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The Scarlet Letter

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Such was the young clergyman’s condition, and so imminent the prospect that his dawning light would be extinguished, all untimely, when Roger Chillingworth made his advent to the town. His first entry on the scene, few people could tell whence, dropping down, as it were, out of the sky, or starting from the nether earth, had an aspect of mystery, which was easily heightened to the miraculous. He was now known to be a man of skill; it was observed that he gathered herbs, and the blossoms of wild-flowers, and dug up roots and plucked off twigs from the forest-trees, like one acquainted with hidden virtues in what was value-less to common eyes. He was heard to speak of Sir Kenelm Digby, and other famous men,—whose scientific attainments were esteemed hardly less than supernatural,—as having been his correspondents or associates. Why, with such rank in the learned world, had he come hither? What could he, whose sphere was in great cities, be seeking in the wilderness? In answer to this query, a rumor gained ground,—and, however absurd, was entertained by some very sensible people,—that Heaven had wrought an absolute miracle, by transporting an eminent Doctor of Physic, from a German university, bodily through the air, and setting him down at the door of Mr. Dimmesdale’s study! Individuals of wiser faith, indeed, who knew that Heaven promotes its purposes without aiming at the stage-effect of what is called miraculous interposition, were inclined to see a providential hand in Roger Chillingworth’s so opportune arrival. This was the condition of the young clergyman, so close to an untimely death, when Roger Chillingworth appeared in town. Few people knew how he got there. To most, it seemed he had fallen out of the sky or risen up from the earth. It wasn’t long before people came to see his presence as a miracle. He was known to be a skillful doctor. People noted that he gathered herbs and wildflowers, roots and twigs, as though he knew secrets hidden from the ordinary person’s eyes. He spoke of associations with such notable men as

Sir Kenelm Digby

17th-century English privateer and naval officer known for his work in alchemy and astrology.

Sir Kenelm Digby
, and others whose scientific achievements tended toward the supernatural. Why, with such a reputation in the academic world, had he come here? What could this man, accustomed to the great cities, be seeking in the wilderness? It was rumored that a heavenly miracle transported this learned doctor, trained at a German university, through the air and set him down on Mr. Dimmesdale’s doorstep. Absurd as this rumor sounds, it was believed by some of the more sensible people in the community. Even wiser people, who knew that Heaven accomplished its goals without the aid of elaborate miracles, were inclined to see the hand of God in Roger Chillingworth’s timely arrival.
This idea was countenanced by the strong interest which the physician ever manifested in the young clergyman; he attached himself to him as a parishioner, and sought to win a friendly regard and confidence from his naturally reserved sensibility. He expressed great alarm at his pastor’s state of health, but was anxious to attempt the cure, and, if early undertaken, seemed not despondent of a favorable result. The elders, the deacons, the motherly dames, and the young and fair maidens, of Mr. Dimmesdale’s flock, were alike importunate that he should make trial of the physician’s frankly offered skill. Mr. Dimmesdale gently repelled their entreaties. This idea was reinforced by the strong interest the physician paid to the young clergyman. He came to the minister as a church member and endeavored to make friends with the naturally reserved man. He expressed great concern at his pastor’s poor health and was anxious to attempt a cure. He believed that, if started soon, this treatment just might work. The elders, deacons, matrons, and young women of the congregation were all determined that Mr. Dimmesdale should try out the doctor’s freely offered help. Mr. Dimmesdale gently refused.
“I need no medicine,” said he. “I need no medicine,” he said.
But how could the young minister say so, when, with every successive Sabbath, his cheek was paler and thinner, and his voice more tremulous than before,—when it had now become a constant habit, rather than a casual gesture, to press his hand over his heart? Was he weary of his labors? Did he wish to die? These questions were solemnly propounded to Mr. Dimmesdale by the elder ministers of Boston and the deacons of his church, who, to use their own phrase, “dealt with him” on the sin of rejecting the aid which Providence so manifestly held out. He listened in silence, and finally promised to confer with the physician. But how could the young minister say no, when with every passing Sunday his face grew paler and thinner and his voice trembled more than it had before? How could he refuse when it had now become his constant habit to press his hand over his heart? Was he weary of his labors? Did he wish to die? The elder ministers of Boston and his own church deacons solemnly put these questions to Mr. Dimmesdale. To use their own phrase, they “dealt with him” concerning the sin of rejecting aid God had so clearly offered. He listened in silence, and finally promised to see the doctor.
“Were it God’s will,” said the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, when, in fulfilment of this pledge, he requested old Roger Chillingworth’s professional advice, “I could be well content, that my labors, and my sorrows, and my sins, and my pains, should shortly end with me, and what is earthly of them be buried in my grave, and the spiritual go with me to my eternal state, rather than that you should put your skill to the proof in my behalf.” “If it were God’s will,” said the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale when, in honor of this pledge, he requested old Roger Chillingworth’s professional advice, “I could be content that my labors and my sorrows, my sins and my pains, should soon end along with me. My earthly body could be buried in my grave, and the spiritual part could go with me into the afterlife. I would prefer for this to happen, rather than to have you test your skill on my behalf.”
“Ah,” replied Roger Chillingworth, with that quietness which, whether imposed or natural, marked all his deportment, “it is thus that a young clergyman is apt to speak. Youthful men, not having taken a deep root, give up their hold of life so easily! And saintly men, who walk with God on earth, would fain be away, to walk with him on the golden pavements of the New Jerusalem.” “Ah,” replied Roger Chillingworth in that quiet way, whether real or pretend, he always carried himself. “Young clergymen often speak this way. Young men, not having rooted themselves, give up their hold on life so easily! And saintly men, who walk with God on earth, would rather depart, to walk with him on the golden streets of Heaven.”
“Nay,” rejoined the young minister, putting his hand to his heart, with a flush of pain flitting over his brow, “were I worthier to walk there, I could be better content to toil here.” “No,” replied the young minister, putting his hand to his heart as a flush of pain passed over his face, “if I were worthy to walk there, I could be happy to work here.”
“Good men ever interpret themselves too meanly,” said the physician. “Good men always think too little of themselves,” said the doctor.
In this manner, the mysterious old Roger Chillingworth became the medical adviser of the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. As not only the disease interested the physician, but he was strongly moved to look into the character and qualities of the patient, these two men, so different in age, came gradually to spend much time together. For the sake of the minister’s health, and to enable the leech to gather plants with healing balm in them, they took long walks on the sea-shore, or in the forest; mingling various talk with the plash and murmur of the waves, and the solemn wind-anthem among the tree-tops. Often, likewise, one was the guest of the other, in his place of study and retirement. There was a fascination for the minister in the company of the man of science, in whom he recognized an intellectual cultivation of no moderate depth or scope; together with a range and freedom of ideas, that he would have vainly looked for among the members of his own profession. In truth, he was startled, if not shocked, to find this attribute in the physician. Mr. Dimmesdale was a true priest, a true religionist, with the reverential sentiment largely developed, and an order of mind that impelled itself powerfully along the track of a creed, and wore its passage continually deeper with the lapse of time. In no state of society would he have been what is called a man of liberal views; it would always be essential to his peace to feel the pressure of a faith about him, supporting, while it confined him within its iron framework. Not the less, however, though with a tremulous enjoyment, did he feel the occasional relief of looking at the universe through the medium of another kind of intellect than those with which he habitually held converse. It was as if a window were thrown open, admitting a freer atmosphere into the close and stifled study, where his life was wasting itself away, amid lamp-light, or obstructed day-beams, and the musty fragrance, be it sensual or moral, that exhales from books. But the air was too fresh and chill to be long breathed, with comfort. So the minister, and the physician with him, withdrew again within the limits of what their church defined as orthodox. This is how the mysterious old Roger Chillingworth came to be medical adviser to Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. Since the doctor was interested in the character of the patient as well as his disease, these two men, so different in age, gradually came to spend a great deal of time together. They took long walks by the seashore and in the forest, listening to the splash and murmur of the waves or the solemn song of the wind in the treetops. These walks were good for the minister’s health, and they gave the doctor a chance to gather medicinal plants. They also spent time at each other’s home. The minister was fascinated by this man of science. He recognized in him a sophisticated intellect and free-thinking and well-rounded mind not found among his fellow clergymen. He was actually a little startled, if not shocked, to find this quality in the doctor. Mr. Dimmesdale was a sincerely devoted priest—a true believer—with a carefully developed respect and focused commitment to religious practice, which had deepened in him with time. No one would have thought of him as a liberal-minded man. He needed to feel the constant pressure of faith around him, supporting him as it confined him within its rigid framework. Nonetheless, he occasionally, though hesitantly, enjoyed the relief that comes from hearing a different view of the world. It was like a window being opened, admitting fresh air into the stifling study where his life was wasting away amid lamplight or dim sunbeams and the musty odor of his books. But that air was too fresh and cold to be breathed with comfort for long. So the minister and the doctor would once again retreat into discussions that fell within the church’s narrow view.

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