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The Scarlet Letter

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After the incident last described, the intercourse between the clergyman and the physician, though externally the same, was really of another character than it had previously been. The intellect of Roger Chillingworth had now a sufficiently plain path before it. It was not, indeed, precisely that which he had laid out for himself to tread. Calm, gentle, passionless, as he appeared, there was yet, we fear, a quiet depth of malice, hitherto latent, but active now, in this unfortunate old man, which led him to imagine a more intimate revenge than any mortal had ever wreaked upon an enemy. To make himself the one trusted friend, to whom should be confided all the fear, the remorse, the agony, the ineffectual repentance, the backward rush of sinful thoughts, expelled in vain! All that guilty sorrow, hidden from the world, whose great heart would have pitied and forgiven, to be revealed to him, the Pitiless, to him, the Unforgiving! All that dark treasure to be lavished on the very man, to whom nothing else could so adequately pay the debt of vengeance! Following the incident just described, the relationship between the minister and the doctor changed substantially, though it outwardly appeared the same. Roger Chillingworth now had a clear path in front of him, even if it was not quite the one he had meant to take. And although he seemed calm, gentle, and reasonable, I am afraid there was a hidden well of malice that stirred from inside this poor old man and allowed him to conceive a more personal revenge than anyone else ever could. He had made himself the minister’s one trusted friend—the person in whom Mr. Dimmesdale confided all the fear, remorse, agony, ineffective repentance, and sinful thoughts he struggled to keep away! The world would have pitied and forgiven him for all that guilty sorrow. But instead he only revealed himself to the pitiless and unforgiving doctor! All that dark treasure was lavished on the one man who sought to use it for vengeance!
The clergyman’s shy and sensitive reserve had balked this scheme. Roger Chillingworth, however, was inclined to be hardly, if at all, less satisfied with the aspect of affairs, which Providence—using the avenger and his victim for its own purposes, and, perchance, pardoning, where it seemed most to punish—had substituted for his black devices. A revelation, he could almost say, had been granted to him. It mattered little, for his object, whether celestial, or from what other region. By its aid, in all the subsequent relations betwixt him and Mr. Dimmesdale, not merely the external presence, but the very inmost soul of the latter seemed to be brought out before his eyes, so that he could see and comprehend its every movement. He became, thenceforth, not a spectator only, but a chief actor, in the poor minister’s interior world. He could play upon him as he chose. Would he arouse him with a throb of agony? The victim was for ever on the rack; it needed only to know the spring that controlled the engine;—and the physician knew it well! Would he startle him with sudden fear? As at the waving of a magician’s wand, uprose a grisly phantom,—uprose a thousand phantoms,—in many shapes, of death, or more awful shame, all flocking round about the clergyman, and pointing with their fingers at his breast! The minister’s shy and sensitive nature had foiled the doctor’s plan for revenge. Yet Roger Chillingworth was no less satisfied with this turn of events that chance had substituted for his own wicked schemes. Fate would use both avenger and victim for its own purposes, perhaps pardoning where it seemed fit to punish. Roger Chillingworth could almost believe that he had been granted a revelation. It mattered little to him whether the revelation came from Heaven or from Hell: With its aid, he seemed to see deep into the soul of Mr. Dimmesdale. From then on, the doctor became not just an observer of the minister’s life but a chief actor in it. He could manipulate the minister as he chose. Would he inspire a throb of agony? The minister was always on the rack. One only had to know how to turn the gears—and the doctor knew this well! Would he startle the minister with sudden fear? The minister imagined phantoms of awful shame flocking around him—as though these horrific forms were conjured by the wand of a magician—all pointing their fingers at his breast!
All this was accomplished with a subtlety so perfect, that the minister, though he had constantly a dim perception of some evil influence watching over him, could never gain a knowledge of its actual nature. True, he looked doubtfully, fearfully,—even, at times, with horror and the bitterness of hatred,—at the deformed figure of the old physician. His gestures, his gait, his grizzled beard, his slightest and most indifferent acts, the very fashion of his garments, were odious in the clergyman’s sight; a token, implicitly to be relied on, of a deeper antipathy in the breast of the latter than he was willing to acknowledge to himself. For, as it was impossible to assign a reason for such distrust and abhorrence, so Mr. Dimmesdale, conscious that the poison of one morbid spot was infecting his heart’s entire substance, attributed all his presentiments to no other cause. He took himself to task for his bad sympathies in reference to Roger Chillingworth, disregarded the lesson that he should have drawn from them, and did his best to root them out. Unable to accomplish this, he nevertheless, as a matter of principle, continued his habits of social familiarity with the old man, and thus gave him constant opportunities for perfecting the purpose to which—poor, forlorn creature that he was, and more wretched than his victim—the avenger had devoted himself. Chillingworth accomplished all of his plans with such great subtlety that the minister could never identify it, though he was always dimly aware of some evil influence watching over him. True, he looked suspiciously, fearfully—sometimes even with horror and bitter hatred—at the deformed figure of the old doctor. Everything about him—his face, his walk, his grizzly beard, his clothes—was revolting to the minister, evidence of a deeper dislike than the minister was willing to admit to himself. But he had no reason for his distrust and hatred. So Mr. Dimmesdale, knowing that one poisonous stain was infecting his entire heart, attributed his feelings to the disease. He scolded himself for his bad feelings toward Roger Chillingworth. Rather than heed any lesson from these suspicions, he did his best to root them out. And though he was unable to get rid of them, he—as a matter of principle—continued his old friendship with the old man. This gave the doctor endless opportunities to wreak his vengeance. Poor, abandoned creature that he was, the doctor was even more miserable than his victim.
While thus suffering under bodily disease, and gnawed and tortured by some black trouble of the soul, and given over to the machinations of his deadliest enemy, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale had achieved a brilliant popularity in his sacred office. He won it, indeed, in great part, by his sorrows. His intellectual gifts, his moral perceptions, his power of experiencing and communicating emotion, were kept in a state of preternatural activity by the prick and anguish of his daily life. His fame, though still on its upward slope, already overshadowed the soberer reputations of his fellow-clergymen, eminent as several of them were. There were scholars among them, who had spent more years in acquiring abstruse lore, connected with the divine profession, than Mr. Dimmesdale had lived; and who might well, therefore, be more profoundly versed in such solid and valuable attainments than their youthful brother. There were men, too, of a sturdier texture of mind than his, and endowed with a far greater share of shrewd, hard, iron or granite understanding; which, duly mingled with a fair proportion of doctrinal ingredient, constitutes a highly respectable, efficacious, and unamiable variety of the clerical species. There were others, again, true saintly fathers, whose faculties had been elaborated by weary toil among their books, and by patient thought, and etherealized, moreover, by spiritual communications with the better world, into which their purity of life had almost introduced these holy personages, with their garments of mortality still clinging to them. All that they lacked was the gift that descended upon the chosen disciples, at Pentecost, in tongues of flame; symbolizing, it would seem, not the power of speech in foreign and unknown languages, but that of addressing the whole human brotherhood in the heart’s native language. These fathers, otherwise so apostolic, lacked Heaven’s last and rarest attestation of their office, the Tongue of Flame. They would have vainly sought—had they ever dreamed of seeking—to express the highest truths through the humblest medium of familiar words and images. Their voices came down, afar and indistinctly, from the upper heights where they habitually dwelt. The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale actually attained great popularity through his ministry while suffering with his bodily disease—a disease made all the more torturous by the dark trouble in his soul and the scheming of his deadliest enemy. To be honest, his popularity was due in great part to his sorrows. The pain endured through his daily life had made his mind, spirit, and sense of empathy almost supernaturally acute. His growing fame already overshadowed the somber reputations of even his most well-regarded fellow ministers. Some of these men were scholars who had been engaged in their obscure theological studies for longer than Mr. Dimmesdale had been alive. Others possessed stronger minds than Mr. Dimmesdale’s, full of a shrewd and rigid understanding of the world. Such strict discipline, when mixed with the right amount of religious doctrine, makes for a respectable, effective, and unwelcoming clergyman. Still others were truly saintly men whose minds had been expanded by weary hours of patient thought with their books. They had been made even holier by their communications with Heaven, achieving almost divine purity while still in their earthly bodies. All they lacked was the apostle’s

tongue of fire

Ability that God granted to the apostles, allowing their speech to be understood by all men in their own language. Acts 2:6—12.

tongue of fire
granting them the power to speak to every man’s heart. These men would have tried in vain to express their high ideals in humble words and images—that is, if they had ever dreamed of trying! Instead, their voices had become distorted on their way down from these great heights.

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