Pearl’s inevitable tendency to hover about the enigma of the scarlet letter
seemed an innate quality of her being. From the earliest epoch of her conscious
life, she had entered upon this as her appointed mission. Hester had often
fancied that Providence had a design of justice and retribution, in endowing the
child with this marked propensity; but never, until now, had she bethought
herself to ask, whether, linked with that design, there might not likewise be a
purpose of mercy and beneficence. If little Pearl were entertained with faith
and trust, as a spirit-messenger no less than an earthly child, might it not be
her errand to soothe away the sorrow that lay cold in her mother’s heart, and
converted it into a tomb?—and to help her to overcome the passion, once so wild,
and even yet neither dead nor asleep, but only imprisoned within the same
Pearl’s constant curiosity about the mystery of the scarlet letter seemed an
essential part of her character. From the time Pearl had first been aware of it,
she had been on a mission to discover its meaning. Hester had often imagined
that God had given her daughter this interest to make her an instrument of
justice and punishment. But now Hester wondered for the first time whether there
might also be a divine purpose of mercy and kindness at work. If Hester put her
faith and trust in Pearl, treating her as both a messenger sent from Heaven and
an earthly child, could it be the daughter’s purpose to soothe away the sorrow
in her mother’s heart? Was the girl meant to help her overcome the wild passion
Hester had buried in her heart?
Such were some of the thoughts that now stirred in Hester’s mind, with as much
vivacity of impression as if they had actually been whispered into her ear. And
there was little Pearl, all this while, holding her mother’s hand in both her
own, and turning her face upward, while she put these searching questions, once
and again, and still a third time.
These thoughts ran through Hester’s mind as clearly as if they had actually
been whispered into her ear. Meanwhile, little Pearl kept holding her mother’s
hand in both her own and turning her face upward. She asked these searching
questions again and again.
“What does the letter mean, mother?—and why dost thou wear it?—and why does
the minister keep his hand over his heart?”
“What does the letter mean, mother? And why do you wear it? And why does the
minister keep his hand over his heart?”
“What shall I say?” thought Hester to herself.—“No! If this be the price of
the child’s sympathy, I cannot pay it!”
“What should I say?” thought Hester to herself. “No! If this is what I must
pay to win the child’s friendship, the price is too high!”
Then she spoke aloud.
Then she spoke aloud.
“Silly Pearl,” said she, “what questions are these? There are many things in
this world that a child must not ask about. What know I of the minister’s heart?
And as for the scarlet letter, I wear it for the sake of its gold
“Silly Pearl,” she said, “what kind of questions are these? There are many
things that a child must not ask about. What do I know about the minister’s
heart? And as for the scarlet letter, I wear it for the sake of its gold
In all the seven bygone years, Hester Prynne had never before been false to
the symbol on her bosom. It may be that it was the talisman of a stern and
severe, but yet a guardian spirit, who now forsook her; as recognizing that, in
spite of his strict watch over her heart, some new evil had crept into it, or
some old one had never been expelled. As for little Pearl, the earnestness soon
passed out of her face.
In the past seven years, Hester Prynne had never lied about the symbol on her
bosom. Perhaps the letter was the mark of a guardian spirit—stern and severe,
but yet watchful—that left her as she said this. Perhaps the spirit recognized
that some new evil had crept into her heart despite his watchfulness, or some
old evil had always lingered there. As for little Pearl, the seriousness soon
left her face.
But the child did not see fit to let the matter drop. Two or three times, as
her mother and she went homeward, and as often at supper-time, and while Hester
was putting her to bed, and once after she seemed to be fairly asleep, Pearl
looked up, with mischief gleaming in her black eyes.
But the child did not let the matter drop. Pearl asked again two or three
times as they walked home, and then at dinner, and while Hester was putting her
to bed. Even after she seemed to be fast asleep, Pearl looked up once with
mischief gleaming in her black eyes.
“Mother,” said she, “what does the scarlet letter mean?”
“Mother,” she said, “what does the scarlet letter mean?”
And the next morning, the first indication the child gave of being awake was
by popping up her head from the pillow, and making that other inquiry, which she
had so unaccountably connected with her investigations about the scarlet
And the next morning, the first sign that the child was awake came when she
popped her head up from her pillow and asked that other question, which she had
inexplicably connected with her questions about the scarlet letter:
“Mother!—Mother!—Why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?”
“Mother! Mother! Why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?”
“Hold thy tongue, naughty child!” answered her mother, with an asperity that
she had never permitted to herself before. “Do not tease me; else I shall shut
thee into the dark closet!”
“Silence, naughty child!” answered her mother, with a harshness she had never
allowed herself before. “Do not tease me, or I will shut you away in the dark