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The Scarlet Letter

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Then, too, the people were countenanced, if not encouraged, in relaxing the severe and close application to their various modes of rugged industry, which, at all other times, seemed of the same piece and material with their religion. Here, it is true, were none of the appliances which popular merriment would so readily have found in the England of Elizabeth’s time, or that of James;—no rude shows of a theatrical kind; no minstrel with his harp and legendary ballad, nor gleeman, with an ape dancing to his music; no juggler, with his tricks of mimic witchcraft; no Merry Andrew, to stir up the multitude with jests, perhaps hundreds of years old, but still effective, by their appeals to the very broadest sources of mirthful sympathy. All such professors of the several branches of jocularity would have been sternly repressed, not only by the rigid discipline of law, but by the general sentiment which gives law its vitality. Not the less, however, the great, honest face of the people smiled, grimly, perhaps, but widely too. Nor were sports wanting, such as the colonists had witnessed, and shared in, long ago, at the country fairs and on the village-greens of England; and which it was thought well to keep alive on this new soil, for the sake of the courage and manliness that were essential in them. Wrestling-matches, in the differing fashions of Cornwall and Devonshire, were seen here and there about the market-place; in one corner, there was a friendly bout at quarterstaff; and—what attracted most interest of all—on the platform of the pillory, already so noted in our pages, two masters of defence were commencing an exhibition with the buckler and broadsword. But, much to the disappointment of the crowd, this latter business was broken off by the interposition of the town beadle, who had no idea of permitting the majesty of the law to be violated by such an abuse of one of its consecrated places. And the people were allowed, if not exactly encouraged, to relax the severe discipline of their work ethic, which so often seemed to be the same thing as their religion. True, there were none of the elements a public celebration would have had in Elizabethan England: no crude theatrical shows, no ballad-singing minstrel, no musician and dancing ape, no juggler, and no jester with his timeworn, well-loved jests. All such professors in the art of humor would have been repressed by both the rigid discipline of the law and by the general sentiment of the public. And yet nonetheless, the great, honest face of the people showed a smile—a grim smile, maybe, but a wide one. And there were games of the sort that the colonists had seen and taken part in long ago, at the county fairs and on the village greens of England. It was thought that keeping them alive in this new country would encourage courage and manliness. Wrestling matches were seen here and there in the marketplace. In one corner, there was a friendly fight with wooden staffs. But the pillory platform—already so well noted in these pages—attracted the greatest attention. There, two masters of defense were staging an exhibition with swords and shields. But, to the crowd’s great disappointment, this last show was cut short by the town beadle, who would not permit the seriousness of the place to be violated.
It may not be too much to affirm, on the whole, (the people being then in the first stages of joyless deportment, and the offspring of sires who had known how to be merry, in their day,) that they would compare favorably, in point of holiday keeping, with their descendants, even at so long an interval as ourselves. Their immediate posterity, the generation next to the early emigrants, wore the blackest shade of Puritanism, and so darkened the national visage with it, that all the subsequent years have not sufficed to clear it up. We have yet to learn again the forgotten art of gayety. These people were the sons and daughters of fathers who had known how to have a good time, in their day. It may not be exaggeration to say that these Puritans’ celebrations would compare favorably with those of their descendants, even such distant descendants as us. The sons and daughters of those in the marketplace that day put on the blackest shade of Puritanism, so darkening the national character that it has never cleared up again. We have yet to relearn the forgotten art of joyfulness.
The picture of human life in the market-place, though its general tint was the sad gray, brown, or black of the English emigrants, was yet enlivened by some diversity of hue. A party of Indians—in their savage finery of curiously embroidered deer-skin robes, wampum-belts, red and yellow ochre, and feathers, and armed with the bow and arrow and stone-headed spear—stood apart, with countenances of inflexible gravity, beyond what even the Puritan aspect could attain. Nor, wild as were these painted barbarians, were they the wildest feature of the scene. This distinction could more justly be claimed by some mariners,—a part of the crew of the vessel from the Spanish Main,—who had come ashore to see the humors of Election Day. They were rough-looking desperadoes, with sun-blackened faces, and an immensity of beard; their wide, short trousers were confined about the waist by belts, often clasped with a rough plate of gold, and sustaining always a long knife, and, in some instances, a sword. From beneath their broad-brimmed hats of palm-leaf, gleamed eyes which, even in good nature and merriment, had a kind of animal ferocity. They transgressed, without fear or scruple, the rules of behaviour that were binding on all others; smoking tobacco under the beadle’s very nose, although each whiff would have cost a townsman a shilling; and quaffing, at their pleasure, draughts of wine or aqua-vitae from pocket-flasks, which they freely tendered to the gaping crowd around them. It remarkably characterized the incomplete morality of the age, rigid as we call it, that a license was allowed the seafaring class, not merely for their freaks on shore, but for far more desperate deeds on their proper element. The sailor of that day would go near to be arraigned as a pirate in our own. There could be little doubt, for instance, that this very ship’s crew, though no unfavorable specimens of the nautical brotherhood, had been guilty, as we should phrase it, of depredations on the Spanish commerce, such as would have perilled all their necks in a modern court of justice. Although the marketplace was full of sadly dressed English settlers, in grays and browns and blacks, there was some diversity to liven the scene. A group of Indians were dressed in their savage best: oddly embroidered deerskin robes, belts strung with beads, red and yellow body paint, and feathers. They were armed with bow and arrow and stone-tipped spear. They stood apart from the crowd, with faces of unmoving seriousness—beyond what even the Puritans could achieve. As wild as these painted barbarians were, they weren’t the wildest aspect of the scene. That title could be justly claimed by a group of sailors: the crew of the Spanish ship, come ashore to see the festivities of Election Day. They were rough-looking adventurers with sun-blackened faces and immense beards. Their short pants were kept up by belts, often clasped with a rough plate of gold, and holding a long knife and sometimes even a sword. Under their broad, palm-leaf hats gleamed eyes that had an animal ferocity, even when good-natured and merry. Without fear or reservation, they broke the accepted rules of behavior. They smoked tobacco under the beadle’s nose, which would have cost any townsman a fine. They drank wine or whisky from pocket flasks whenever they pleased, offering drinks to the shocked crowd that surrounded them. We think of the morality of that time as rigid, but it wasn’t, really: Sailors were allowed a lot of leeway, not just for their hijinks on shore but also for far greater crimes at sea. The sailor of that day would be hunted as a pirate in our own. There could be little doubt, for instance, that the crew of this very ship had been guilty of stealing Spanish goods. Today, they would face hanging.

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