Nathaniel Hawthorne (18041864). The Scarlet Letter. 1850.
VIII. The Elf-Child and the Minister
GOVERNOR BELLINGHAM, in a loose gown and easy cap,such as elderly gentlemen loved to indue themselves with, in their domestic privacy,walked foremost, and appeared to be showing off his estate, and expatiating on his projected improvements. The wide circumference of an elaborate ruff, beneath his gray beard, in the antiquated fashion of King Jamess reign, caused his head to look not a little like that of John the Baptist in a charger. The impression made by his aspect, so rigid and severe, and frost-bitten with more than autumnal age, was hardly in keeping with the appliances of worldly enjoyment wherewith he had evidently done his utmost to surround himself. But it is an error to suppose that our great forefathersthough accustomed to speak and think of human existence as a state merely of trial and warfare, and though unfeignedly prepared to sacrifice goods and life at the behest of dutymade it a matter of conscience to reject such means of comfort, or even luxury, as lay fairly within their grasp. This creed was never taught, for instance, by the venerable pastor, John Wilson, whose beard, white as a snow-drift, was seen over Governor Bellinghams shoulders; while its wearer suggested that pears and peaches might yet be naturalized in the New England climate, and that purple grapes might possibly be compelled to flourish, against the sunny garden-wall. The old clergyman, nurtured at the rich bosom of the English Church, had a long established and legitimate taste for all good and comfortable things; and however stern he might show himself in the pulpit, or in his public reproof of such transgressions as that of Hester Prynne, still, the genial benevolence of his private life had won him warmer affection than was accorded to any of his professional contemporaries.
Behind the Governor and Mr. Wilson came two other guests; one, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, whom the reader may remember, as having taken a brief and reluctant part in the scene of Hester Prynnes disgrace; and, in close companionship with him, old Roger Chillingworth, a person of great skill in physic, who, for two or three years, past had been settled in the town. It was understood that this learned man was the physician as well as friend of the young minister, whose health had severely suffered, of late, by his too unreserved self-sacrifice to the labors and duties of the pastoral relation.
The Governor, in advance of his visitors, ascended one or two steps, and, throwing open the leaves of the great hall-window, found himself close to little Pearl. The shadow of the curtain fell on Hester Prynne, and partially concealed her.
What have we here? said Governor Bellingham, looking with surprise at the scarlet little figure before him. I profess, I have never seen the like, since my days of vanity, in old King Jamess time, when I was wont to esteem it a high favor to be admitted to a court mask! There used to be a swarm of these small apparitions, in holiday-time; and we called them children of the Lord of Misrule. But how gat such a guest into my hall?
Ay, indeed! cried good old Mr. Wilson. What little bird of scarlet plumage may this be? Methinks I have seen just such figures, when the sun has been shining through a richly painted window, and tracing out the golden and crimson images across the floor. But that was in the old land. Prithee, young one, who art thou, and what has ailed thy mother to bedizen thee in this strange fashion? Art thou a Christian child,ha? Dost know thy catechism? Or art thou one of those naughty elfs or fairies, whom we thought to have left behind us, with other relics of Papistry, in merry old England?
Pearl?Ruby, rather!or Coral!or Red Rose, at the very least, judging from thy hue! responded the old minister, putting forth his hand in a vain attempt to pat little Pearl on the cheek. But where is this mother of thine? Ah! I see, he added; and, turning to Governor Bellingham, whispered,This is the selfsame child of whom we have held speech together; and behold here the unhappy woman, Hester Prynne, her mother!
Sayest thou so? cried the Governor. Nay, we might have judged that such a childs mother must needs be a scarlet woman, and a worthy type of her of Babylon! But she comes at a good time; and we will look into this matter forthwith.
Hester Prynne, said he, fixing his naturally stern regard on the wearer of the scarlet letter, there hath been much question concerning thee, of late. The point hath been weightily discussed, whether we, that are of authority and influence, do well discharge our consciences by trusting an immortal soul, such as there is in yonder child, to the guidance of one who hath stumbled and fallen, amid the pitfalls of this world. Speak thou, the childs own mother! Were it not, thinkest thou, for thy little ones temporal and eternal welfare, that she be taken out of thy charge, and clad soberly, and disciplined strictly, and instructed in the truths of heaven and earth? What canst thou do for the child, in this kind?
Nevertheless, said the mother calmly, though growing more pale, this badge hath taught me,it daily teaches me,it is teaching me at this moment,lessons whereof my child may be the wiser and better, albeit they can profit nothing to myself.
We will judge warily, said Bellingham, and look well what we are about to do. Good Master Wilson, I pray you, examine this Pearl,since that is her name,and see whether she hath had such Christian nurture as befits a child of her age.
The old minister seated himself in an arm-chair, and made an effort to draw Pearl betwixt his knees. But the child, unaccustomed to the touch or familiarity of any but her mother, escaped through the open window and stood on the upper step, looking like a wild, tropical bird, of rich plumage, ready to take flight into the upper air. Mr. Wilson, not a little astonished at this outbreak,for he was a grandfatherly sort of personage, and usually a vast favorite with children,essayed, however, to proceed with the examination.
Pearl, said he, with great solemnity, thou must take heed to instruction, that so, in due season, thou mayest wear in thy bosom the pearl of great price. Canst thou tell me, my child, who made thee?
Now Pearl knew well enough who made her; for Hester Prynne, the daughter of a pious home, very soon after her talk with the child about her Heavenly Father, had begun to inform her of those truths which the human spirit, at whatever stage of immaturity, imbibes with such eager interest. Pearl, therefore, so large were the attainments of her three years lifetime, could have borne a fair examination in the New England Primer, or the first column of the Westminster Catechism, although unacquainted with the outward form of either of those celebrated works. But that perversity, which all children have more or less of, and of which little Pearl had a tenfold portion, now, at the most inopportune moment, took thorough possession of her, and closed her lips, or impelled her to speak words amiss. After putting her finger in her mouth, with many ungracious refusals to answer good Mr. Wilsons question, the child finally announced that she had not been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses, that grew by the prison-door.
This fantasy was probably suggested by the near proximity of the Governors red roses, as Pearl stood outside of the window; together with her recollection of the prison rose-bush, which she had passed in coming hither.
Old Roger Chillingworth, with a smile on his face, whispered something in the young clergymans ear. Hester Prynne looked at the man of skill, and even then, with her fate hanging in the balance, was startled to perceive what a change had come over his features,how much uglier they were,how his dark complexion seemed to have grown duskier, and his figure more misshapen,since the days when she had familiarly known him. She met his eyes for an instant, but was immediately constrained to give all her attention to the scene now going forward.
This is awful! cried the Governor, slowly recovering from the astonishment into which Pearls response had thrown him. Here is a child of three years old, and she cannot tell who made her! Without question, she is equally in the dark as to her soul, its present depravity, and future destiny! Methinks, gentlemen, we need inquire no further.
Hester caught hold of Pearl, and drew her forcibly into her arms, confronting the old Puritan magistrate with almost a fierce expression. Alone in the world, cast off by it, and with this sole treasure to keep her heart alive, she felt that she possessed indefeasible rights against the world, and was ready to defend them to the death.
God gave me the child! cried she. He gave her, in requital of all things else, which ye had taken from me. She is my happiness!she is my torture, none the less! Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me, too! See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a million-fold the power of retribution for my sin? Ye shall not take her! I will die first!
God gave her into my keeping, repeated Hester Prynne, raising her voice almost to a shriek. I will not give her up!And here, by a sudden impulse, she turned to the young clergyman, Mr. Dimmesdale, at whom, up to this moment, she had seemed hardly so much as once to direct her eyes.Speak thou for me! cried she. Thou wast my pastor, and hadst charge of my soul, and knowest me better than these men can. I will not lose the child! Speak for me! Thou knowest,for thou hast sympathies which these men lack!thou knowest what is in my heart, and what are a mothers rights, and how much the stronger they are, when that mother has but her child and the scarlet letter! Look thou to it! I will not lose the child! Look to it!
At this wild and singular appeal, which indicated that Hester Prynnes situation had provoked her to little less than madness, the young minister at once came forward, pale, and holding his hand over his heart, as was his custom whenever his peculiarly nervous temperament was thrown into agitation. He looked now more careworn and emaciated than as we described him at the scene of Hesters public ignominy; and whether it were his failing health, or whatever the cause might be, his large dark eyes had a world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depth.
There is truth in what she says, began the minister, with a voice sweet, tremulous, but powerful, insomuch that the hall reëchoed, and the hollow armour rang with it,truth in what Hester says, and in the feeling which inspires her! God gave her the child, and gave her, too, an instinctive knowledge of its nature and requirements,both seemingly so peculiar,which no other mortal being can possess. And, moreover, is there not a quality of awful sacredness in the relation between this mother and this child?
It must be even so, resumed the minister. For, if we deem it otherwise, do we not thereby say that the Heavenly Father, the Creator of all flesh, hath lightly recognized a deed of sin, and made of no account the distinction between unhallowed lust and holy love? This child of its fathers guilt and its mothers shame has come from the hand of God, to work in many ways upon her heart, who pleads so earnestly, and with such bitterness of spirit, the right to keep her. It was meant for a blessing; for the one blessing of her life! It was meant, doubtless, as the mother herself hath told us, for a retribution too; a torture, to be felt at many an unthought of moment; a pang, a sting, an ever-recurring agony, in the midst of a troubled joy! Hath she not expressed this thought in the garb of the poor child, so forcibly reminding us of that red symbol which sears her bosom?
O, not so!not so! continued Mr. Dimmesdale. She recognizes, believe me, the solemn miracle which God hath wrought, in the existence of that child. And may she feel, too,what, methinks, is the very truth,that this boon was meant, above all things else, to keep the mothers soul alive, and to preserve her from blacker depths of sin into which Satan might else have sought to plunge her! Therefore it is good for this poor, sinful woman that she hath an infant immortality, a being capable of eternal joy or sorrow, confided to her care,to be trained up by her to righteousness,to remind her, at every moment, of her fall,but yet to teach her, as it were by the Creators sacred pledge, that, if she bring the child to heaven, the child also will bring its parent thither! Herein is the sinful mother happier than the sinful father. For Hester Prynnes sake, then, and no less for the poor childs sake, let us leave them as Providence hath seen fit to place them!
Indeed hath he, answered the magistrate, and hath adduced such arguments, that we will even leave the matter as it now stands; so long, at least, as there shall be no further scandal in the woman. Care must be had, nevertheless, to put the child to due and stated examination in the catechism at thy hands or Master Dimmesdales. Moreover, at a proper season, the tithing-men must take heed that she go both to school and to meeting.
The young minister, on ceasing to speak, had withdrawn a few steps from the group, and stood with his face partially concealed in the heavy folds of the window-curtain; while the shadow of his figure, which the sunlight cast upon the floor, was tremulous with the vehemence of his appeal. Pearl, that wild and flighty little elf, stole softly towards him, and, taking his hand in the grasp of both her own, laid her cheek against it; a caress so tender, and withal so unobtrusive, that her mother, who was looking on, asked herself, Is that my Pearl? Yet she knew that there was love in the childs heart, although it mostly revealed itself in passion, and hardly twice in her lifetime had been softened by such gentleness as now. The minister,for, save the long-sought regards of woman, nothing is sweeter than these marks of childish preference, accorded spontaneously by a spiritual instinct, and therefore seeming to imply in us something truly worthy to be loved,the minister looked round, laid his hand on the childs head, hesitated an instant, and then kissed her brow. Little Pearls unwonted mood of sentiment lasted no longer; she laughed, and went capering down the hall, so airily, that old Mr. Wilson raised a question whether even her tiptoes touched the floor.
A strange child! remarked old Roger Chillingworth. It is easy to see the mothers part in her. Would it be beyond a philosophers research, think ye, gentlemen, to analyze that childs nature, and, from its make and mould, to give a shrewd guess at the father?
Nay; it would be sinful, in such a question, to follow the clew of profane philosophy, said Mr. Wilson. Better to fast and pray upon it; and still better, it may be, to leave the mystery as we find it, unless Providence reveal it of its own accord. Thereby, every good Christian man hath a title to show a fathers kindness towards the poor, deserted babe.
The affair being so satisfactorily concluded, Hester Prynne, with Pearl, departed from the house. As they descended the steps, it is averred that the lattice of a chamber-window was thrown open, and forth into the sunny day was thrust the face of Mistress Hibbins, Governor Bellinghams bitter-tempered sister, and the same who, a few years later, was executed as a witch.
Hist, hist! said she, while her ill-omened physiognomy seemed to cast a shadow over the cheerful newness of the house. Wilt thou go with us to-night? There will be a merry company in the forest; and I wellnigh promised the Black Man that comely Hester Prynne should make one.
Make my excuse to him, so please you! answered Hester, with a triumphant smile. I must tarry at home, and keep watch over my little Pearl. Had they taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with thee into the forest, and signed my name in the Black Mans book too, and that with mine own blood!
But hereif we suppose this interview betwixt Mistress Hibbins and Hester Prynne to be authentic, and not a parablewas already an illustration of the young ministers argument against sundering the relation of a fallen mother to the offspring of her frailty. Even thus early had the child saved her from Satans snare.