CHAPTER 2: THE RECOGNITION
The object of severe observation — the wearer of the scarlet letter — was at length relieved by discerning (1) a figure which took possession of her thoughts.
By an Indian’s side stood a white man.
He was small in stature, but possessed remarkable intelligence in his features. Although he had endeavoured (2) to conceal the peculiarity, it was evident to Hester that one of his shoulders humped higher than the other. At the first instance of perceiving that visage, she pressed her infant to her bosom, with such a force that the poor babe uttered another cry of pain. The mother, perplexed, did not seem to hear it.
At his arrival in the market-place, and some time before she saw him, the stranger had laid his eyes on Hester. Carelessly, at first; then, horror twisted itself across his features, which, he instantly regained control. When he found Hester’s eyes fastened on his own, he calmly raised his finger, laying it on his lips.
Then, touching the shoulder of a nearby townsman, he addressed him. “Good Sir, who is this woman? Why is she set up here to public shame?”
“You must be a stranger, else you would have heard of Mistress Hester Prynne, and her evil doings.”
“I am. Will it please you, therefore, to tell me of her offences, and what has brought her to yonder scaffold?”
“She was the wife of a learned man who, some good time ago, was minded to cross over with us. He sent his wife before him. In some two years that the woman has been a dweller here, no news have come of this learned gentleman; and his young wife, being left to her own misguidance—-”
“Ah! I understand,” said the stranger with a bitter smile. “And who, may be the father of the babe Mistress Prynne is holding in her arms?”
“Madam Hester refuseth to speak. Perhaps the guilty one stands looking on at this sad spectacle, unknown of man, forgetting that God sees him.”
“The learned man,” observed the stranger, with another smile, “should come himself to look into the mystery.”
“It would be to his advantage, if he was still alive. Our Massachusetts magistracy (3), in their great mercy have doomed Mistress Prynne to stand only three hours on the platform, and then for the remainder of her life to wear a mark of shame upon her bosom.”
“A wise sentence! She will be a living sermon (4) against sin. It irks (5) me, nevertheless, that the partner of her sin should not stand on the scaffold by her side. But he will be known!”
While this passed, Hester had been standing with a fixed gaze towards the stranger; so fixed, that, at moments, all else seemed to vanish, leaving only him and her. Such an interview would have been more terrible. Dreadful as it was, she was conscious of a shelter in the presence of these thousand witnesses.
Involved in thought, she scarcely (6) heard a voice behind her until it had repeated her name. “Listen to me, Hester Prynne!”
Directly over the platform was a balcony. Here sat Governor Bellingham, an aged gentleman. He was not ill-fitted to be the head of a community, which owed its progress not to the impulses of youth but to the sagacity (7) of age; having accomplished so much because it had imagined and hoped so little.
The other eminent (8) characters who surrounded him were good men but ordinary.
Suddenly, she grew pale as a tremulous sound infused the air. The voice which had called her was of reverend John Wilson — the eldest clergyman of Boston — a great scholar and a kind spirit. This last attribute, however, was a matter of shame than self-congratulation to him. He looked like the portraits prefixed (9) to old volumes of sermons, having no more right than those portraits would have to step forth, as he now did, and meddle (10) with the question of human guilt, passion, and anguish.
“Hester Prynne,” he said, “I have striven with my young brother,”–he laid his hand on the shoulder of a pale young man beside him,–“that he should deal with you here. Knowing your natural temper better than I, he could better judge what arguments to use so that you should no longer hide the name of who tempted you. But he opposes, saying it wrongs the very nature of a woman to lay her heart’s secrets in presence of so great a multitude. Yet, the shame lay in the sin, not in now showing it. What say you, brother Dimmesdale? Must it be thou or I that shall deal with this poor sinner’s soul?”
There was a murmur among the balcony; Governor Bellingham gave expression to it, speaking in a voice, authoritative yet tempered (11) with respect towards the youthful clergyman whom he addressed.
“Good Master Dimmesdale, the responsibility of this woman’s soul lies with you. It behooves (12) you to exhort (13) her to repentance and confession.”
The directness of this appeal drew the eyes of the crowd upon Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale; a young clergyman. He was a person of very striking aspect, with a white brow, melancholic (14) eyes, and a tremulous mouth, expressing both nervous sensibility and a vast power of self-restraint. Notwithstanding his scholar-like attainments, there was an air about him —a half-frightened look — as of a being who felt himself only in some seclusion (15) of his own. Yet when he came forth, it was with a purity of thoughtwhich, many people said, affected them like the speech of an angel.
“Speak to the woman,” said Mr. Wilson. “Exhort her to confess the truth!”
The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale came forward.
“Hester Prynne,” said he, leaning over the balcony, looking steadfastly (16) into her eyes, “I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner! Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; it would be better if he stand there beside thee than to hide a guilty heart through life. Take the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips!”
His voice was sweet, rich, and broken. The feeling that it manifested (17), rather than the words, caused it to vibrate within all hearts. Even the baby was affected; it directed its gaze towards Sir. Dimmesdale, with a half-pleased, half-plaintive (18) murmur. So powerful was his appeal, that the people could not believe how Hester would still not speak out the guilty name; or that the guilty one himself would not ascend the scaffold.
Hester shook her head.
“Woman, do not go past the limits of Heaven’s mercy!” cried Reverend Mr. Wilson, more harshly than before. “Speak out the name! That, and thy repentance, may avail to take the scarlet letter off thy breast.”
“Never!” replied Hester, looking, not at Mr. Wilson, but into the troubled eyes of the younger clergyman. “It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. I will endure his agony, as well as mine!”
“She will not speak!” murmured Mr. Dimmesdale who with his hand upon his heart had awaited the result. “Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman’s heart!”
The elder clergyman then addressed to the multitude a discourse on sin, with continual reference to the ignominious (19) letter. So forcibly did he dwell (20) upon this symbol that it assumed new terrors in the people’s imagination. Hester, meanwhile, remained upon the pedestal of shame with an air of weary indifference. The infant pierced the air with wailings; she strove to hush it, mechanically, without seeming to sympathize with its trouble.
With the same hard demeanour, she was led back to prison, and vanished from the public gaze.
1/discern(v): to see or detect, to make out in a crowd
2/endeavour(v): to try, to make an effort
3/magistracy(n): a group of high-ranked officials who act like judges, deciding matters of the law
4/sermon(n): a discourse on a moral subject; a symbol
5/irk(v): to annoy
7/sagacity(n): wiseness, particularly regarding matters of moral judgment
8/eminent(adj): respected, illustrious, well-known
9/prefixed(v): to be added as a prefix, a section before a book begins
10/meddle(v): to interfere in the middle of a situation one has no right to interfere in; implies a needless, rude action
11/tempered(v): to be made less severe and stern
12/behooves(v): to be of advantage; as in, “it would be to your advantage”
13/exhort(v): to encourage an individual to do something, often in a pressing manner
14/melancholic(adj): sad, gloomy
15/seclusion(n): to be in a state of isolation, away from other people and places; implies a sheltered existence
16/steadfastly(adv): firmly, with intent and purpose; directly without being distracted; unwaveringly
17/manifested(v): to be expressed, to create (an emotion in people); to display
18/plaintive(adj): sad, wistful, mournful
19/ignominious(adj): shameful, associated with public disgrace and sin
20/dwell(v): to linger upon (when speaking), to brood about