University of Virginia Library


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24. XXIV.

After many days, when time sufficed for the people
to arrange their thoughts in reference to the foregoing
scene, there was more than one account of what had
been witnessed on the scaffold.

Most of the spectators testified to having seen, on the
breast of the unhappy minister, a SCARLET LETTER—
the very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne—
imprinted in the flesh. As regarded its origin, there
were various explanations, all of which must necessarily
have been conjectural. Some affirmed that the
Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, on the very day when
Hester Prynne first wore her ignominious badge, had
begun a course of penance,—which he afterwards, in
so many futile methods, followed out,—by inflicting a
hideous torture on himself. Others contended that the
stigma had not been produced until a long time subsequent,
when old Roger Chillingworth, being a potent
necromancer, had caused it to appear, through the
agency of magic and poisonous drugs. Others, again,
—and those best able to appreciate the minister's
peculiar sensibility, and the wonderful operation of his
spirit upon the body,—whispered their belief, that the
awful symbol was the effect of the ever active tooth of


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remorse, gnawing from the inmost heart outwardly,
and at last manifesting Heaven's dreadful judgment by
the visible presence of the letter. The reader may
choose among these theories. We have thrown all the
light we could acquire upon the portent, and would
gladly, now that it has done its office, erase its deep
print out of our own brain; where long meditation has
fixed it in very undesirable distinctness.

It is singular, nevertheless, that certain persons, who
were spectators of the whole scene, and professed
never once to have removed their eyes from the Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale, denied that there was any mark
whatever on his breast, more than on a new-born
infant's. Neither, by their report, had his dying words
acknowledged, nor even remotely implied, any, the
slightest connection, on his part, with the guilt for
which Hester Prynne had so long worn the scarlet
letter. According to these highly respectable witnesses,
the minister, conscious that he was dying,—conscious,
also, that the reverence of the multitude placed him
already among saints and angels,—had desired, by
yielding up his breath in the arms of that fallen woman,
to express to the world how utterly nugatory is the
choicest of man's own righteousness. After exhausting
life in his efforts for mankind's spiritual good, he
had made the manner of his death a parable, in order
to impress on his admirers the mighty and mournful
lesson, that, in the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners
all alike. It was to teach them, that the holiest
among us has but attained so far above his fellows as
to discern more clearly the Mercy which looks down,


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and repudiate more utterly the phantom of human
merit, which would look aspiringly upward. Without
disputing a truth so momentous, we must be allowed to
consider this version of Mr. Dimmesdale's story as
only an instance of that stubborn fidelity with which a
man's friends—and especially a clergyman's—will
sometimes uphold his character; when proofs, clear as
the mid-day sunshine on the scarlet letter, establish
him a false and sin-stained creature of the dust.

The authority which we have chiefly followed—a
manuscript of old date, drawn up from the verbal testimony
of individuals, some of whom had known Hester
Prynne, while others had heard the tale from contemporary
witnesses—fully confirms the view taken in
the foregoing pages. Among many morals which
press upon us from the poor minister's miserable experience,
we put only this into a sentence:—“Be
true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world,
if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst
may be inferred!”

Nothing was more remarkable than the change which
took place, almost immediately after Mr. Dimmesdale's
death, in the appearance and demeanour of the old man
known as Roger Chillingworth. All his strength and
energy—all his vital and intellectual force—seemed
at once to desert him; insomuch that he positively
withered up, shrivelled away, and almost vanished from
mortal sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in
the sun. This unhappy man had made the very principle
of his life to consist in the pursuit and systematic
exercise of revenge; and when, by its completest triumph


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and consummation, that evil principle was left
with no further material to support it,—when, in short,
there was no more devil's work on earth for him to do,
it only remained for the unhumanized mortal to betake
himself whither his Master would find him tasks
enough, and pay him his wages duly. But, to all these
shadowy beings, so long our near acquaintances,—as
well Roger Chillingworth as his companions,—we
would fain be merciful. It is a curious subject of observation
and inquiry, whether hatred and love be not
the same thing at bottom. Each, in its utmost development,
supposes a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge;
each renders one individual dependent for
the food of his affections and spiritual life upon another;
each leaves the passionate lover, or the no less
passionate hater, forlorn and desolate by the withdrawal
of his object. Philosophically considered, therefore,
the two passions seem essentially the same, except
that one happens to be seen in a celestial radiance,
and the other in a dusky and lurid glow. In the spiritual
world, the old physician and the minister—mutual
victims as they have been—may, unawares, have found
their earthly stock of hatred and antipathy transmuted
into golden love.

Leaving this discussion apart, we have a matter of
business to communicate to the reader. At old Roger
Chillingworth's decease (which took place within the
year), and by his last will and testament, of which
Governor Bellingham and the Reverend Mr. Wilson
were executors, he bequeathed a very considerable


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amount of property, both here and in England, to little
Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne.

So Pearl—the elf-child,—the demon offspring, as
some people, up to that epoch, persisted in considering
her—became the richest heiress of her day, in the New
World. Not improbably, this circumstance wrought
a very material change in the public estimation; and,
had the mother and child remained here, little Pearl, at
a marriageable period of life, might have mingled her
wild blood with the lineage of the devoutest Puritan
among them all. But, in no long time after the physician's
death, the wearer of the scarlet letter disappeared,
and Pearl along with her. For many years,
though a vague report would now and then find its way
across the sea,—like a shapeless piece of driftwood tost
ashore, with the initials of a name upon it,—yet no
tidings of them unquestionably authentic were received.
The story of the scarlet letter grew into a
legend. Its spell, however, was still potent, and kept
the scaffold awful where the poor minister had died,
and likewise the cottage by the sea-shore, where Hester
Prynne had dwelt. Near this latter spot, one afternoon,
some children were at play, when they beheld a
tall woman, in a gray robe, approach the cottage-door.
In all those years it had never once been opened; but
either she unlocked it, or the decaying wood and iron
yielded to her hand, or she glided shadow-like through
these impediments,—and, at all events, went in.

On the threshold she paused,—turned partly round,
—for, perchance, the idea of entering, all alone, and


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all so changed, the home of so intense a former life,
was more dreary and desolate than even she could
bear. But her hesitation was only for an instant,
though long enough to display a scarlet letter on her

And Hester Prynne had returned, and taken up her
long-forsaken shame. But where was little Pearl? If
still alive, she must now have been in the flush and
bloom of early womanhood. None knew—nor ever
learned, with the fulness of perfect certainty—whether
the elf-child had gone thus untimely to a maiden grave;
or whether her wild, rich nature had been softened and
subdued, and made capable of a woman's gentle happiness.
But, through the remainder of Hester's life,
there were indications that the recluse of the scarlet
letter was the object of love and interest with some inhabitant
of another land. Letters came, with armorial
seals upon them, though of bearings unknown to English
heraldry. In the cottage there were articles of
comfort and luxury, such as Hester never cared to use,
but which only wealth could have purchased, and affection
have imagined for her. There were trifles, too,
little ornaments, beautiful tokens of a continual remembrance,
that must have been wrought by delicate
fingers, at the impulse of a fond heart. And, once,
Hester was seen embroidering a baby-garment, with
such a lavish richness of golden fancy as would have
raised a public tumult, had any infant, thus apparelled,
been shown to our sobre-hued community.

In fine, the gossips of that day believed,—and Mr.


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Surveyor Pue, who made investigations a century later,
believed,—and one of his recent successors in office,
moreover, faithfully believes,—that Pearl was not only
alive, but married, and happy, and mindful of her
mother; and that she would most joyfully have entertained
that sad and lonely mother at her fireside.

But there was a more real life for Hester Prynne,
here, in New England, than in that unknown region
where Pearl had found a home. Here had been her
sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence.
She had returned, therefore, and resumed,—
of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of
that iron period would have imposed it,—resumed the
symbol of which we have related so dark a tale.
Never afterwards did it quit her bosom. But, in the
lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, and self-devoted
years that made up Hester's life, the scarlet letter
ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world's scorn
and bitterness, and became a type of something to be
sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with
reverence too. And, as Hester Prynne had no selfish
ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit
and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and
perplexities, and besought her counsel, as one who
had herself gone through a mighty trouble. Women,
more especially,—in the continually recurring trials of
wounded, wasted, wronged, misplaced, or erring and
sinful passion,—or with the dreary burden of a heart
unyielded, because unvalued and unsought,—came to
Hester's cottage, demanding why they were so wretched,


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and what the remedy! Hester comforted and
counselled them, as best she might. She assured them,
too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period,
when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven's
own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order
to establish the whole relation between man and woman
on a surer ground of mutual happiness. Earlier in
life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might
be the destined prophetess, but had long since recognized
the impossibility that any mission of divine and
mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained
with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened
with a life-long sorrow. The angel and apostle of
the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but
lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise, moreover, not
through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy;
and showing how sacred love should make us happy,
by the truest test of a life successful to such an end!

So said Hester Prynne, and glanced her sad eyes
downward at the scarlet letter. And, after many,
many years, a new grave was delved, near an old and
sunken one, in that burial-ground beside which King's
Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and
sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust
of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet
one tombstone served for both. All around, there
were monuments carved with armorial bearings; and
on this simple slab of slate—as the curious investigator
may still discern, and perplex himself with
the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engraved


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escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald's wording
of which might serve for a motto and brief description
of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it,
and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light
gloomier than the shadow:—

On a field, sable, the letter A, gules.”


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