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The Scarlet Letter

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“Ah!—aha!—I conceive you,” said the stranger, with a bitter smile. “So learned a man as you speak of should have learned this too in his books. And who, by your favor, Sir, may be the father of yonder babe—it is some three or four months old, I should judge—which Mistress Prynne is holding in her arms?” “Ah! Aha! I understand you,” said the stranger with a bitter smile. “A man as wise as you say he was should have learned of that danger in his books. And who, beg your pardon, sir, is the father of the young child—some three of four months old, it seems—that Mistress Prynne is holding in her arms?”
“Of a truth friend, that matter remaineth a riddle; and the Daniel who shall expound it is yet a-wanting,” answered the townsman. “Madam Hester absolutely refuseth to speak, and the magistrates have laid their heads together in vain. Peradventure the guilty one stands looking on at this sad spectacle, unknown of man, and forgetting that God sees him.” “To tell the truth, friend, that’s still a puzzle, and the

Daniel

Biblical prophet who interpreted dreams and visions in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar.

Daniel
who can solve it has not been found,” answered the townsman. “Madame Hester absolutely refuses to speak, and the magistrates have put their heads together in vain. Perhaps the guilty man stands here in the crowd, observing this sad spectacle, and forgetting that God sees him when no one else does.”
“The learned man,” observed the stranger, with another smile, “should come himself to look into the mystery.” “That wise scholar,” observed the stranger with another smile, “should come here to look into the mystery.”
“It behooves him well, if he be still in life,” responded the townsman. “Now, good Sir, our Massachusetts magistracy, bethinking themselves that this woman is youthful and fair, and doubtless was strongly tempted to her fall;—and that, moreover, as is most likely, her husband may be at the bottom of the sea;—they have not been bold to put in force the extremity of our righteous law against her. The penalty thereof is death. But, in their great mercy and tenderness of heart, they have doomed Mistress Prynne to stand only a space of three hours on the platform of the pillory, and then and thereafter, for the remainder of her natural life, to wear a mark of shame upon her bosom.” “It would serve him well, if he is still alive,” responded the townsman. “Now, good sir, our Massachusetts magistrates realize that this woman is young and pretty and was surely tempted to her sin. What’s more, her husband probably died at sea. So they have not punished her with death, as they very well might have. In their great mercy, they have sentenced her to stand for a mere three hours on the platform of the pillory and then to wear a mark of shame on her bosom for the rest of her life.”
“A wise sentence!” remarked the stranger, gravely bowing his head. “Thus she will be a living sermon against sin, until the ignominious letter be engraved upon her tombstone. It irks me, nevertheless, that the partner of her iniquity should not, at least, stand on the scaffold by her side. But he will be known!—he will be known!—he will be known!” “A wise sentence,” the stranger said, solemnly bowing his head. “She will be like a living sermon against sin, until the shameful letter is engraved on her tombstone. Yet it bothers me that her partner in wickedness does not stand beside her on the platform. But he will be known. He will be known! He will be known!”
He bowed courteously to the communicative townsman, and, whispering a few words to his Indian attendant, they both made their way through the crowd. He bowed politely to the informative townsman and whispered a few words to his Indian companion. Then they made their way through the crowd.
While this passed, Hester Prynne had been standing on her pedestal, still with a fixed gaze towards the stranger; so fixed a gaze, that, at moments of intense absorption, all other objects in the visible world seemed to vanish, leaving only him and her. Such an interview, perhaps, would have been more terrible than even to meet him as she now did, with the hot, midday sun burning down upon her face, and lighting up its shame; with the scarlet token of infamy on her breast; with the sin-born infant in her arms; with a whole people, drawn forth as to a festival, staring at the features that should have been seen only in the quiet gleam of the fireside, in the happy shadow of a home, or beneath a matronly veil, at church. Dreadful as it was, she was conscious of a shelter in the presence of these thousand witnesses. It was better to stand thus, with so many betwixt him and her, than to greet him, face to face, they two alone. She fled for refuge, as it were, to the public exposure, and dreaded the moment when its protection should be withdrawn from her. Involved in these thoughts, she scarcely heard a voice behind her, until it had repeated her name more than once, in a loud and solemn tone, audible to the whole multitude. While this was going on, Hester Prynne stood on her platform, eyes still fixed upon the stranger. She stared so intently that sometimes the rest of the world seemed to vanish, leaving only the two of them. Perhaps such a private interview would have been even more terrible than the encounter they were having now: the noonday sun burning her face and illuminating its shame; the scarlet letter on her breast; the child, conceived in sin, resting in her arms; the crowd, assembled as though for a festival, staring at her features, which would have otherwise only been visible in the intimacy of the fireside, in the quiet of her home, or beneath a veil at church. As terrible as it was, she felt that these thousand witnesses were sheltering her. It was better to stand before all of them than to meet this stranger alone and face-to-face. She took refuge in her public exposure and dreaded the moment when its protection would be taken from her. Absorbed in these thoughts, she barely heard the voice behind her until it had repeated her name more than once, in a loud and serious tone that the whole crowd could hear.
“Hearken unto me, Hester Prynne!” said the voice. “Hear me, Hester Prynne!” said the voice.
It has already been noticed, that directly over the platform on which Hester Prynne stood was a kind of balcony, or open gallery, appended to the meeting-house. It was the place whence proclamations were wont to be made, amidst an assemblage of the magistracy, with all the ceremonial that attended such public observances in those days. Here, to witness the scene which we are describing, sat Governor Bellingham himself, with four sergeants about his chair, bearing halberds, as a guard of honor. He wore a dark feather in his hat, a border of embroidery on his cloak, and a black velvet tunic beneath; a gentleman advanced in years, and with a hard experience written in his wrinkles. He was not ill fitted to be the head and representative of a community, which owed its origin and progress, and its present state of development, not to the impulses of youth, but to the stern and tempered energies of manhood, and the sombre sagacity of age; accomplishing so much, precisely because it imagined and hoped so little. The other eminent characters, by whom the chief ruler was surrounded, were distinguished by a dignity of mien, belonging to a period when the forms of authority were felt to possess the sacredness of divine institutions. They were, doubtless, good men, just, and sage. But, out of the whole human family, it would not have been easy to select the same number of wise and virtuous persons, who should be less capable of sitting in judgment on an erring woman’s heart, and disentangling its mesh of good and evil, than the sages of rigid aspect towards whom Hester Prynne now turned her face. She seemed conscious, indeed, that whatever sympathy she might expect lay in the larger and warmer heart of the multitude; for, as she lifted her eyes towards the balcony, the unhappy woman grew pale and trembled. As mentioned earlier, attached to the meeting house was a sort of balcony that hung directly over the platform on which Hester Prynne stood. Proclamations were often made to the assembled magistrates from this balcony, with all the ceremony that was common in those days. Here, to witness the scene, sat Governor Bellingham himself, with four sergeants beside him as a guard of honor. Bellingham wore a dark feather in his hat, an embroidered border on his cloak, and a black velvet shirt underneath. He was an older gentleman, with the wrinkles of hard-won experience. He was well suited to lead a community founded not with the impulses of youth but rather on the controlled energies of manhood and the sober wisdom of age. This was a community that had accomplished so much because it imagined and hoped for so little. The prominent men who surrounded the governor were distinguished by the dignity with which they carried themselves. Their attitude was fitting for a time when worldly authority was considered as holy as religious office. These were certainly good men, fair and wise. But it would have been hard to find wise and fair men who were less qualified to sit in judgment on the heart of a fallen woman, and distinguish the good from the evil there. It was to these men that Hester now turned her face. She seemed to know that any sympathy she might hope for would have to come from the crowd rather than these men. As she lifted her eyes toward the balcony, the unhappy woman grew pale and trembled.

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