University of Virginia Library


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23. XXIII.

The eloquent voice, on which the souls of the listening
audience had been borne aloft, as on the swelling
waves of the sea, at length came to a pause. There
was a momentary silence, profound as what should
follow the utterance of oracles. Then ensued a murmur
and half-hushed tumult; as if the auditors, released
from the high spell that had transported them
into the region of another's mind, were returning into
themselves, with all their awe and wonder still heavy
on them. In a moment more, the crowd began to
gush forth from the doors of the church. Now that
there was an end, they needed other breath, more fit
to support the gross and earthly life into which they
relapsed, than that atmosphere which the preacher had
converted into words of flame, and had burdened with
the rich fragrance of his thought.

In the open air their rapture broke into speech.
The street and the market-place absolutely babbled,
from side to side, with applauses of the minister. His
hearers could not rest until they had told one another
of what each knew better than he could tell or hear.
According to their united testimony, never had man
spoken in so wise, so high, and so holy a spirit, as he


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that spake this day; nor had inspiration ever breathed
through mortal lips more evidently than it did through
his. Its influence could be seen, as it were, descending
upon him, and possessing him, and continually
lifting him out of the written discourse that lay before
him, and filling him with ideas that must have been
as marvellous to himself as to his audience. His subject,
it appeared, had been the relation between the
Deity and the communities of mankind, with a special
reference to the New England which they were here
planting in the wilderness. And, as he drew towards
the close, a spirit as of prophecy had come upon him,
constraining him to its purpose as mightily as the old
prophets of Israel were constrained; only with this
difference, that, whereas the Jewish seers had denounced
judgments and ruin on their country, it was
his mission to foretell a high and glorious destiny for
the newly gathered people of the Lord. But, throughout
it all, and through the whole discourse, there had
been a certain deep, sad undertone of pathos, which
could not be interpreted otherwise than as the natural
regret of one soon to pass away. Yes; their minister
whom they so loved—and who so loved them all,
that he could not depart heavenward without a sigh—
had the foreboding of untimely death upon him, and
would soon leave them in their tears! This idea of his
transitory stay on earth gave the last emphasis to the
effect which the preacher had produced; it was as if
an angel, in his passage to the skies, had shaken his
bright wings over the people for an instant,—at once
a shadow and a splendor,—and had shed down a
shower of golden truths upon them.


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Thus, there had come to the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale—as
to most men, in their various spheres, though
seldom recognized until they see it far behind them—
an epoch of life more brilliant and full of triumph than
any previous one, or than any which could hereafter
be. He stood, at this moment, on the very proudest
eminence of superiority, to which the gifts of intellect,
rich lore, prevailing eloquence, and a reputation of
whitest sanctity, could exalt a clergyman in New England's
earliest days, when the professional character
was of itself a lofty pedestal. Such was the position
which the minister occupied, as he bowed his head
forward on the cushions of the pulpit, at the close of
his Election Sermon. Meanwhile, Hester Prynne was
standing beside the scaffold of the pillory, with the
scarlet letter still burning on her breast!

Now was heard again the clangor of the music, and
the measured tramp of the military escort, issuing from
the church-door. The procession was to be marshalled
thence to the town-hall, where a solemn banquet would
complete the ceremonies of the day.

Once more, therefore, the train of venerable and
majestic fathers was seen moving through a broad
pathway of the people, who drew back reverently,
on either side, as the Governor and magistrates, the
old and wise men, the holy ministers, and all that
were eminent and renowned, advanced into the midst
of them. When they were fairly in the market-place,
their presence was greeted by a shout. This—though
doubtless it might acquire additional force and volume
from the childlike loyalty which the age awarded to


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its rulers—was felt to be an irrepressible outburst
of the enthusiasm kindled in the auditors by that
high strain of eloquence which was yet reverberating
in their ears. Each felt the impulse in himself, and,
in the same breath, caught it from his neighbour.
Within the church, it had hardly been kept down; beneath
the sky, it pealed upward to the zenith. There
were human beings enough, and enough of highly
wrought and symphonious feeling, to produce that
more impressive sound than the organ-tones of the blast,
or the thunder, or the roar of the sea; even that
mighty swell of many voices, blended into one great
voice by the universal impulse which makes likewise
one vast heart out of the many. Never, from the soil
of New England, had gone up such a shout! Never,
on New England soil, had stood the man so honored
by his mortal brethren as the preacher?

How fared it with him then? Were there not the
brilliant particles of a halo in the air about his head?
So etherealized by spirit as he was, and so apotheosized
by worshipping admirers, did his footsteps in the
procession really tread upon the dust of earth?

As the ranks of military men and civil fathers moved
onward, all eyes were turned towards the point where
the minister was seen to approach among them. The
shout died into a murmur, as one portion of the crowd
after another obtained a glimpse of him. How feeble
and pale he looked amid all his triumph! The energy
—or say, rather, the inspiration which had held him
up, until he should have delivered the sacred message
that brought its own strength along with it from heaven


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—was withdrawn, now that it had so faithfully performed
its office. The glow, which they had just before
beheld burning on his cheek, was extinguished, like a
flame that sinks down hopelessly among the late-decaying
embers. It seemed hardly the face of a man
alive, with such a deathlike hue; it was hardly a man
with life in him, that tottered on his path so nervelessly,
yet tottered, and did not fall!

One of his clerical brethren,—it was the venerable
John Wilson,—observing the state in which Mr. Dimmesdale
was left by the retiring wave of intellect and
sensibility, stepped forward hastily to offer his support.
The minister tremulously, but decidedly, repelled the old
man's arm. He still walked onward, if that movement
could be so described, which rather resembled the wavering
effort of an infant, with its mother's arms in view,
outstretched to tempt him forward. And now, almost
imperceptible as were the latter steps of his progress, he
had come opposite the well-remembered and weather-darkened
scaffold, where, long since, with all that
dreary lapse of time between, Hester Prynne had encountered
the world's ignominious stare. There stood
Hester, holding little Pearl by the hand! And there
was the scarlet letter on her breast! The minister
here made a pause; although the music still played
the stately and rejoicing march to which the procession
moved. It summoned him onward,—onward to the
festival!—but here he made a pause.

Bellingham, for the last few moments, had kept an
anxious eye upon him. He now left his own place in
the procession, and advanced to give assistance; judging


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from Mr. Dimmesdale's aspect that he must otherwise
inevitably fall. But there was something in the
latter's expression that warned back the magistrate,
although a man not readily obeying the vague intimations
that pass from one spirit to another. The crowd,
meanwhile, looked on with awe and wonder. This
earthly faintness was, in their view, only another phase
of the minister's celestial strength; nor would it have
seemed a miracle too high to be wrought for one so
holy, had he ascended before their eyes, waxing dimmer
and brighter, and fading at last into the light of

He turned towards the scaffold, and stretched forth
his arms.

“Hester,” said he, “come hither! Come, my little

It was a ghastly look with which he regarded them;
but there was something at once tender and strangely
triumphant in it. The child, with the bird-like motion
which was one of her characteristics, flew to him, and
clasped her arms about his knees. Hester Prynne—
slowly, as if impelled by inevitable fate, and against
her strongest will—likewise drew near, but paused before
she reached him. At this instant old Roger Chillingworth
thrust himself through the crowd,—or, perhaps,
so dark, disturbed, and evil was his look, he rose
up out of some nether region,—to snatch back his victim
from what he sought to do! Be that as it might,
the old man rushed forward and caught the minister
by the arm.

“Madman, hold! What is your purpose?” whispered


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he. “Wave back that woman! Cast off this
child! All shall be well! Do not blacken your fame,
and perish in dishonor! I can yet save you! Would
you bring infamy on your sacred profession?”

“Ha, tempter! Methinks thou art too late!” answered
the minister, encountering his eye, fearfully,
but firmly. “Thy power is not what it was! With
God's help, I shall escape thee now!”

He again extended his hand to the woman of the
scarlet letter.

“Hester Prynne,” cried he, with a piercing earnestness,
“in the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful,
who gives me grace, at this last moment, to do what—
for my own heavy sin and miserable agony—I withheld
myself from doing seven years ago, come hither
now, and twine thy strength about me! Thy strength,
Hester; but let it be guided by the will which God hath
granted me! This wretched and wronged old man is
opposing it with all his might!—with all his own might
and the fiend's! Come, Hester, come! Support me
up yonder scaffold!”

The crowd was in a tumult. The men of rank and
dignity, who stood more immediately around the clergyman,
were so taken by surprise, and so perplexed as to
the purport of what they saw,—unable to receive the
explanation which most readily presented itself, or to
imagine any other,—that they remained silent and inactive
spectators of the judgment which Providence
seemed about to work. They beheld the minister,
leaning on Hester's shoulder and supported by her arm
around him, approach the scaffold, and ascend its


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steps; while still the little hand of the sin-born child
was clasped in his. Old Roger Chillingworth followed,
as one intimately connected with the drama of guilt and
sorrow in which they had all been actors, and well
entitled, therefore, to be present at its closing scene.

“Hadst thou sought the whole earth over,” said he,
looking darkly at the clergyman, “there was no one
place so secret,—no high place nor lowly place, where
thou couldst have escaped me,—save on this very

“Thanks be to Him who hath led me hither!” answered
the minister.

Yet he trembled, and turned to Hester with an expression
of doubt and anxiety in his eyes, not the less
evidently betrayed, that there was a feeble smile upon
his lips.

“Is not this better,” murmured he, “than what we
dreamed of in the forest?”

“I know not! I know not!” she hurriedly replied.
“Better? Yea; so we may both die, and little Pearl
die with us!”

“For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order,” said
the minister; “and God is merciful! Let me now do
the will which he hath made plain before my sight.
For, Hester, I am a dying man. So let me make haste
to take my shame upon me.”

Partly supported by Hester Prynne, and holding one
hand of little Pearl's, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale
turned to the dignified and venerable rulers; to the holy
ministers, who were his brethren; to the people, whose
great heart was thoroughly appalled, yet overflowing


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with tearful sympathy, as knowing that some deep life-matter—which,
if full of sin, was full of anguish and
repentance likewise—was now to be laid open to
them. The sun, but little past its meridian, shone
down upon the clergyman, and gave a distinctness to
his figure, as he stood out from all the earth to put in
his plea of guilty at the bar of Eternal Justice.

“People of New England!” cried he, with a voice
that rose over them, high, solemn, and majestic,—yet
had always a tremor through it, and sometimes a shriek,
struggling up out of a fathomless depth of remorse and
woe,—“ye, that have loved me!—ye, that have
deemed me holy!—behold me here, the one sinner of
the world! At last!—at last!—I stand upon the
spot where, seven years since, I should have stood;
here, with this woman, whose arm, more than the little
strength wherewith I have crept hitherward, sustains
me, at this dreadful moment, from grovelling down
upon my face! Lo, the scarlet letter which Hester
wears! Ye have all shuddered at it! Wherever her
walk hath been,—wherever, so miserably burdened,
she may have hoped to find repose,—it hath cast a
lurid gleam of awe and horrible repugnance round
about her. But there stood one in the midst of you,
at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!”

It seemed, at this point, as if the minister must leave
the remainder of his secret undisclosed. But he fought
back the bodily weakness,—and, still more, the faintness
of heart,—that was striving for the mastery with
him. He threw off all assistance, and stepped passionately
forward a pace before the woman and the child.


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“It was on him!” he continued, with a kind of
fierceness; so determined was he to speak out the
whole. “God's eye beheld it! The angels were
for ever pointing at it! The Devil knew it well, and
fretted it continually with the touch of his burning
finger! But he hid it cunningly from men, and walked
among you with the mien of a spirit, mournful, because
so pure in a sinful world!—and sad, because he
missed his heavenly kindred! Now, at the death-hour,
he stands up before you! He bids you look again at
Hester's scarlet letter! He tells you, that, with all its
mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears
on his own breast, and that even this, his own red
stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his
inmost heart! Stand any here that question God's
judgment on a sinner? Behold! Behold a dreadful
witness of it!”

With a convulsive motion he tore away the ministerial
band from before his breast. It was revealed!
But it were irreverent to describe that revelation. For
an instant the gaze of the horror-stricken multitude
was concentred on the ghastly miracle; while the minister
stood with a flush of triumph in his face, as one
who, in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory.
Then, down he sank upon the scaffold! Hester partly
raised him, and supported his head against her bosom.
Old Roger Chillingworth knelt down beside him, with
a blank, dull countenance, out of which the life seemed
to have departed.

“Thou hast escaped me!” he repeated more than
once. “Thou hast escaped me!”


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“May God forgive thee!” said the minister. “Thou,
too, hast deeply sinned!”

He withdrew his dying eyes from the old man, and
fixed them on the woman and the child.

“My little Pearl,” said he feebly,—and there was
a sweet and gentle smile over his face, as of a spirit
sinking into deep repose; nay, now that the burden
was removed, it seemed almost as if he would be sportive
with the child,—“dear little Pearl, wilt thou kiss
me now? Thou wouldst not yonder, in the forest!
But now thou wilt?”

Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The
great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a
part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her
tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge
that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow,
nor for ever do battle with the world, but be a woman
in it. Towards her mother, too, Pearl's errand as a
messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.

“Hester,” said the clergyman, “farewell!”

“Shall we not meet again?” whispered she, bending
her face down close to his. “Shall we not spend
our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have
ransomed one another, with all this woe! Thou
lookest far into eternity, with those bright dying eyes!
Then tell me what thou seest?”

“Hush, Hester, hush!” said he, with tremulous
solemnity. “The law we broke!—the sin here so
awfully revealed!—let these alone be in thy thoughts!
I fear! I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our
God,—when we violated our reverence each for the


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other's soul,—it was thenceforth vain to hope that we
could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion.
God knows; and He is merciful! He hath
proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By
giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast!
By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep
the torture always at red-heat! By bringing me hither,
to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the
people! Had either of these agonies been wanting, I
had been lost for ever! Praised be his name! His
will be done! Farewell!”

That final word came forth with the minister's expiring
breath. The multitude, silent till then, broke
out in a strange, deep voice of awe and wonder, which
could not as yet find utterance, save in this murmur
that rolled so heavily after the departed spirit.