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During all this time Hester stood, statue-like, at the foot of the scaffold. If the minister’s voice had not kept her there, there would nevertheless have been an inevitable magnetism in that spot, whence she dated the first hour of her life of ignominy. There was a sense within her,—too ill-defined to be made a thought, but weighing heavily on her mind,—that her whole orb of life, both before and after, was connected with this spot, as with the one point that gave it unity. All this while, Hester stood like a statute at the base of the platform. She would have been drawn to this spot where she spent the first hour of her public shame, even if the minister’s voice had not held her there. She had a sense—not clear enough to be a thought, but still weighing heavily on her mind—that her entire life was connected to this one spot, the one unifying point.
Little Pearl, meanwhile, had quitted her mother’s side, and was playing at her own will about the market-place. She made the sombre crowd cheerful by her erratic and glistening ray; even as a bird of bright plumage illuminates a whole tree of dusky foliage by darting to and fro, half-seen and half-concealed, amid the twilight of the clustering leaves. She had an undulating, but, oftentimes, a sharp and irregular movement. It indicated the restless vivacity of her spirit which to-day was doubly indefatigable in its tiptoe dance, because it was played upon and vibrated with her mother’s disquietude. Whenever Pearl saw any thing to excite her ever active and wandering curiosity she flew thitherward, and, as we might say, seized upon that man or thing as her own property, so far as she desired it; but without yielding the minutest degree of control over her motions in requital. The Puritans looked on, and, if they smiled, were none the less inclined to pronounce the child a demon offspring, from the indescribable charm of beauty and eccentricity that shone through her little figure, and sparkled with its activity. She ran and looked the wild Indian in the face; and he grew conscious of a nature wilder than his own. Thence, with native audacity, but still with a reserve as characteristic, she flew into the midst of a group of mariners, the swarthy-cheeked wild men of the ocean, as the Indians were of the land; and they gazed wonderingly and admiringly at Pearl, as if a flake of the sea-foam had taken the shape of a little maid, and were gifted with a soul of the sea-fire, that flashes beneath the prow in the night-time. Meanwhile, little Pearl had left her mother’s side and gone off to play in the marketplace. She cheered up the serious crowd with the odd, glistening light of her presence, just as a brightly colored bird lights up a dark tree by darting back and forth among the darkly clustered leaves. She moved in a constantly changing, sometimes sharp manner that expressed the restless liveliness of her spirit. Never satisfied with the predictable or conventional, her spirit today was doubly excited by her mother’s uneasiness, which it sensed and responded to. Whenever a person or thing drew Pearl’s wandering curiosity, she flew straight to it and seized upon it as though it were her own. Yet she always maintained her freedom of movement. She was never possessed by what she sought to possess. The Puritans watched her. Even the ones who smiled at her were quite willing to believe that she was likely the child of a demon, judging by the strange, eccentric beauty that sparkled throughout her. She ran and stared into the face of the wild Indian, and he recognized a spirit more wild than his own. Then, with both audacity and a characteristic reserve, she flew into the middle of a group of sailors. The red-faced wild men of the ocean gazed at Pearl with wonder and amazement, as though a flake of sea foam had assumed the shape of a girl but retained the soul of the fire that sailors see in the deep water at night.
One of these seafaring men—the shipmaster, indeed, who had spoken to Hester Prynne—was so smitten with Pearl’s aspect, that he attempted to lay hands upon her, with purpose to snatch a kiss. Finding it as impossible to touch her as to catch a humming-bird in the air, he took from his hat the gold chain that was twisted about it, and threw it to the child. Pearl immediately twined it around her neck and waist, with such happy skill, that, once seen there, it became a part of her, and it was difficult to imagine her without it. One of these sailors was the same commander who had spoken to Hester Prynne. He was so taken with Pearl that he tried to grab her, intending to steal a kiss. Realizing that he could no more touch her than catch a hummingbird, he removed the gold chain that was twisted around his hat and threw it to the child. Pearl immediately twisted it around her neck and waist with such skill that, once in place, the chain became a part of her, and it was hard to imagine her without it.
“Thy mother is yonder woman with the scarlet letter,” said the seaman. “Wilt thou carry her a message from me?” “Your mother is that woman with the scarlet letter,” said the sailor. “Will you deliver a message to her from me?”
“If the message pleases me I will,” answered Pearl. “If I like the message,” answered Pearl.
“Then tell her,” rejoined he, “that I spake again with the black-a-visaged, hump-shouldered old doctor, and he engages to bring his friend, the gentleman she wots of, aboard with him. So let thy mother take no thought, save for herself and thee. Wilt thou tell her this, thou witch-baby?” “Then tell her,” he responded, “that I spoke with the black-faced, hump-backed old doctor. He intends to bring his friend, the gentleman she knows about, aboard the ship with him. So your need not worry about him, only about herself and you. Will you tell her this, you witch-baby?”
“Mistress Hibbins says my father is the Prince of the Air!” cried Pearl, with her naughty smile. “If thou callest me that ill name, I shall tell him of thee; and he will chase thy ship with a tempest!” “Mistress Hibbins says my father is the Prince of Air!” cried Pearl, with a naughty smile. “If you call me that name again, I will tell him, and he will send a storm to toss your ship at sea!”
Pursuing a zigzag course across the market-place, the child returned to her mother, and communicated what the mariner had said. Hester’s strong, calm, steadfastly enduring spirit almost sank, at last, on beholding this dark and grim countenance of an inevitable doom, which—at the moment when a passage seemed to open for the minister and herself out of their labyrinth of misery—showed itself, with an unrelenting smile, right in the midst of their path. Taking a zigzag path across the marketplace, the child returned to her mother and delivered the message. Hester’s strong, calm, enduring spirit almost sank. Just when there seemed to be a way for the minister and her to escape their maze of misery, the path was blocked by the smiling face of grim and inevitable doom.
With her mind harassed by the terrible perplexity in which the shipmaster’s intelligence involved her, she was also subjected to another trial. There were many people present, from the country roundabout, who had often heard of the scarlet letter, and to whom it had been made terrific by a hundred false or exaggerated rumors, but who had never beheld it with their own bodily eyes. These, after exhausting other modes of amusement, now thronged about Hester Prynne with rude and boorish intrusiveness. Unscrupulous as it was, however, it could not bring them nearer than a circuit of several yards. At that distance they accordingly stood, fixed there by the centrifugal force of the repugnance which the mystic symbol inspired. The whole gang of sailors, likewise, observing the press of spectators, and learning the purport of the scarlet letter, came and thrust their sunburnt and desperado-looking faces into the ring. Even the Indians were affected by a sort of cold shadow of the white man’s curiosity, and, gliding through the crowd, fastened their snake-like black eyes on Hester’s bosom; conceiving, perhaps, that the wearer of this brilliantly embroidered badge must needs be a personage of high dignity among her people. Lastly, the inhabitants of the town (their own interest in this worn-out subject languidly reviving itself, by sympathy with what they saw others feel) lounged idly to the same quarter, and tormented Hester Prynne, perhaps more than all the rest, with their cool, well-acquainted gaze at her familiar shame. Hester saw and recognized the selfsame faces of that group of matrons, who had awaited her forthcoming from the prison-door, seven years ago; all save one, the youngest and only compassionate among them, whose burial-robe she had since made. At the final hour, when she was so soon to fling aside the burning letter, it had strangely become the centre of more remark and excitement, and was thus made to sear her breast more painfully than at any time since the first day she put it on. Just as her mind was grappling with the terrible confusion the commander’s news had caused, Hester faced another assault. Many people from the surrounding countryside had heard something of the scarlet letter. They had heard a hundred rumors and exaggerations about it but had never actually seen it. Growing tired of other amusements, these people gathered around Hester Prynne and rudely intruded upon her. Yet as rude as they were, they would not come closer than several yards—held at that distance by the repulsive force of that mystical symbol. The gang of sailors—seeing the crowd gather and learning the meaning of the scarlet letter—came over and stuck their sunburned faces into the ring around Hester. Even the Indians were affected by the white man’s curiosity. Gliding through the crowd, they fixed their snakelike black eyes on Hester’s bosom. Perhaps they imagined that the woman who wore such a brilliantly embroidered symbol must be someone of great stature among her people. Finally, the townspeople—whose interest in this tired subject was revived by the response they saw in the others—slowly wandered over. They tormented Hester Prynne, perhaps more than all the others, with their detached, knowing gaze at her familiar shame. Hester recognized in those faces the same scorn that she had seen in the faces of the women who had waited for her to emerge from the prison door seven years ago. She had since made burial robes for all but one, the youngest and only compassionate one among them. At this last moment, just as she was about to cast off the burning letter, it had strangely become the center of more attention—and therefore burned hotter—than at any time since she had first put it on.