals and the world of perverted spirits.

He had by this time reached his dwelling, on the
edge of the burial-ground, and, hastening up the stairs,
took refuge in his study. The minister was glad to
have reached this shelter, without first betraying himself
to the world by any of those strange and wicked
eccentricities to which he had been continually impelled
while passing through the streets. He entered
the accustomed room, and looked around him on its
books, its windows, its fireplace, and the tapestried
comfort of the walls, with the same perception of
strangeness that had haunted him throughout his walk
from the forest-dell into the town, and thitherward.
Here he had studied and written; here, gone through


Page 272
fast and vigil, and come forth half alive; here, striven
to pray; here, borne a hundred thousand agonies!
There was the Bible, in its rich old Hebrew, with Moses
and the Prophets speaking to him, and God's voice
through all! There, on the table, with the inky pen
beside it, was an unfinished sermon, with a sentence
broken in the midst, where his thoughts had ceased to
gush out upon the page two days before. He knew
that it was himself, the thin and white-cheeked minister,
who had done and suffered these things, and written
thus far into the Election Sermon! But he seemed to
stand apart, and eye this former self with scornful,
pitying, but half-envious curiosity. That self was
gone! Another man had returned out of the forest;
a wiser one; with a knowledge of hidden mysteries
which the simplicity of the former never could have
reached. A bitter kind of knowledge that!

While occupied with these reflections, a knock came
at the door of the study, and the minister said,
“Come in!”—not wholly devoid of an idea that he
might behold an evil spirit. And so he did! It was
old Roger Chillingworth that entered. The minister
stood, white and speechless, with one hand on the Hebrew
Scriptures, and the other spread upon his breast.

“Welcome home, reverend Sir!” said the physician.
“And how found you that godly man, the
Apostle Eliot? But methinks, dear Sir, you look
pale; as if the travel through the wilderness had been
too sore for you. Will not my aid be requisite to put
you in heart and strength to preach your Election Sermon?”


Page 273

“Nay, I think not so,” rejoined the Reverend Mr.
Dimmesdale. “My journey, and the sight of the holy
Apostle yonder, and the free air which I have breathed,
have done me good, after so long confinement in my
study. I think to need no more of your drugs, my
kind physician, good though they be, and administered
by a friendly hand.”

All this time, Roger Chillingworth was looking at the
minister with the grave and intent regard of a physician
towards his patient. But, in spite of this outward
show, the latter was almost convinced of the old man's
knowledge, or, at least, his confident suspicion, with
respect to his own interview with Hester Prynne. The
physician knew, then, that, in the minister's regard, he
was no longer a trusted friend, but his bitterest enemy.
So much being known, it would appear natural
that a part of it should be expressed. It is singular,
however, how long a time often passes before words
embody things; and with what security two persons,
who choose to avoid a certain subject, may approach its
very verge, and retire without disturbing it. Thus, the
minister felt no apprehension that Roger Chillingworth
would touch, in express words, upon the real position
which they sustained towards one another. Yet did the
physician, in his dark way, creep frightfully near the

“Were it not better,” said he, “that you use my
poor skill to-night? Verily, dear Sir, we must take
pains to make you strong and vigorous for this occasion
of the Election discourse. The people look for


Page 274
great things from you; apprehending that another year
may come about, and find their pastor gone.”

“Yea, to another world,” replied the minister, with
pious resignation. “Heaven grant it be a better one;
for, in good sooth, I hardly think to tarry with my flock
through the flitting seasons of another year! But,
touching your medicine, kind Sir, in my present frame
of body I need it not.”

“I joy to hear it,” answered the physician. “It
may be that my remedies, so long administered in
vain, begin now to take due effect. Happy man were
I, and well deserving of New England's gratitude,
could I achieve this cure!”

“I thank you from my heart, most watchful friend,”
said the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, with a solemn
smile. “I thank you, and can but requite your good
deeds with my prayers.”

“A good man's prayers are golden recompense!”
rejoined old Roger Chillingworth, as he took his leave.
“Yea, they are the current gold coin of the New
Jerusalem, with the King's own mint-mark on them!”

Left alone, the minister summoned a servant of the
house, and requested food, which, being set before him,
he ate with ravenous appetite. Then, flinging the
already written pages of the Election Sermon into the
fire, he forthwith began another, which he wrote with
such an impulsive flow of thought and emotion, that
he fancied himself inspired; and only wondered that
Heaven should see fit to transmit the grand and solemn
music of its oracles through so foul an organ-pipe as
he. However, leaving that mystery to solve itself,


Page 275
or go unsolved for ever, he drove his task onward, with
earnest haste and ecstasy. Thus the night fled away,
as if it were a winged steed, and he careering on it;
morning came, and peeped blushing through the curtains;
and at last sunrise threw a golden beam into
the study, and laid it right across the minister's bedazzled
eyes. There he was, with the pen still between
his fingers, and a vast, immeasurable tract of written
space behind him!