Slowly as the minister walked, he had almost gone by, before Hester
Prynne could gather voice enough to attract his observation. At length, she
Though the minister walked slowly, he had almost passed before
Hester Prynne could find her voice. But she finally did.
“Arthur Dimmesdale!” she said, faintly at first; then louder, but hoarsely.
“Arthur Dimmesdale!” she said, faintly at first and then louder, but hoarsely:
“Who speaks?” answered the minister.
“Who speaks?” answered the minister.
Gathering himself quickly up, he stood more erect, like a man taken by
surprise in a mood to which he was reluctant to have witnesses. Throwing his
eyes anxiously in the direction of the voice, he indistinctly beheld a form
under the trees, clad in garments so sombre, and so little relieved from the
gray twilight into which the clouded sky and the heavy foliage had darkened the
noontide, that he knew not whether it were a woman or a shadow. It may be, that
his path-way through life was haunted thus, by a spectre that had stolen out
from among his thoughts.
Pulling himself together quickly, he stood up straighter, like a man taken by
surprise in a private mood. Looking anxiously in the direction of the voice, he
saw a shadowy figure under the trees. It was dressed in garments so dour, so
similar to the noontime twilight produced by the clouds and the heavy foliage,
that he did not know whether the shape was a woman or a shadow. Perhaps his path
through life was habitually haunted by a ghost like this figure, which had
somehow escaped from his thoughts into the real world.
He made a step nigher, and discovered the scarlet letter.
He took a step closer and saw the scarlet letter.
“Hester! Hester Prynne!” said he. “Is it thou? Art thou in life?”
“Hester! Hester Prynne!” he said. “Is it you? Are you alive?”
“Even so!” she answered. “In such life as has been mine these seven years
past! And thou, Arthur Dimmesdale, dost thou yet live?”
“Yes,” she answered, “Living the same life I’ve had the past seven years. And
you, Arthur Dimmesdale, are you still alive as well?”
It was no wonder that they thus questioned one another’s actual and bodily
existence, and even doubted of their own. So strangely did they meet, in the dim
wood, that it was like the first encounter, in the world beyond the grave, of
two spirits who had been intimately connected in their former life, but now
stood coldly shuddering, in mutual dread; as not yet familiar with their state,
nor wonted to the companionship of disembodied beings. Each a ghost, and
awe-stricken at the other ghost! They were awe-stricken likewise at themselves;
because the crisis flung back to them their consciousness, and revealed to each
heart its history and experience, as life never does, except at such breathless
epochs. The soul beheld its features in the mirror of the passing moment. It was
with fear, and tremulously, and, as it were, by a slow, reluctant necessity,
that Arthur Dimmesdale put forth his hand, chill as death, and touched the chill
hand of Hester Prynne. The grasp, cold as it was, took away what was dreariest
in the interview. They now felt themselves, at least, inhabitants of the same
It was no wonder that they questioned each other’s existence and even doubted
their own. Their meeting in the dim wood was so strange that it was like a first
encounter in the afterlife, when spirits who had been intimately connected while
alive stand shuddering in mutual dread because they are not yet familiar with
their new condition, nor accustomed to the company of other spirits. Each is a
ghost and dumbstruck at the other ghost. The two were also dumbstruck at
themselves. This meeting made each heart aware of its history and experience, as
life only does at such moments of crisis. Each soul saw itself in the mirror of
the passing moment. With fear, trembling, and as though forced by necessity,
Arthur Dimmesdale reached out his hand, as cold as death, and touched the cold
hand of Hester Prynne. This touch, cold as it was, removed the dreariest aspect
of the encounter. Now they understood that they were both living beings.
Without a word more spoken,—neither he nor she assuming the guidance, but with
an unexpressed consent,—they glided back into the shadow of the woods, whence
Hester had emerged, and sat down on the heap of moss where she and Pearl had
before been sitting. When they found voice to speak, it was, at first, only to
utter remarks and inquiries such as any two acquaintances might have made, about
the gloomy sky, the threatening storm, and, next, the health of each. Thus they
went onward, not boldly, but step by step, into the themes that were brooding
deepest in their hearts. So long estranged by fate and circumstances, they
needed something slight and casual to run before, and throw open the doors of
intercourse, so that their real thoughts might be led across the
Without speaking another word, they glided back into the shadow of the woods
Hester had emerged from. Neither took the lead: They moved by an unspoken
consent, sitting down on the heap of moss where Hester and Pearl had been
sitting. When they found the voice to speak, they at first only made the sort of
small talk that anyone would have made. They spoke of the gloomy sky and the
threatening storm. Each asked about the health of the other. And so they
proceeded onward, not boldly but one step at a time, into the subjects on which
they brooded most deeply. Separated so long by fate and circumstances, they
needed something small and casual to open the doors of conversation so that
their real thoughts could be led through the doorway.
After a while, the minister fixed his eyes on Hester Prynne’s.
After a while, the minister looked into Hester Prynne’s eyes.
“Hester,” said he, “hast thou found peace?”
“Hester,” he said, “have you found peace?”
She smiled drearily, looking down upon her bosom.
She gave a weary smile and looked down at her bosom.
“Hast thou?” she asked.
“Have you?” she asked.
“None!—nothing but despair!” he answered. “What else could I look for, being
what I am, and leading such a life as mine? Were I an atheist,—a man devoid of
conscience,—a wretch with coarse and brutal instincts,—I might have found peace,
long ere now. Nay, I never should have lost it! But, as matters stand with my
soul, whatever of good capacity there originally was in me, all of God’s gifts
that were the choicest have become the ministers of spiritual torment. Hester, I
am most miserable!”
“None—nothing but despair!” he answered. “What else could I expect, being what
I am and leading such a life as mine? If I were an atheist, with base instincts
and no conscience, I might have found peace long ago. Indeed, I would never have
lost it. But, as things stand with my soul, God’s greatest gifts have become the
means by which I am tortured. Hester, I am utterly miserable!”
“The people reverence thee,” said Hester. “And surely thou workest good among
them! Doth this bring thee no comfort?”
“The people respect you,” said Hester. “And surely you do good works among
them! Doesn’t this bring you any comfort?”
“More misery, Hester!—only the more misery!” answered the clergyman, with a
bitter smile. “As concerns the good which I may appear to do, I have no faith in
it. It must needs be a delusion. What can a ruined soul, like mine, effect
towards the redemption of other souls?—or a polluted soul, towards their
purification? And as for the people’s reverence, would that it were turned to
scorn and hatred! Canst thou deem it, Hester, a consolation, that I must stand
up in my pulpit, and meet so many eyes turned upward to my face, as if the light
of Heaven were beaming from it!—must see my flock hungry for the truth, and
listening to my words as if a tongue of Pentecost were speaking!—and then look
inward, and discern the black reality of what they idolize? I have laughed, in
bitterness and agony of heart, at the contrast between what I seem and what I
am! And Satan laughs at it!”
“Misery, Hester—only more misery!” answered the clergyman with a bitter smile.
“As for the good that I seem to do, I have no faith in it. It must be a
delusion. What can a ruined soul like mine do to aid in the redemption of other
souls? Can a polluted soul assist in their purification? And as for the people’s
respect, I wish that it was turned to scorn and hatred! Do you think it is a
consolation, Hester, that I must stand in my pulpit and see so many eyes looking
up into my face as though the light of Heaven were beaming out of it? That I
must see my parishioners hungry for the truth and listening to my words as
though I spoke it? And then to look at myself and see the dark reality of the
man they idolize? I have often laughed, with a bitter and a pained heart, at the
contrast between what I seem and what I am! And Satan laughs, as well!”