University of Virginia Library


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21. XXI.

Betimes in the morning of the day on which the
new Governor was to receive his office at the hands of
the people, Hester Prynne and little Pearl came into
the market-place. It was already thronged with the
craftsmen and other plebeian inhabitants of the town, in
considerable numbers; among whom, likewise, were
many rough figures, whose attire of deer-skins marked
them as belonging to some of the forest settlements,
which surrounded the little metropolis of the colony.

On this public holiday, as on all other occasions, for
seven years past, Hester was clad in a garment of
coarse gray cloth. Not more by its hue than by some
indescribable peculiarity in its fashion, it had the effect
of making her fade personally out of sight and outline;
while, again, the scarlet letter brought her back from
this twilight indistinctness, and revealed her under the
moral aspect of its own illumination. Her face, so
long familiar to the townspeople, showed the marble
quietude which they were accustomed to behold there.
It was like a mask; or rather, like the frozen calmness
of a dead woman's features; owing this dreary resemblance
to the fact that Hester was actually dead, in respect
to any claim of sympathy, and had departed out
of the world with which she still seemed to mingle.


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It might be, on this one day, that there was an expression
unseen before, nor, indeed, vivid enough to
be detected now; unless some preternaturally gifted
observer should have first read the heart, and have
afterwards sought a corresponding development in the
countenance and mien. Such a spiritual seer might
have conceived, that, after sustaining the gaze of the
multitude through seven miserable years as a necessity,
a penance, and something which it was a stern religion
to endure, she now, for one last time more, encountered
it freely and voluntarily, in order to convert what
had so long been agony into a kind of triumph.
“Look your last on the scarlet letter and its wearer!”
—the people's victim and life-long bond-slave, as they
fancied her, might say to them. “Yet a little while,
and she will be beyond your reach! A few hours
longer, and the deep, mysterious ocean will quench
and hide for ever the symbol which ye have caused to
burn upon her bosom!” Nor were it an inconsistency
too improbable to be assigned to human nature, should
we suppose a feeling of regret in Hester's mind, at the
moment when she was about to win her freedom from
the pain which had been thus deeply incorporated with
her being. Might there not be an irresistible desire to
quaff a last, long, breathless draught of the cup of
wormwood and aloes, with which nearly all her years
of womanhood had been perpetually flavored? The
wine of life, henceforth to be presented to her lips,
must be indeed rich, delicious, and exhilarating, in its
chased and golden beaker; or else leave an inevitable
and weary languor, after the lees of bitterness wherewith


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she had been drugged, as with a cordial of intensest

Pearl was decked out with airy gayety. It would
have been impossible to guess that this bright and sunny
apparition owed its existence to the shape of gloomy
gray; or that a fancy, at once so gorgeous and so delicate
as must have been requisite to contrive the child's
apparel, was the same that had achieved a task perhaps
more difficult, in imparting so distinct a peculiarity to
Hester's simple robe. The dress, so proper was it to
little Pearl, seemed an effluence, or inevitable development
and outward manifestation of her character, no
more to be separated from her than the many-hued
brilliancy from a butterfly's wing, or the painted glory
from the leaf of a bright flower. As with these, so
with the child; her garb was all of one idea with her
nature. On this eventful day, moreover, there was a
certain singular inquietude and excitement in her mood,
resembling nothing so much as the shimmer of a diamond,
that sparkles and flashes with the varied throbbings
of the breast on which it is displayed. Children
have always a sympathy in the agitations of those connected
with them; always, especially, a sense of any
trouble or impending revolution, of whatever kind, in
domestic circumstances; and therefore Pearl, who was
the gem on her mother's unquiet bosom, betrayed, by
the very dance of her spirits, the emotions which none
could detect in the marble passiveness of Hester's

This effervescence made her flit with a bird-like
movement, rather than walk by her mother's side. She


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broke continually into shouts of a wild, inarticulate, and
sometimes piercing music. When they reached the
market-place, she became still more restless, on perceiving
the stir and bustle that enlivened the spot; for
it was usually more like the broad and lonesome green
before a village meeting-house, than the centre of a
town's business.

“Why, what is this, mother?” cried she. “Wherefore
have all the people left their work to-day? Is it a
play-day for the whole world. See, there is the blacksmith!
He has washed his sooty face, and put on his
Sabbath-day clothes, and looks, as if he would gladly
be merry, if any kind body would only teach him how!
And there is Master Brackett, the old jailer, nodding
and smiling at me. Why does he do so, mother?”

“He remembers thee a little babe, my child,” answered

“He should not nod and smile at me, for all that,—
the black, grim, ugly-eyed old man!” said Pearl.
“He may nod at thee if he will; for thou art clad in
gray, and wearest the scarlet letter. But, see, mother,
how many faces of strange people, and Indians among
them, and sailors! What have they all come to do
here in the market-place?”

“They wait to see the procession pass,” said Hester.
“For the Governor and the magistrates are to go by,
and the ministers, and all the great people and good
people, with the music, and the soldiers marching before

“And will the minister be there?” asked Pearl.
“And will he hold out both his hands to me, as when
thou ledst me to him from the brook-side?”


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“He will be there, child,” answered her mother.
“But he will not greet thee to-day; nor must thou
greet him.”

“What a strange, sad man is he!” said the child, as
if speaking partly to herself. “In the dark night-time,
he calls us to him, and holds thy hand and mine, as
when we stood with him on the scaffold yonder! And
in the deep forest, where only the old trees can hear,
and the strip of sky see it, he talks with thee, sitting on
a heap of moss! And he kisses my forehead, too, so
that the little brook would hardly wash it off! But
here in the sunny day, and among all the people, he
knows us not; nor must we know him! A strange,
sad man is he, with his hand always over his heart!”

“Be quiet, Pearl! Thou understandest not these
things,” said her mother. “Think not now of the
minister, but look about thee, and see how cheery is
every body's face to-day. The children have come
from their schools, and the grown people from their
workshops and their fields, on purpose to be happy.
For, to-day, a new man is beginning to rule over them;
and so—as has been the custom of mankind ever
since a nation was first gathered—they make merry
and rejoice; as if a good and golden year were at
length to pass over the poor old world!”

It was as Hester said, in regard to the unwonted jollity
that brightened the faces of the people. Into this
festal season of the year—as it already was, and
continued to be during the greater part of two centuries—the
Puritans compressed whatever mirth and
public joy they deemed allowable to human infirmity;


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thereby so far dispelling the customary cloud, that,
for the space of a single holiday, they appeared
scarcely more grave than most other communities at a
period of general affliction.

But we perhaps exaggerate the gray or sable tinge,
which undoubtedly characterized the mood and manners
of the age. The persons now in the market-place
of Boston had not been born to an inheritance
of Puritanic gloom. They were native Englishmen,
whose fathers had lived in the sunny richness of the
Elizabethan epoch; a time when the life of England,
viewed as one great mass, would appear to have been
as stately, magnificent, and joyous, as the world has
ever witnessed. Had they followed their hereditary
taste, the New England settlers would have illustrated
all events of public importance by bonfires, banquets,
pageantries, and processions. Nor would it have been
impracticable, in the observance of majestic ceremonies,
to combine mirthful recreation with solemnity, and
give, as it were, a grotesque and brilliant embroidery
to the great robe of state, which a nation, at such festivals,
puts on. There was some shadow of an attempt
of this kind in the mode of celebrating the day on
which the political year of the colony commenced.
The dim reflection of a remembered splendor, a colorless
and manifold diluted repetition of what they had
beheld in proud old London,—we will not say at a
royal coronation, but at a Lord Mayor's show,—might
be traced in the customs which our forefathers instituted,
with reference to the annual installation of magistrates.
The fathers and founders of the commonwealth


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—the statesman, the priest, and the soldier—deemed
it a duty then to assume the outward state and majesty,
which, in accordance with antique style, was looked
upon as the proper garb of public or social eminence.
All came forth, to move in procession before the people's
eye, and thus impart a needed dignity to the simple
framework of a government so newly constructed.

Then, too, the people were countenanced, if not
encouraged, in relaxing the severe and close application
to their various modes of rugged industry, which,
at all other times, seemed of the same piece and material
with their religion. Here, it is true, were none
of the appliances which popular merriment would so
readily have found in the England of Elizabeth's time,
or that of James;—no rude shows of a theatrical kind;
no minstrel with his harp and legendary ballad, nor
gleeman, with an ape dancing to his music; no juggler,
with his tricks of mimic witchcraft; no Merry Andrew,
to stir up the multitude with jests, perhaps hundreds of
years old, but still effective, by their appeals to the
very broadest sources of mirthful sympathy. All such
professors of the several branches of jocularity would
have been sternly repressed, not only by the rigid discipline
of law, but by the general sentiment which
gives law its vitality. Not the less, however, the great,
honest face of the people smiled, grimly, perhaps, but
widely too. Nor were sports wanting, such as the
colonists had witnessed, and shared in, long ago, at the
country fairs and on the village-greens of England;
and which it was thought well to keep alive on this
new soil, for the sake of the courage and manliness


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that were essential in them. Wrestling-matches, in the
differing fashions of Cornwall and Devonshire, were
seen here and there about the market-place; in one
corner, there was a friendly bout at quarterstaff; and
—what attracted most interest of all—on the platform
of the pillory, already so noted in our pages, two
masters of defence were commencing an exhibition
with the buckler and broadsword. But, much to the
disappointment of the crowd, this latter business was
broken off by the interposition of the town beadle, who
had no idea of permitting the majesty of the law to be
violated by such an abuse of one of its consecrated

It may not be too much to affirm, on the whole, (the
people being then in the first stages of joyless deportment,
and the offspring of sires who had known how
to be merry, in their day,) that they would compare
favorably, in point of holiday keeping, with their descendants,
even at so long an interval as ourselves.
Their immediate posterity, the generation next to the
early emigrants, wore the blackest shade of Puritanism,
and so darkened the national visage with it, that all the
subsequent years have not sufficed to clear it up. We
have yet to learn again the forgotten art of gayety.

The picture of human life in the market-place,
though its general tint was the sad gray, brown, or
black of the English emigrants, was yet enlivened by
some diversity of hue. A party of Indians—in their
savage finery of curiously embroidered deer-skin robes,
wampum-belts, red and yellow ochre, and feathers, and
armed with the bow and arrow and stone-headed spear


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—stood apart, with countenances of inflexible gravity,
beyond what even the Puritan aspect could attain.
Nor, wild as were these painted barbarians, were they
the wildest feature of the scene. This distinction could
more justly be claimed by some mariners,—a part of
the crew of the vessel from the Spanish Main,—who
had come ashore to see the humors of Election Day.
They were rough-looking desperadoes, with sun-blackened
faces, and an immensity of beard; their wide,
short trousers were confined about the waist by belts,
often clasped with a rough plate of gold, and sustaining
always a long knife, and, in some instances, a sword.
From beneath their broad-brimmed hats of palm-leaf,
gleamed eyes which, even in good nature and merriment,
had a kind of animal ferocity. They transgressed,
without fear or scruple, the rules of behaviour
that were binding on all others; smoking tobacco under
the beadle's very nose, although each whiff would
have cost a townsman a shilling; and quaffing, at their
pleasure, draughts of wine or aqua-vitæ from pocket-flasks,
which they freely tendered to the gaping crowd
around them. It remarkably characterized the incomplete
morality of the age, rigid as we call it, that a
license was allowed the seafaring class, not merely
for their freaks on shore, but for far more desperate
deeds on their proper element. The sailor of that day
would go near to be arraigned as a pirate in our own.
There could be little doubt, for instance, that this very
ship's crew, though no unfavorable specimens of the
nautical brotherhood, had been guilty, as we should
phrase it, of depredations on the Spanish commerce,


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such as would have perilled all their necks in a modern
court of justice.

But the sea, in those old times, heaved, swelled, and
foamed very much at its own will, or subject only to
the tempestuous wind, with hardly any attempts at regulation
by human law. The buccaneer on the wave
might relinquish his calling, and become at once, if he
chose, a man of probity and piety on land; nor, even
in the full career of his reckless life, was he regarded
as a personage with whom it was disreputable to traffic,
or casually associate. Thus, the Puritan elders, in
their black cloaks, starched bands, and steeple-crowned
hats, smiled not unbenignantly at the clamor and rude
deportment of these jolly seafaring men; and it excited
neither surprise nor animadversion when so reputable
a citizen as old Roger Chillingworth, the physician,
was seen to enter the market-place, in close and
familiar talk with the commander of the questionable

The latter was by far the most showy and gallant
figure, so far as apparel went, anywhere to be seen
among the multitude. He wore a profusion of ribbons
on his garment, and gold lace on his hat, which was
also encircled by a gold chain, and surmounted with a
feather. There was a sword at his side, and a sword-cut
on his forehead, which, by the arrangement of his
hair, he seemed anxious rather to display than hide.
A landsman could hardly have worn this garb and
shown this face, and worn and shown them both with
such a galliard air, without undergoing stern question
before a magistrate, and probably incurring fine or imprisonment,


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or perhaps an exhibition in the stocks.
As regarded the shipmaster, however, all was looked
upon as pertaining to the character, as to a fish his glistening

After parting from the physician, the commander of
the Bristol ship strolled idly through the market-place;
until, happening to approach the spot where Hester
Prynne was standing, he appeared to recognize, and did
not hesitate to address her. As was usually the case
wherever Hester stood, a small, vacant area—a sort
of magic circle—had formed itself about her, into
which, though the people were elbowing one another
at a little distance, none ventured, or felt disposed to
intrude. It was a forcible type of the moral solitude
in which the scarlet letter enveloped its fated wearer;
partly by her own reserve, and partly by the instinctive,
though no longer so unkindly, withdrawal of her
fellow-creatures. Now, if never before, it answered a
good purpose, by enabling Hester and the seaman to
speak together without risk of being overheard; and
so changed was Hester Prynne's repute before the
public, that the matron in town most eminent for rigid
morality could not have held such intercourse with less
result of scandal than herself.

“So, mistress,” said the mariner, “I must bid the
steward make ready one more berth than you bargained
for! No fear of scurvy or ship-fever, this voyage!
What with the ship's surgeon and this other doctor, our
only danger will be from drug or pill; more by token,
as there is a lot of apothecary's stuff aboard, which I
traded for with a Spanish vessel.”


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“What mean you?” inquired Hester, startled more
than she permitted to appear. “Have you another

“Why, know you not,” cried the shipmaster, “that
this physician here—Chillingworth, he calls himself—
is minded to try my cabin-fare with you? Ay, ay,
you must have known it; for he tells me he is of your
party, and a close friend to the gentleman you spoke
of,—he that is in peril from these sour old Puritan

“They know each other well, indeed,” replied Hester,
with a mien of calmness, though in the utmost
consternation. “They have long dwelt together.”

Nothing further passed between the mariner and
Hester Prynne. But, at that instant, she beheld old
Roger Chillingworth himself, standing in the remotest
corner of the market-place, and smiling on her; a
smile which—across the wide and bustling square,
and through all the talk and laughter, and various
thoughts, moods, and interests of the crowd—conveyed
secret and fearful meaning.