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The Scarlet Letter

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Leaving this discussion apart, we have a matter of business to communicate to the reader. At old Roger Chillingworth’s decease (which took place within the year), and by his last will and testament, of which Governor Bellingham and the Reverend Mr. Wilson were executors, he bequeathed a very considerable amount of property, both here and in England, to little Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne. But leaving this discussion aside, there are some final details to communicate. Old Roger Chillingworth died less than a year after Mr. Dimmesdale, and he left a great deal of property, both in Boston and in England, to little Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne.
So Pearl—the elf-child,—the demon offspring, as some people, up to that epoch, persisted in considering her—became the richest heiress of her day, in the New World. Not improbably, this circumstance wrought a very material change in the public estimation; and, had the mother and child remained here, little Pearl, at a marriageable period of life, might have mingled her wild blood with the lineage of the devoutest Puritan among them all. But, in no long time after the physician’s death, the wearer of the scarlet letter disappeared, and Pearl along with her. For many years, though a vague report would now and then find its way across the sea,—like a shapeless piece of driftwood tost ashore, with the initials of a name upon it,—yet no tidings of them unquestionably authentic were received. The story of the scarlet letter grew into legend. Its spell, however, was still potent, and kept the scaffold awful where the poor minister had died, and likewise the cottage by the sea-shore, where Hester Prynne had dwelt. Near this latter spot, one afternoon, some children were at play, when they beheld a tall woman, in a gray robe, approach the cottage-door. In all those years it had never once been opened; but either she unlocked it, or the decaying wood and iron yielded to her hand, or she glided shadow-like through these impediments,—and, at all events, went in. And so Pearl—the elf-child, the offspring of demons, as some people had continued to think of her up to that point—became the richest heiress in the New World. As one might expect, this change in her material fortunes changed the popular opinion of her. If mother and child had remained here, little Pearl could have married the most devout Puritan around. But shortly after the doctor’s death, Hester disappeared, and little Pearl along with her. For many years, no news of them was heard, apart from vague rumors, which floated ashore like shapeless driftwood. The story of the scarlet letter grew into a legend. Yet its spell was still powerful. The platform where the poor minister had died and the cottage by the seashore where Hester had lived were thought of with awe. One afternoon, some children were playing near the cottage when they saw a tall woman in a gray robe approach the door. In all those years it had never once been opened, but either she unlocked it or the decaying wood and iron gave way—or else she glided through the door like a ghost. In any case, she entered.
On the threshold she paused,—turned partly round,—for, perchance, the idea of entering, all alone, and all so changed, the home of so intense a former life, was more dreary and desolate than even she could bear. But her hesitation was only for an instant, though long enough to display a scarlet letter on her breast. She paused in the entryway and looked over her shoulder. Perhaps now that she was so different, the thought of entering alone the home where her life had been so intense was more dreary and lonely than she could bear. But she only hesitated for a moment, just long enough for the children to see the scarlet letter on her breast.
And Hester Prynne had returned, and taken up her long-forsaken shame. But where was little Pearl? If still alive, she must now have been in the flush and bloom of early womanhood. None knew—nor ever learned, with the fulness of perfect certainty—whether the elf-child had gone thus untimely to a maiden grave; or whether her wild, rich nature had been softened and subdued, and made capable of a woman’s gentle happiness. But, through the remainder of Hester’s life, there were indications that the recluse of the scarlet letter was the object of love and interest with some inhabitant of another land. Letters came, with armorial seals upon them, though of bearings unknown to English heraldry. In the cottage there were articles of comfort and luxury, such as Hester never cared to use, but which only wealth could have purchased, and affection have imagined for her. There were trifles, too, little ornaments, beautiful tokens of a continual remembrance, that must have been wrought by delicate fingers at the impulse of a fond heart. And, once, Hester was seen embroidering a baby-garment, with such a lavish richness of golden fancy as would have raised a public tumult, had any infant, thus apparelled, been shown to our sobre-hued community. Hester Prynne had returned to take up her long-abandoned shame. But where was little Pearl? If she were still alive, she must have been in the prime of her young womanhood by now. No one knew, nor ever learned for sure, whether the child had died young or whether her wild, extravagant nature had mellowed into a woman’s gentle happiness. But for the rest of Hester’s life, there was evidence that someone in a faraway land cared for the aging woman. She received letters affixed with seals of nobility, though not the familiar English seals. Luxurious items decorated her cottage, though Hester never used them. The gifts were expensive, though thoughtful too. And there were trinkets, pretty little things that must have been made for Hester by nimble fingers moved by a loving heart. And once Hester was seen making a baby’s dress with embroidery so lavish, it would have raised a public outcry if an infant in her community had worn them.
In fine, the gossips of that day believed,—and Mr. Surveyor Pue, who made investigations a century later, believed,—and one of his recent successors in office, moreover, faithfully believes,—that Pearl was not only alive, but married, and happy, and mindful of her mother; and that she would most joyfully have entertained that sad and lonely mother at her fireside. All the gossips at that time believed—and Mr. Surveyor Pue, who looked into the matter a century later, agreed, as do I—that Pearl was not only alive but happily married and mindful of her mother, such that she would gladly have had her mother live with her.
But there was a more real life for Hester Prynne, here, in New England, than in that unknown region where Pearl had found a home. Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence. She had returned, therefore, and resumed,—of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it,—resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her bosom. But, in the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, and self-devoted years that made up Hester’s life, the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too. And, as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel, as one who had herself gone through a mighty trouble. Women, more especially,—in the continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged, misplaced, or erring and sinful passion,—or with the dreary burden of a heart unyielded, because unvalued and unsought,—came to Hester’s cottage, demanding why they were so wretched, and what the remedy! Hester comforted and counselled them, as best she might. She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness. Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess, but had long since recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow. The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise, moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy; and showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end! But there was more of a life for Hester Prynne here in New England than in that far-off land where Pearl lived. Hester’s sin had been here, her sorrow was here, and her penance would be here. So she had returned and freely assumed—for no public official would have dared to impose it—the symbol at the heart of this sad story. It never left her bosom again. But, in the passage of the hard working, considerate, devoted years that made up the remainder of Hester’s life, the scarlet letter ceased to be an object of regret. Instead, it was looked at with awe and reverence. Hester Prynne had no selfish desires, since she did not live in any way for her own benefit and enjoyment. And so people brought their troubles to her, this woman who had suffered so much herself. Women in particular—those either wrestling with the constant trials of their passions or bearing the burden of an unloved and therefore unloving heart—came to Hester’s cottage to ask why they were so miserable and what they could do about it! Hester comforted and counseled them as best she could. And she assured them of her firm belief that, at some better time to come, Heaven would reveal a new order in which men and women acted for their mutual happiness. Earlier in her life, Hester had imagined that she might be the prophetess of such a new world. But for a long time now, she had recognized that no mission of divine and mysterious truth would be given to a woman stained with sin, bowed with shame, and burdened with a life-long sorrow. The herald of the revelation to come would certainly be a woman, but one who is pure, beautiful, and noble, whose wisdom springs from joy rather than grief. It would be a woman whose successful life could demonstrate to others how sacred love can make us happy.

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