Skip over navigation

The Scarlet Letter

Original Text

Modern Text

As the minister departed, in advance of Hester Prynne and little Pearl, he threw a backward glance; half-expecting that he should discover only some faintly traced features or outline of the mother and the child, slowly fading into the twilight of the woods. So great a vicissitude in his life could not at once be received as real. But there was Hester, clad in her gray robe, still standing beside the tree-trunk, which some blast had overthrown a long antiquity ago, and which time had ever since been covering with moss, so that these two fated ones, with earth’s heaviest burden on them, might there sit down together, and find a single hour’s rest and solace. And there was Pearl, too, lightly dancing from the margin of the brook,—now that the intrusive third person was gone,—and taking her old place by her mother’s side. So the minister had not fallen asleep, and dreamed! The minister left before Hester Prynne and little Pearl. As he went, he looked backward, half expecting to see a faint outline of the mother and child fading into twilight of the woods. He could not believe that such a big change was actually real. But there was Hester, dressed in her gray robe, still standing beside the tree trunk. A storm had brought the trunk down many years ago, and moss had grown on it so that one day Hester and the minister could sit together and rest from their heavy burdens. Now Pearl was there, too, dancing lightly away from the brook’s edge. When the minister was gone, she had taken her familiar place by her mother’s side. The minister had not fallen asleep and dreamed after all!
In order to free his mind from this indistinctness and duplicity of impression, which vexed it with a strange disquietude, he recalled and more thoroughly defined the plans which Hester and himself had sketched for their departure. It had been determined between them, that the Old World, with its crowds and cities, offered them a more eligible shelter and concealment than the wilds of New England, or all America, with its alternatives of an Indian wigwam, or the few settlements of Europeans, scattered thinly along the seaboard. Not to speak of the clergyman’s health, so inadequate to sustain the hardships of a forest life, his native gifts, his culture, and his entire development would secure him a home only in the midst of civilization and refinement; the higher the state, the more delicately adapted to it the man. In furtherance of this choice, it so happened that a ship lay in the harbour; one of those questionable cruisers, frequent at that day, which, without being absolutely outlaws of the deep, yet roamed over its surface with a remarkable irresponsibility of character. This vessel had recently arrived from the Spanish Main, and, within three days’ time, would sail for Bristol. Hester Prynne—whose vocation, as a self-enlisted Sister of Charity, had brought her acquainted with the captain and crew—could take upon herself to secure the passage of two individuals and a child, with all the secrecy which circumstances rendered more than desirable. To free his mind from the hazy impressions that troubled it, he reminded himself of the plans he and Hester had made for their departure. They had decided that Europe, with its crowds and cities, offered them a better home and hiding place than anywhere in America, with its choice between an Indian dwelling and a few settlements along the coast. Also, the minister’s health could not endure the hardships of life in the woods. His gifts, his refinement, and his education meant he needed to live in a civilized place—the more civilized, the better. As fate would have it, there was a ship at harbor to help them carry out this plan. It was one of those dubious vessels that were common at that time. Without actually breaking laws, they sailed with remarkable irresponsibility. The ship had recently arrived from Spain and would sail for England in three days. Hester Prynne’s self-appointed duties as a Sister of Charity had brought her into contact with the ship’s crew and captain. She could therefore book spots on the ship for two adults and a child, with all the secrecy the circumstances required.
The minister had inquired of Hester, with no little interest, the precise time at which the vessel might be expected to depart. It would probably be on the fourth day from the present. “That is most fortunate!” he had then said to himself. Now, why the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale considered it so very fortunate, we hesitate to reveal. Nevertheless,—to hold nothing back from the reader,—it was because, on the third day from the present, he was to preach the Election Sermon; and, as such an occasion formed an honorable epoch in the life of a New England clergyman, he could not have chanced upon a more suitable mode and time of terminating his professional career. “At least, they shall say of me,” thought this exemplary man, “that I leave no public duty unperformed, nor ill performed!” Sad, indeed, that an introspection so profound and acute as this poor minister’s should be so miserably deceived! We have had, and may still have, worse things to tell of him; but none, we apprehend, so pitiably weak; no evidence, at once so slight and irrefragable, of a subtle disease, that had long since begun to eat into the real substance of his character. No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true. The minister had asked Hester, with great interest, the exact time at which the ship would sail. It would probably be four days from now. “That’s very lucky!” he said to himself. I hesitate to reveal why the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale thought it so lucky, but, to hold nothing back from the reader, it was because three days from now he was scheduled to preach the Election Sermon, an honor for any New England minister. He couldn’t have lucked into a better way and time of ending his career. “At least they will say of me,” thought this excellent minister, “that I leave no duty unfulfilled or badly performed!” It’s sad that a mind as deep and as sharp as his could be so badly deceived! I’ve told you worse things about him and may speak of others even worse than those. But nothing could be as sadly weak as this remark. There was no better evidence—slight though it was, it was undeniable—of the subtle disease that had eaten away at his character for many years now. No man can long present one face to himself and another to the public without getting confused about which face is the true one.
The excitement of Mr. Dimmesdale’s feelings, as he returned from his interview with Hester, lent him unaccustomed physical energy, and hurried him townward at a rapid pace. The pathway among the woods seemed wilder, more uncouth with its rude natural obstacles, and less trodden by the foot of man, than he remembered it on his outward journey. But he leaped across the plashy places, thrust himself through the clinging underbrush, climbed the ascent, plunged into the hollow, and overcame, in short, all the difficulties of the track, with an unweariable activity that astonished him. He could not but recall how feebly, and with what frequent pauses for breath, he had toiled over the same ground only two days before. As he drew near the town, he took an impression of change from the series of familiar objects that presented themselves. It seemed not yesterday, not one, nor two, but many days, or even years ago, since he had quitted them. There, indeed, was each former trace of the street, as he remembered it, and all the peculiarities of the houses, with the due multitude of gable-peaks, and a weathercock at every point where his memory suggested one. Not the less, however, came this importunately obtrusive sense of change. The same was true as regarded the acquaintances whom he met, and all the well-known shapes of human life, about the little town. They looked neither older nor younger, now; the beards of the aged were no whiter, nor could the creeping babe of yesterday walk on his feet today; it was impossible to describe in what respect they differed from the individuals on whom he had so recently bestowed a parting glance; and yet the minister’s deepest sense seemed to inform him of their mutability. A similar impression struck him most remarkably, as he passed under the walls of his own church. The edifice had so very strange, and yet so familiar, an aspect, that Mr. Dimmesdale’s mind vibrated between two ideas; either that he had seen it only in a dream hitherto, or that he was merely dreaming about it now. The strength of Mr. Dimmesdale’s emotions as he returned from his meeting with Hester gave him unusual physical energy. He walked quite quickly toward town. The path through the woods seemed wilder and less worn than he remembered it from his outgoing trip. But he leaped across the puddles, pushed through the underbrush, climbed the hill, and descended again. He overcame every obstacle with a tireless activeness that surprised him. He remembered how weakly, and with what frequent stops to catch his breath, he walked over that same ground only two days before. As he approached the town, it seemed that the familiar objects around him had changed. It felt like he’d been gone not for a day or two, but for many years. True, the streets were exactly as he remembered them, and the details of every house from gable to weathercock just as he recalled. Yet there remained a stubborn sense of change. The same was true of the people he met. They did not look any older or younger. The old men’s beards were no whiter, nor could yesterday’s crawling baby now walk. Although it was impossible to describe how, the minister had a deep sense that these people had changed. Something similar occurred to him as he walked by his church. The building was both familiar and strange. Mr. Dimmesdale could not decide whether he had only seen it in a dream before or whether he was now dreaming.

More Help

Previous Next