Nathaniel Hawthorne (18041864). The Scarlet Letter & Rappaccinis Daughter.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
The Child at the Brook-side
THOU wilt love her dearly, repeated Hester Prynne, as she and the minister sat watching little Pearl. Dost thou not think her beautiful? And see with what natural skill she has made those simple flowers adorn her! Had she gathered pearls, and diamonds, and rubies in the wood, they could not have become her better! She is a splendid child! But I know whose brow she has!
Dost thou know, Hester, said Arthur Dimmesdale, with an unquiet smile, that this dear child, tripping about always at thy side, hath caused me many an alarm? Methoughtoh, Hester, what a thought is that, and how terrible to dread it!that my own features were partly repeated in her face, and so strikingly that the world might see them! But she is mostly thine!
No, no! Not mostly! answered the mother, with a tender smile. A little longer, and thou needest not to be afraid to trace whose child she is. But how strangely beautiful she looks with those wild flowers in her hair! It is as if one of the fairies, whom we left in dear old England, had decked her out to meet us.
It was with a feeling which neither of them had ever before experienced, that they sat and watched Pearls slow advance. In her was visible the tie that united them. She had been offered to the world, these seven past years, as the living hieroglyphic, in which was revealed the secret they so darkly sought to hideall written in this symbolall plainly manifesthad there been a prophet or magician skilled to read the character of flame! And Pearl was the oneness of their being. Be the foregone evil what it might, how could they doubt that their earthly lives and future destinies were conjoined when they beheld at once the material union, and the spiritual idea, in whom they met, and were to dwell immortally together; thoughts like theseand perhaps other thoughts, which they did not acknowledge or definethrew an awe about the child as she came onward.
Let her see nothing strangeno passion or eagernessin thy way of accosting her, whispered Hester. Our Pearl is a fitful and fantastic little elf sometimes. Especially she is generally intolerant of emotion, when she does not fully comprehend the why and wherefore. But the child hath strong affections! She loves me, and will love thee!
Thou canst not think, said the minister, glancing aside at Hester Prynne, how my heart dreads this interview, and yearns for it! But, in truth, as I already told thee, children are not readily won to be familiar with me. They will not climb my knee, nor prattle in my ear, nor answer to my smile, but stand apart, and eye me strangely. Even little babes, when I take them in my arms, weep bitterly. Yet Pearl, twice in her little lifetime, hath been kind to me! The first timethou knowest it well! The last was when thou ledst her with thee to the house of yonder stern old Governor.
And thou didst plead so bravely in her behalf and mine! answered the mother. I remember it; and so shall little Pearl. Fear nothing. She may be strange and shy at first, but will soon learn to love thee!
By this time Pearl had reached the margin of the brook, and stood on the further side, gazing silently at Hester and the clergyman, who still sat together on the mossy tree-trunk waiting to receive her. Just where she had paused, the brook chanced to form a pool so smooth and quiet that it reflected a perfect image of her little figure, with all the brilliant picturesqueness of her beauty, in its adornment of flowers and wreathed foliage, but more refined and spiritualized than the reality. This image, so nearly identical with the living Pearl, seemed to communicate somewhat of its own shadowy and intangible quality to the child herself. It was strange, the way in which Pearl stood, looking so steadfastly at them through the dim medium of the forest gloom, herself, meanwhile, all glorified with a ray of sunshine, that was attracted thitherward as by a certain sympathy. In the brook beneath stood another childanother and the samewith likewise its rays of golden light. Hester felt herself, in some indistinct and tantalizing manner, estranged from Pearl, as if the child, in her lonely ramble through the forest, had strayed out of the sphere in which she and her mother dwelt together, and was now vainly seeking to return to it.
There were both truth and error in the impression; the child and mother were estranged, but through Hesters fault, not Pearls. Since the latter rambled from her side, another inmate had been admitted within the circle of the mothers feelings, and so modified the aspect of them all, that Pearl, the returning wanderer, could not find her wonted place, and hardly knew where she was.
I have a strange fancy, observed the sensitive minister, that this brook is the boundary between two worlds, and that thou canst never meet thy Pearl again. Or is she an elfish spirit, who, as the legend of our childhood taught us, is forbidden to cross a running stream? Pray hasten her, for this delay has already imparted a tremor to my nerves.
Come, dearest child! said Hester encouragingly, and stretching out both her arms. How slow thou art! When hast thou been so sluggish before now? Here is a friend of mine, who must be thy friend also. Thou wilt have twice as much love henceforward as thy mother alone could give thee! Leap across the brook and come to us. Thou canst leap like a young deer!
Pearl, without responding in any manner to these honeysweet expressions, remained on the other side of the brook. Now she fixed her bright wild eyes on her mother, now on the minister, and now included them both in the same glance, as if to detect and explain to herself the relation which they bore to one another. For some unaccountable reason, as Arthur Dimmesdale felt the childs eyes upon himself, his handwith that gesture so habitual as to have become involuntarystole over his heart. At length, assuming a singular air of authority, Pearl stretched out her hand, with the small forefinger extended, and pointing evidently towards her mothers breast. And beneath, in the mirror of the brook, there was the flower-girdled and sunny image of little Pearl, pointing her small forefinger too.
Pearl still pointed with her forefinger, and a frown gathered on her browthe more impressive from the childish, the almost baby-like aspect of the features that conveyed it. As her mother still kept beckoning to her, and arraying her face in a holiday suit of unaccustomed smiles, the child stamped her foot with a yet more imperious look and gesture. In the brook, again, was the fantastic beauty of the image, with its reflected frown, its pointed finger, and imperious gesture, giving emphasis to the aspect of little Pearl.
Hasten, Pearl, or I shall be angry with thee! cried Hester Prynne, who, however, inured to such behaviour on the elf-childs part at other seasons, was naturally anxious for a more seemly deportment now. Leap across the brook, naughty child, and run hither! Else I must come to thee!
But Pearl, not a whit startled at her mothers threats any more than mollified by her entreaties, now suddenly burst into a fit of passion, gesticulating violently, and throwing her small figure into the most extravagant contortions. She accompanied this wild outbreak with piercing shrieks, which the woods reverberated on all sides, so that, alone as she was in her childish and unreasonable wrath, it seemed as if a hidden multitude were lending her their sympathy and encouragement. Seen in the brook once more was the shadowy wrath of Pearls image, crowned and girdled with flowers, but stamping its foot, wildly gesticulating, and, in the midst of all, still pointing its small forefinger at Hesters bosom.
I see what ails the child, whispered Hester to the clergyman, and turning pale in spite of a strong effort to conceal her trouble and annoyance. Children will not abide any, the slightest, change in the accustomed aspect of things that are daily before their eyes. Pearl misses something that she has always seen me wear!
I pray you, answered the minister, if thou hast any means of pacifying the child, do it forthwith! Save it were the cankered wrath of an old witch like Mistress Hibbins, added he, attempting to smile, I know nothing that I would not sooner encounter than this passion in a child. In Pearls young beauty, as in the wrinkled witch, it has a preternatural effect. Pacify her if thou lovest me!
Hester turned again towards Pearl with a crimson blush upon her cheeks, a conscious glance aside at the clergyman, and then a heavy sigh, while, even before she had time to speak, the blush yielded to a deadly pallor.
Was ever such a child! observed Hester aside to the minister. Oh, I have much to tell thee about her! But, in very truth, she is right as regards this hateful token. I must bear its torture yet a little longeronly a few days longeruntil we shall have left this region, and look back hither as to a land which we have dreamed of. The forest cannot hide it! The mid-ocean shall take it from my hand, and swallow it up for ever!
With these words she advanced to the margin of the brook, took up the scarlet letter, and fastened it again into her bosom. Hopefully, but a moment ago, as Hester had spoken of drowning it in the deep sea, there was a sense of inevitable doom upon her as she thus received back this deadly symbol from the hand of fate. She had flung it into infinite space! she had drawn an hours free breath! and here again was the scarlet misery glittering on the old spot! So it ever is, whether thus typified or no, that an evil deed invests itself with the character of doom. Hester next gathered up the heavy tresses of her hair and confined them beneath her cap. As if there were a withering spell in the sad letter, her beauty, the warmth and richness of her womanhood, departed like fading sunshine, and a gray shadow seemed to fall across her.
Dost thou know thy mother now, child? asked she, reproachfully, but with a subdued tone. Wilt thou come across the brook, and own thy mother, now that she has her shame upon hernow that she is sad?
In a mood of tenderness that was not usual with her, she drew down her mothers head, and kissed her brow and both her cheeks. But thenby a kind of necessity that always impelled this child to alloy whatever comfort she might chance to give with a throb of anguishPearl put up her mouth and kissed the scarlet letter, too!
Not now, my child, answered Hester. But in days to come he will walk hand in hand with us. We will have a home and fireside of our own; and thou shalt sit upon his knee; and he will teach thee many things, and love thee dearly. Thou wilt love himwilt thou not?
But, whether influenced by the jealousy that seems instinctive with every petted child towards a dangerous rival, or from whatever caprice of her freakish nature, Pearl would show no favour to the clergyman. It was only by an exertion of force that her mother brought her up to him, hanging back, and manifesting her reluctance by odd grimaces; of which, ever since her babyhood, she had possessed a singular variety, and could transform her mobile physiognomy into a series of different aspects, with a new mischief in them, each and all. The ministerpainfully embarrassed, but hoping that a kiss might prove a talisman to admit him into the childs kindlier regardsbent forward, and impressed one on her brow. Hereupon, Pearl broke away from her mother, and, running to the brook, stooped over it, and bathed her forehead, until the unwelcome kiss was quite washed off and diffused through a long lapse of the gliding water. She then remained apart, silently watching Hester and the clergyman; while they talked together and made such arrangements as were suggested by their new position and the purposes soon to be fulfilled.
And now this fateful interview had come to a close. The dell was to be left in solitude among its dark, old trees, which, with their multitudinous tongues, would whisper long of what had passed there, and no mortal be the wiser. And the melancholy brook would add this other tale to the mystery with which its little heart was already overburdened, and whereof it still kept up a murmuring babble, with not a whit more cheerfulness of tone than for ages heretofore.