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The Scarlet Letter

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Under the appellation of Roger Chillingworth, the reader will remember, was hidden another name, which its former wearer had resolved should never more be spoken. It has been related, how, in the crowd that witnessed Hester Prynne’s ignominious exposure, stood a man, elderly, travel-worn, who, just emerging from the perilous wilderness, beheld the woman, in whom he hoped to find embodied the warmth and cheerfulness of home, set up as a type of sin before the people. Her matronly fame was trodden under all men’s feet. Infamy was babbling around her in the public market-place. For her kindred, should the tidings ever reach them, and for the companions of her unspotted life, there remained nothing but the contagion of her dishonor; which would not fail to be distributed in strict accordance and proportion with the intimacy and sacredness of their previous relationship. Then why—since the choice was with himself—should the individual, whose connection with the fallen woman had been the most intimate and sacred of them all, come forward to vindicate his claim to an inheritance so little desirable? He resolved not to be pilloried beside her on her pedestal of shame. Unknown to all but Hester Prynne, and possessing the lock and key of her silence, he chose to withdraw his name from the roll of mankind, and, as regarded his former ties and interests, to vanish out of life as completely as if he indeed lay at the bottom of the ocean, whither rumor had long ago consigned him. This purpose once effected, new interests would immediately spring up, and likewise a new purpose; dark, it is true, if not guilty, but of force enough to engage the full strength of his faculties. You will remember that the name Roger Chillingworth hid another name—one which its owner had resolved would never be spoken again. You have heard how, in the crowd that witnessed Hester Prynne’s public shaming, there stood an elderly and travel-weary man. Right as he emerged from the hazardous wilderness, he saw the woman he had hoped would embody the warmth and cheerfulness of home instead embodying sin for all to see. Her reputation was trampled under the feet of all men. Everyone at the marketplace was discussing her wrongdoing. Her dishonor would spread like a contagious disease among her family—if the news reached them—and friends, according to their intimacy with Hester. Why would the man closest to that fallen woman willingly choose to come forward and claim his share of her dishonor? He resolved not to stand beside her on the pedestal of shame. He was unknown to all but Hester, and he had her promise to keep quiet. He chose to withdraw his name from the roll books of mankind. He allowed his old identity to vanish, as though his body actually lay at the bottom of the ocean, where rumor had long ago placed it. Having done this, new interests immediately sprang up and a new purpose presented itself. It was a dark, if not guilty, purpose, but one strong enough to consume his entire life.
In pursuance of this resolve, he took up his residence in the Puritan town, as Roger Chillingworth, without other introduction than the learning and intelligence of which he possessed more than a common measure. As his studies, at a previous period of his life, had made him extensively acquainted with the medical science of the day, it was as a physician that he presented himself, and as such was cordially received. Skilful men, of the medical and chirurgical profession, were of rare occurrence in the colony. They seldom, it would appear, partook of the religious zeal that brought other emigrants across the Atlantic. In their researches into the human frame, it may be that the higher and more subtile faculties of such men were materialized, and that they lost the spiritual view of existence amid the intricacies of that wondrous mechanism, which seemed to involve art enough to comprise all of life within itself. At all events, the health of the good town of Boston, so far as medicine had aught to do with it, had hitherto lain in the guardianship of an aged deacon and apothecary, whose piety and godly deportment were stronger testimonials in his favor, than any that he could have produced in the shape of a diploma. The only surgeon was one who combined the occasional exercise of that noble art with the daily and habitual flourish of a razor. To such a professional body Roger Chillingworth was a brilliant acquisition. He soon manifested his familiarity with the ponderous and imposing machinery of antique physic; in which every remedy contained a multitude of far-fetched and heterogeneous ingredients, as elaborately compounded as if the proposed result had been the Elixir of Life. In his Indian captivity, moreover, he had gained much knowledge of the properties of native herbs and roots; nor did he conceal from his patients, that these simple medicines, Nature’s boon to the untutored savage, had quite as large a share of his own confidence as the European pharmacopœia, which so many learned doctors had spent centuries in elaborating. To pursue this new purpose, he settled in the Puritan town as Roger Chillingworth. He had neither connections nor resources, other than his uncommon learning and intelligence. He presented himself as a doctor, drawing on his earlier studies of current medical practices. He was welcomed in the colony, since skilled doctors and surgeons rarely moved there. It seems these professionals seldom possessed the same religious zeal that brought other immigrants across the Atlantic. Perhaps in their studies, doctors became so enamored with the artful mechanics of the human body that they lost the desire to seek out life’s mysteries in the spiritual realm. Whatever the reason, the physical health of the good town of Boston had up to that point been entrusted to an aged deacon and a pharmacist whose godliness was far greater than his learning. Their only surgeon doubled as a barber. Roger Chillingworth was a brilliant addition to that professional body. He soon demonstrated his familiarity with the ancient art of medicine, which combined a vast mixture of exotic ingredients in an intricate way that seemed more appropriate for an

Elixir of Life

Legendary potion for eternal youth.

Elixir of Life
. He had also learned a great deal about the native herbs and roots while imprisoned by the Indians. He recommended these simple, natural medicines to his patients with as much confidence as he had in prescribing European drugs that had been developed by learned doctors over centuries.
This learned stranger was exemplary, as regarded at least the outward forms of a religious life, and, early after his arrival, had chosen for his spiritual guide the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. The young divine, whose scholar-like renown still lived in Oxford, was considered by his more fervent admirers as little less than a Heaven-ordained apostle, destined, should he live and labor for the ordinary term of life, to do as great deeds for the now feeble New England Church, as the early Fathers had achieved for the infancy of the Christian faith. About this period, however, the health of Mr. Dimmesdale had evidently begun to fail. By those best acquainted with his habits, the paleness of the young minister’s cheek was accounted for by his too earnest devotion to study, his scrupulous fulfilment of parochial duty, and, more than all, by the fasts and vigils of which he made a frequent practices in order to keep the grossness of this earthly state from clogging and obscuring his spiritual lamp. Some declared, that, if Mr. Dimmesdale were really going to die, it was cause enough, that the world was not worthy to be any longer trodden by his feet. He himself, on the other hand with characteristic humility, avowed his belief, that, if Providence should see fit to remove him, it would be because of his own unworthiness to perform its humblest mission here on earth. With all this difference of opinion as to the cause of his decline, there could be no question of the fact. His form grew emaciated; his voice, though still rich and sweet, had a certain melancholy prophecy of decay in it; he was often observed, on any slight alarm or other sudden accident, to put his hand over his heart, with first a flush and then a paleness, indicative of pain. This learned stranger led an outwardly upright and religious life. Shortly after his arrival, he had chosen the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale as his spiritual guide. The young minister, whose scholarly reputation still lived on back in Oxford, was considered by some of his greatest admirers to be almost a divinely chosen apostle. They were certain that, if he lived a full life, his deeds for the young New England church would be as great as those done by the first apostles for all of Christianity. Around this time, however, the health of Mr. Dimmesdale had clearly begun to fail. Those who knew him best attributed the paleness of the young minister’s cheeks to his overly studious habits, his strict attention to his pastoral duties, and (more than anything) the fasts and vigils he often undertook in the hope of preventing his mortal frailty from dimming his spiritual light. Some said that if Mr. Dimmesdale were really going to die, it was because the world was no longer worthy of him. He, in characteristic humility, protested that if God should see fit to remove him, it would be because he was unfit to perform his humble mission on earth. But while there was some disagreement as to the cause, there could be no question that he was indeed ill. His body grew thin. His voice, though still rich and sweet, had a sad hint of decay in it. Often, at the slightest surprise, he would put his hand over his heart, first with a blush, then with a paleness that suggested pain.

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