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The Scarlet Letter

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Betimes in the morning of the day on which the new Governor was to receive his office at the hands of the people, Hester Prynne and little Pearl came into the market-place. It was already thronged with the craftsmen and other plebeian inhabitants of the town, in considerable numbers; among whom, likewise, were many rough figures, whose attire of deer-skins marked them as belonging to some of the forest settlements, which surrounded the little metropolis of the colony. On the morning of the new Governor’s inauguration, Hester Prynne and little Pearl entered the marketplace. It was already full of craftsmen and other common townspeople. There were a great many of them and many rougher figures too: people wearing the deerskin garments common in the forest settlements that surrounded the town.
On this public holiday, as on all other occasions, for seven years past, Hester was clad in a garment of coarse gray cloth. Not more by its hue than by some indescribable peculiarity in its fashion, it had the effect of making her fade personally out of sight and outline; while, again, the scarlet letter brought her back from this twilight indistinctness, and revealed her under the moral aspect of its own illumination. Her face, so long familiar to the townspeople, showed the marble quietude which they were accustomed to behold there. It was like a mask; or rather, like the frozen calmness of a dead woman’s features; owing this dreary resemblance to the fact that Hester was actually dead, in respect to any claim of sympathy, and had departed out of the world with which she still seemed to mingle. On this public holiday, as on every day for the last seven years, Hester wore a garment of coarse gray cloth. Its color and its cut combined to make her fade from sight, until the scarlet letter brought her back into focus, revealing her in the light of its own moral judgment. Her face, which the townspeople knew well, showed the stony self-control they were used to seeing there. It was like a mask—or rather, like the frozen calm of a dead woman’s face. The similarity stemmed from the fact that, as far as the town was concerned, Hester was as good as dead. She had left the world in which she still seemed to walk.
It might be, on this one day, that there was an expression unseen before, nor, indeed, vivid enough to be detected now; unless some preternaturally gifted observer should have first read the heart, and have afterwards sought a corresponding development in the countenance and mien. Such a spiritual seer might have conceived, that, after sustaining the gaze of the multitude through seven miserable years as a necessity, a penance, and something which it was a stern religion to endure, she now, for one last time more, encountered it freely and voluntarily, in order to convert what had so long been agony into a kind of triumph. “Look your last on the scarlet letter and its wearer!”—the people’s victim and life-long bond-slave, as they fancied her, might say to them. “Yet a little while, and she will be beyond your reach! A few hours longer, and the deep, mysterious ocean will quench and hide for ever the symbol which ye have caused to burn upon her bosom!” Nor were it an inconsistency too improbable to be assigned to human nature, should we suppose a feeling of regret in Hester’s mind, at the moment when she was about to win her freedom from the pain which had been thus deeply incorporated with her being. Might there not be an irresistible desire to quaff a last, long, breathless draught of the cup of wormwood and aloes, with which nearly all her years of womanhood had been perpetually flavored? The wine of life, henceforth to be presented to her lips, must be indeed rich, delicious, and exhilarating, in its chased and golden beaker; or else leave an inevitable and weary languor, after the lees of bitterness wherewith she had been drugged, as with a cordial of intensest potency. Perhaps, on this day, there was an expression on Hester’s face that hadn’t been seen there before. It was too subtle to be detected—unless a psychic could have read Hester’s heart, then looked for a similar feeling in her face. Such a psychic might have sensed that Hester had endured the gaze of the crowd for several miserable years because she had to, because it was a penance, and because her religion demanded it—and now she was enduring it freely and voluntarily, for one last time. She was converting what had been an agony into a kind of triumph. “Take your last look at the scarlet letter and its wearer!” Hester, the public’s victim and slave might say. “Just a little longer, and she will be beyond your reach! A few more hours and the deep, mysterious ocean will drown the symbol you have made to burn on her bosom!” And it would not be inconsistent with human nature to suppose that Hester felt some regret, too, at the very moment when she was about to be freed from the pain that had become such a part of her. She might feel a great desire to draw a last, long drink from the bitter cup that had flavored all the years of her adulthood. The wine of life she would drink from now on would be rich, delicious, and thrilling—or else leave her weary, after the intensity of the bitter drink she had drunk for so long.
Pearl was decked out with airy gayety. It would have been impossible to guess that this bright and sunny apparition owed its existence to the shape of gloomy gray; or that a fancy, at once so gorgeous and so delicate as must have been requisite to contrive the child’s apparel, was the same that had achieved a task perhaps more difficult, in imparting so distinct a peculiarity to Hester’s simple robe. The dress, so proper was it to little Pearl, seemed an effluence, or inevitable development and outward manifestation of her character, no more to be separated from her than the many-hued brilliancy from a butterfly’s wing, or the painted glory from the leaf of a bright flower. As with these, so with the child; her garb was all of one idea with her nature. On this eventful day, moreover, there was a certain singular inquietude and excitement in her mood, resembling nothing so much as the shimmer of a diamond, that sparkles and flashes with the varied throbbings of the breast on which it is displayed. Children have always a sympathy in the agitations of those connected with them; always, especially, a sense of any trouble or impending revolution, of whatever kind, in domestic circumstances; and therefore Pearl, who was the gem on her mother’s unquiet bosom, betrayed, by the very dance of her spirits, the emotions which none could detect in the marble passiveness of Hester’s brow. Pearl was dressed in light and happy clothes. It would have been impossible to guess that this bright, sunny creature owed her existence to that gray, gloomy woman. Equally impossible to guess was that the imagination that had dreamed up Pearl’s gorgeous and delicate outfit was the same that had achieved a possibly more difficult task: giving such a distinct peculiarity to Hester’s simple robe. The dress suited little Pearl so well that it seemed like an extension of her character, as difficult to separate from her essence as the colors from a butterfly’s wing or the leaf from a flower. Pearl’s dress was one with her nature. And on this eventful day, there was a certain uneasiness and excitement in her mood. It was like the shimmer of a diamond that sparkles and flashes along with the throbs of the breast on which it is displayed. Children always have a sense of the upheavals that concern them: They are especially sensitive to any trouble or coming change in their home life. And so Pearl, who was the gem on her mother’s uneasy bosom, betrayed in her sparkling and flickering spirits emotions that no one could see on the marble stillness of Hester’s face.

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