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The Scarlet Letter

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“You wrong yourself in this,” said Hester, gently. “You have deeply and sorely repented. Your sin is left behind you, in the days long past. Your present life is not less holy, in very truth, than it seems in people’s eyes. Is there no reality in the penitence thus sealed and witnessed by good works? And wherefore should it not bring you peace?” “You are too hard on yourself,” said Hester gently. “You have deeply and seriously repented. You sin is long behind you. Your present life is no less holy than it seems in people’s eyes. Is there no reality in repentance confirmed by good works? And why shouldn’t that bring you peace?”
“No, Hester, no!” replied the clergyman. “There is no substance in it! It is cold and dead, and can do nothing for me! Of penance I have had enough! Of penitence there has been none! Else, I should long ago have thrown off these garments of mock holiness, and have shown myself to mankind as they will see me at the judgment-seat. Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief it is, after the torment of a seven years’ cheat, to look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am! Had I one friend,—or were it my worst enemy!—to whom, when sickened with the praises of all other men, I could daily betake myself, and be known as the vilest of all sinners, methinks my soul might keep itself alive thereby. Even thus much of truth would save me! But, now, it is all falsehood!—all emptiness!—all death!” “No, Hester—no!” replied the clergyman. “There is no reality in it! It is cold and dead, and can do nothing for me! I have had plenty of penance—but no repentance at all! If I had, I would have long ago thrown off these robes of mock holiness and shown myself to mankind as they will see me on the Judgment Day. You are lucky, Hester, that you wear the scarlet letter openly on your bosom. Mine burns in secret! You have no idea what a relief it is, after the torture of lying for seven years, to look into an eye that sees me for what I am! If I had one friend—or even my worst enemy!—to whom I was known as the vilest of all sinners, to whom I could go when I was sick with the praises of all other men and be known for what I am, then I think I might keep my soul alive. Even that much truth would save me! But now, it is all lies! All emptiness! All death!”
Hester Prynne looked into his face, but hesitated to speak. Yet, uttering his long-restrained emotions so vehemently as he did, his words here offered her the very point of circumstances in which to interpose what she came to say. She conquered her fears, and spoke. Hester Prynne looked into his face but hesitated to speak. Yet his vehement words offered her the perfect opportunity to interject what she had come to say. She conquered her fears and spoke:
“Such a friend as thou hast even now wished for,” said she, “with whom to weep over thy sin, thou hast in me, the partner of it!”—Again she hesitated, but brought out the words with an effort.—“Thou hast long had such an enemy, and dwellest with him under the same roof!” “You have such a friend as you wished for just now,” she said, “with whom to weep over your sin. You have me, the partner of it!” Again she hesitated, but said with an effort: “You have long had such an enemy, and live with him, under the same roof!”
The minister started to his feet, gasping for breath, and clutching at his heart as if he would have torn it out of his bosom. The minister leapt to his feet, gasping for breath and clutching at his heart, as though he would have ripped it out of his breast.
“Ha! What sayest thou?” cried he. “An enemy! And under mine own roof! What mean you?” “Ha! What do you say!” he cried. “An enemy under my roof! What do you mean?”
Hester Prynne was now fully sensible of the deep injury for which she was responsible to this unhappy man, in permitting him to lie for so many years, or, indeed, for a single moment, at the mercy of one, whose purposes could not be other than malevolent. The very contiguity of his enemy, beneath whatever mask the latter might conceal himself, was enough to disturb the magnetic sphere of a being so sensitive as Arthur Dimmesdale. There had been a period when Hester was less alive to this consideration; or, perhaps, in the misanthropy of her own trouble, she left the minister to bear what she might picture to herself as a more tolerable doom. But of late, since the night of his vigil, all her sympathies towards him had been both softened and invigorated. She now read his heart more accurately. She doubted not, that the continual presence of Roger Chillingworth,—the secret poison of his malignity, infecting all the air about him,—and his authorized interference, as a physician, with the minister’s physical and spiritual infirmities,—that these bad opportunities had been turned to a cruel purpose. By means of them, the sufferer’s conscience had been kept in an irritated state, the tendency of which was, not to cure by wholesome pain, but to disorganize and corrupt his spiritual being. Its result, on earth, could hardly fail to be insanity, and hereafter, that eternal alienation from the Good and True, of which madness is perhaps the earthly type. Hester Prynne was now fully aware of the deep injury that she was responsible for giving to this man, having permitted him to lie for so many years—or even for one minute—at the mercy of the malevolent doctor. The closeness of his enemy, no matter how well concealed, was enough to disturb a spirit as sensitive as Arthur Dimmesdale. There had been a time when Hester was less aware of this. Perhaps her own troubles hardened her to all others, and so she left the minister to bear what she could imagine as a more tolerable fate. But recently, since that night on the platform, her feelings toward him had been both softened and heightened. She now read his heart more accurately. She did not doubt that Roger Chillingworth had taken advantage of the minister’s circumstances cruelly, infecting the very air around the minister with his evil influence and exploiting his authority as a physician to meddle with the minister’s health. He had kept the minister’s conscience in a perpetually irritated state, which corrupted his spirit rather than curing it through wholesome pain. The result in this life could only be to drive the minister insane and, in the afterlife, to permanently separate him from the Good and True—insanity being essentially the same thing as damnation.
Such was the ruin to which she had brought the man, once,—nay, why should we not speak it?—still so passionately loved! Hester felt that the sacrifice of the clergyman’s good name, and death itself, as she had already told Roger Chillingworth, would have been infinitely preferable to the alternative which she had taken upon herself to choose. And now, rather than have had this grievous wrong to confess, she would gladly have lain down on the forest-leaves, and died there, at Arthur Dimmesdale’s feet. This was the condition to which she had reduced the man whom she once—well, why not say it?—whom she still loved so passionately! Hester believed that the sacrifice of the clergyman’s reputation, and even his life itself, would have been better than the alternative she had taken it upon herself to choose. Rather than having to confess such a terrible wrong, she would gladly have lain down on the forest leaves and died at Arthur Dimmesdale’s feet.
“O Arthur,” cried she, “forgive me! In all things else, I have striven to be true! Truth was the one virtue which I might have held fast, and did hold fast through all extremity; save when thy good,—thy life,—thy fame,—were put in question! Then I consented to a deception. But a lie is never good, even though death threaten on the other side! Dost thou not see what I would say? That old man!—the physician!—he whom they call Roger Chillingworth!—he was my husband!” “Oh, Arthur!” she cried, “forgive me! I have tried to be true in everything else! Truth was the one thing I could hold onto through all of the troubles—except when your life and your reputation were called into question! Then I agreed to a deception. But a lie is never good, even if the alternative is death! Don’t you see what I am trying to say? That old man—the doctor they call Roger Chillingworth—he was my husband!”

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