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From this intense consciousness of being the object of severe and universal observation, the wearer of the scarlet letter was at length relieved by discerning, on the outskirts of the crowd, a figure which irresistibly took possession of her thoughts. An Indian, in his native garb, was standing there; but the red men were not so infrequent visitors of the English settlements, that one of them would have attracted any notice from Hester Prynne, at such a time; much less would he have excluded all other objects and ideas from her mind. By the Indian’s side, and evidently sustaining a companionship with him, stood a white man, clad in a strange disarray of civilized and savage costume. Hester’s intense awareness of the public’s attention was finally relieved by the shocking sight of a figure at the far edge of the crowd. An Indian in his native dress was standing there. Indians were not such uncommon visitors in the English settlements that Hester Prynne would have noticed one at such a time, much less been captivated by his presence. But next to the Indian, seeming like his friend, stood a white man, dressed in a strange mixture of English and Indian garments.
He was small in stature, with a furrowed visage, which, as yet, could hardly be termed aged. There was a remarkable intelligence in his features, as of a person who had so cultivated his mental part that it could not fail to mould the physical to itself, and become manifest by unmistakable tokens. Although, by a seemingly careless arrangement of his heterogeneous garb, he had endeavoured to conceal or abate the peculiarity, it was sufficiently evident to Hester Prynne, that one of this man’s shoulders rose higher than the other. Again, at the first instant of perceiving that thin visage, and the slight deformity of the figure, she pressed her infant to her bosom, with so convulsive a force that the poor babe uttered another cry of pain. But the mother did not seem to hear it. He was a short man with a face that was wrinkled but not that old. His features indicated great intelligence, as though he had so cultivated his mind that it began to shape his body. It was clear to Hester Prynne that one of the man’s shoulders rose higher than the other, though the man had tried to conceal the fact with a seemingly careless arrangement of his strange clothing. Upon first seeing that thin face and slightly deformed figure, Hester pressed her infant to her breast so hard that the poor child cried out. But Hester did not seem to hear it.
At his arrival in the market-place, and some time before she saw him, the stranger had bent his eyes on Hester Prynne. It was carelessly, at first, like a man chiefly accustomed to look inward, and to whom external matters are of little value and import, unless they bear relation to something within his mind. Very soon, however, his look became keen and penetrative. A writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over them, and making one little pause, with all its wreathed intervolutions in open sight. His face darkened with some powerful emotion, which, nevertheless, he so instantaneously controlled by an effort of his will, that, save at a single moment, its expression might have passed for calmness. After a brief space, the convulsion grew almost imperceptible, and finally subsided into the depths of his nature. When he found the eyes of Hester Prynne fastened on his own, and saw that she appeared to recognize him, he slowly and calmly raised his finger, made a gesture with it in the air, and laid it on his lips. When the stranger first arrived in the marketplace—long before Hester Prynne saw him—he had fixed his eyes on her. His initial glance was careless, like that of a man accustomed to his own thoughts, who only values the outside world for its relation to his own mind. But soon his gaze became sharp and penetrating. Horror slithered over his features like a fast-moving snake, pausing only for a moment to show its many coils. His face darkened with a powerful emotion which, nonetheless, he instantly controlled with his will. Except for that single moment of emotion, his expression seemed perfectly calm. After a little while, his convulsion became almost imperceptible, until it entirely faded into the depths of his being. When he found the eyes of Hester Prynne fixed on his, and saw that she seemed to recognize him, he slowly and calmly raised his finger and laid it on his lips.
Then, touching the shoulder of a townsman who stood next to him, he addressed him in a formal and courteous manner. Then he touched the shoulder of a nearby townsman and asked in a formal and courteous tone:
“I pray you, good Sir,” said he, “who is this woman?—and wherefore is she here set up to public shame?” “My dear sir, may I ask who is this woman? And why is she being held up for public shame?”
“You must needs be a stranger in this region, friend,” answered the townsman, looking curiously at the questioner and his savage companion; “else you would surely have heard of Mistress Hester Prynne, and her evil doings. She hath raised a great scandal, I promise you, in godly Master Dimmesdale’s church.” “You must be a stranger, my friend,” the townsman replied, looking curiously at the questioner and his Indian companion, “or you certainly would have heard about the evil deeds of Mistress Hester Prynne. She has caused a great scandal, I assure you, in Master Dimmesdale’s church.”
“You say truly,” replied the other. “I am a stranger, and have been a wanderer, sorely against my will. I have met with grievous mishaps by sea and land, and have been long held in bonds among the heathen-folk, to the southward; and am now brought hither by this Indian, to be redeemed out of my captivity. Will it please you, therefore, to tell me of Hester Prynne’s,—have I her name rightly?—of this woman’s offences, and what has brought her to yonder scaffold?” “You speak the truth,” replied the other. “I am a stranger. I have been wandering, against my will, for a long time. I have suffered terrible bad luck at sea and on land. I have been held prisoner by the Indians to the south, and have been brought here by this Indian to be ransomed from captivity. So could I ask you to tell me of Hester Prynne’s—if I have her name right—of this woman’s crimes and why she is standing on this platform?”
“Truly, friend, and methinks it must gladden your heart, after your troubles and sojourn in the wilderness,” said the townsman, “to find yourself, at length, in a land where iniquity is searched out, and punished in the sight of rulers and people; as here in our godly New England. Yonder woman, Sir, you must know, was the wife of a certain learned man, English by birth, but who had long dwelt in Amsterdam, whence, some good time agone, he was minded to cross over and cast in his lot with us of the Massachusetts. To this purpose, he sent his wife before him, remaining himself to look after some necessary affairs. Marry, good Sir, in some two years, or less, that the woman has been a dweller here in Boston, no tidings have come of this learned gentleman, Master Prynne; and his young wife, look you, being left to her own misguidance—” “Certainly, friend. It must make you glad, after your wanderings in the wilderness,” said the townsman, “to finally find yourself somewhere that wickedness is rooted out and punished, as it is here in our godly New England. That woman, sir, was the wife of a learned man. He was English by birth but had lived for a long time in Amsterdam. Some years ago, he decided to cross the ocean and join us in Massachusetts. He sent his wife ahead of him and stayed behind to tend to some business. Well, sir, in the two short years—maybe less—that the woman lived here in Boston, having heard nothing from this wise gentleman, Master Prynne . . . his young wife, you see, was left to mislead herself.”