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The Scarlet Letter

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“The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch,—that is a truth,” added a third autumnal matron. “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead. Madam Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But she,—the naughty baggage,—little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown! Why, look you, she may cover it with a brooch, or such like heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever!” “The magistrates may be God-fearing, but they are too merciful—and that’s the truth!” added a middle-aged woman. “At the very least, they should have branded Hester Prynne’s forehead with a hot iron. She would have winced then, for sure. But—the dirty whore—what will she care about something pinned to her dress? She could cover it with a brooch or some other sinful jewelry and walk the streets as proud as ever.”
“Ah, but,” interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a child by the hand, “let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart.” “Well,” interrupted a young wife, holding her child by the hand, “she can cover the mark however she likes, but it will still weigh on her heart.”
“What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead?” cried another female, the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges. “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray!” “Why talk about marks and brands, whether they’re on her gown or the skin of her forehead?” shouted another woman, the most ugly and merciless of this self-righteous and judgmental group. “This woman has brought shame to all of us, and she ought to die. Isn’t there a law that says so? There truly is, in both the Bible and the statutes. The magistrates will have only themselves to thank when, having disregarded these laws, they find that their wives and daughters are sleeping around.”
“Mercy on us, goodwife,” exclaimed a man in the crowd, “is there no virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of the gallows? That is the hardest word yet! Hush, now, gossips; for the lock is turning in the prison-door, and here comes Mistress Prynne herself.” “Have mercy, ma’am,” shouted a man in the crowd. “Are women only virtuous when they fear punishment? That’s the worst thing I’ve heard today! Quiet now, you gossips. The prison door is opening. Here comes Mistress Prynne herself.”
The door of the jail being flung open from within, there appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into the sunshine, the grim and grisly presence of the town-beadle, with a sword by his side and his staff of office in his hand. This personage prefigured and represented in his aspect the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law, which it was his business to administer in its final and closest application to the offender. Stretching forth the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward; until, on the threshold of the prison-door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own of free-will. She bore in her arms a child, a baby of some three months old, who winked and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of day; because its existence, heretofore, had brought it acquainted only with the gray twilight of a dungeon, or other darksome apartment of the prison. The prison door was flung open. The

town beadle

Minor official designated to keep order during certain town proceedings.

town beadle
appeared first, looking like a black shadow emerging into the sunlight. He was a grim figure, with a sword by his side and the staff of office in his hand. The beadle represented the laws of the Puritans, and it was his job to deliver the punishments they required. Holding the official staff in front of him with his left hand, he laid his right on the shoulder of a young woman. He led her forward until, on the threshold of the prison door, she freed herself. With dignity and force, she stepped into the fresh air as though it were her free choice to do so. She carried a child in her arms—a three-month-old baby that squinted and turned its face away from the bright sun. Until that moment, it had only known the dim, gray light of the prison.
When the young woman—the mother of this child—stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony. When the young woman (the child’s mother) stood in plain view of the crowd, her first instinct was to clasp her baby tightly to her chest. She seemed to do so not out of motherly affection but rather to hide something attached to her dress. Realizing, however, that one shameful thing would not hide another, she took her baby on her arm. With a burning blush, but a proud smile and eyes that refused to be embarrassed, she looked around at her neighbors. On the front of her dress, in fine red cloth embellished with gold thread, was the letter A. The piece was so artistically done that it seemed like the perfect final touch for her outfit—an outfit that was as rich as the tastes of the age but far fancier than anything permitted by the

sumptuary laws

Laws restricting people’s consumptions of luxury products, particularly clothing.

sumptuary laws
of the colony.
The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance, on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was lady-like, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days; characterized by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace, which is now recognized as its indication. And never had Hester Prynne appeared more lady-like, in the antique interpretation of the term, than as she issued from the prison. Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped. It may be true, that, to a sensitive observer, there was something exquisitely painful in it. Her attire, which, indeed, she had wrought for the occasion, in prison, and had modelled much after her own fancy, seemed to express the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood, by its wild and picturesque peculiarity. But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer,—so that both men and women, who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time,—was that Scarlet Letter, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself. The young woman was tall and elegant. Her thick, dark hair gleamed in the sunlight. Her beautiful face, with well-formed features and perfect complexion, was impressive in a way that young faces rarely are. She held herself in a stately and dignified manner, like upper-class ladies of that time, not delicate like women are today. And Hester Prynne had never appeared more ladylike than when she stepped out from that prison. Those who knew her and expected to see her diminished by her circumstance were startled to find that her beauty radiated like a halo to obscure the clouds of misfortune that surrounded her. Even so, the sensitive observer might have detected something exquisitely painful in the scene. Her outfit, which she had fashioned for the occasion while in her cell, was extravagant in a way that seemed to reflect her reckless mood. But all eyes were drawn to the embroidered scarlet letter, which so transformed its wearer that people who had known Hester Prynne felt they were seeing her for the first time. The letter had the effect of a spell, removing her from ordinary humanity and placing her in a world by herself.

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