Chapter 9: The Minister’s Vigil
Walking as though he was dreaming, Mr. Dimmesdale reached the spot where, not so long prior, Hester Prynne had stood through her first hours of public ignominy. The reverend ascended the steps to that same scaffold.
The night was obscure (1), clouds muffling the whole sky so that not even the outline of a human shape could have been seen. To add, there was no peril (2) of discovery for the whole town was asleep.
Why, then, had he come hither? Such a poor and miserable man this was! Crime is for the iron–nerved, who either make it their choice to endure (3) it or, if unable to do so, fling it off at once! This feeble spirit could do neither, continually doing one or the other, and thus they intertwined in a knot of vain repentance.
While standing on the scaffold, Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with horror, feeling as though the entire universe was gazing at a scarlet token upon his naked breast. He shrieked.
“It is done! The whole town will awake and find me here!”
But it was not so. Hearing no signs of disturbance, the clergyman uncovered his eyes and looked about him.
In the near distance he beheld the opening of a window of Governor Bellingham’s mansion. There stood the old magistrate holding a lamp. The cry had evidently startled him. At another window appeared old Mistress Hibbins. She had doubtless interpreted the outcry as a signal from the night–hags with whom she was well known to make excursions (4) into the forest with.
Detecting the gleam of Governor Bellingham’s lamp, the old lady quickly vanished. The magistrate too retired, and the minister grew calm.
His eyes, however, were soon greeted by an approaching light.
As the light approached nearer, he beheld the Reverend Mr. Wilson, who Mr. Dimmesdale conjectured, had been praying at the bedside of some dying man. And so he had, having come directly from the death–chamber of Governor Winthrop.
As the Reverend passed beside the scaffold, the minister could hardly restrain himself from speaking. “Good evening venerable (5) Father Wilson. Come up hither, I pray you, and pass a pleasant hour with me!”
Good Heavens! Had he actually spoken? Not so-his words were uttered only within his imagination. The venerable Father Wilson continued onward, never once turning towards the guilty platform.
Yet Mr. Dimmesdale felt his limbs growing stiff in the chilliness of the night, and doubted whether he would be able to descend the steps of the scaffold. Morning would break and find him there.
All would come stumbling over their thresholds, turning up their horror–stricken visages around the scaffold. Whom would they discern (6) there? The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, half–frozen to death, overwhelmed with shame, and stood where Hester Prynne had stood!
Carried away by this horror, the minister, to his own alarm, burst into laughter. It was immediately responded to by a childish laugh, in which, with a thrill of the heart—due to exquisite pain or pleasure, he knew not—he recognized the sound of little Pearl.
“Pearl!” cried he; then, “Hester! Are you there?”
“Yes, it is Hester Prynne!” she replied, in a tone of surprise. Her footsteps approached. “It is my little Pearl and I.”
“From where do you come hither?”
“I have been at Governor Winthrop’s death–bed to take a measure for his robe.”
After a pause, the minister spoke. “You have both been here before, but I was not with you then. Come up hither once again and we will stand all three together.”
She silently ascended the steps and stood on the platform, holding little Pearl by the hand.
The minister took the child’s other hand. The moment that he did so, he felt a tumultuous (7) rush of life into his frame, as if Hester and Pearl had transferred vitality and warmth to his half–torpid (8) system.
“Minister!” whispered little Pearl. “‘Wilt thou stand here with mother and me at noontide tomorrow?”
“Nay, my child,” answered the minister. All the dread of public exposure had returned upon him. “I shall another day, but not tomorrow.”
Pearl attempted to pull away her hand, but the minister held it fast. “A moment longer my child!”
“But wilt thou promise,” asked Pearl, “to take my hand and mother’s hand tomorrow?”
“Another time, Pearl.”
“At what other time?”
“At the great judgment day-”
Before Mr. Dimmesdale had finished speaking, a light gleamed over the sky: a powerful meteor.
All things were visible. There stood the minister, his hand over his heart; Hester Prynne, the letter glimmering on her bosom; and little Pearl, herself a symbol, the connecting link between those two. They stood in that strange splendour, as if it was a light that revealed all secrets or a daybreak that would unite all those who belonged to each other.
Little Pearl glanced upward at the minister, wearing a naughty smile. She withdrew her hand from his and pointed across the street.
But his eyes were cast upwards, hands clasped over his breast. In those days, nothing was more common than to interpret all meteoric appearances as revelations (9) from a supernatural source.
Indeed, this was a majestic idea. But when an individual discovers a revelation (9) addressed to himself alone on that same vast sky, it could only be the symptom of a highly disordered mental state. We impute (10) it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own heart that the minister beheld there the appearance of the letter A marked out in lines of dull red light. It burned with so little definiteness that another’s guilt might have seen another symbol in it.
All the time that he gazed upward, he was, nevertheless, perfectly aware that little Pearl was pointing her finger towards old Roger Chillingworth. The meteoric light imparted (11) a new expression upon him; or perhaps the physician was not careful in hiding the malevolence with which he looked upon his victim.
“Hester, who is that man?” gasped Mr. Dimmesdale, overcome with terror.
Remembering her oath, she remained silent.
“My soul shivers at him!”
“Minister,” said little Pearl, “I can tell thee who he is!”
“Quickly then, child!” said the minister, bending his ear close to her lips.
Pearl mumbled something into his ear-but it was gibberish. The elvish child laughed.
“Dost thou mock me?” said the minister.
“Thou wouldst not promise to take my hand and mother’s hand tomorrow!”
“Worthy sir,” answered the physician, advancing. “We men of study walk in our sleep! Come, good sir, my dear friend, let me lead you home!”
“How did thou knewest I was here?” asked the minister, fearfully.
“I knew not. I come hither from the bedside of the worshipful Governor Winthrop, having done what my poor skill might give him ease. I was on my way homeward. Come with me, I beseech (11) you, sir, else you will be unable to do Sabbath duty tomorrow.”
With a chill despondency (12), Mr. Dimmesdale yielded himself to the physician and was led away.
The next day, he preached a discourse that was held to be his most richest and powerful.
Yet, as he descended the pulpit (13) steps, the sexton (14) met him, holding up a black glove which the minister recognised as his own.
“It was found,” said the Sexton, “on the scaffold. Satan dropped it there, I take it, intending to mock your reverence. But indeed, he was blind and imprudent (15). A pure hand needs no glove to cover it!”
“Thank you, my good friend,” said the minister, gravely, but startled; for in his mind, the events of the past night were almost visionary (16).
“Did your reverence hear of the portent (17) seen last night? In the sky appeared the letter A which we interpret to stand for Angel. For, as our good Governor Winthrop was made an angel this past night, it was expected that there should be some notice of it!”
“No,” answered the minister. “I had not heard.”
1/obscure(adj): hazy; foggy; vague
2/peril(n): danger; threat; risk
3/endure(v): to undergo hardship; to suffer through something difficult; to persist
4/excursion(n): a journey; a short trip of leisure; an outing
5/venerable(adj): highly respected; revered; eminent
6/discern(v): to perceive; to distinguish with difficulty; to make out
7/tumultuous(adj): intense; passionate; disorderly
8/half-torpid(adj): inactive; with little energy
9/revelation(n): a divine or holy truth; a disclosure from a supernatural source
10/impute(v): to attribute; to credit to
11/impart(v): to cast; to bestow (a certain quality or expression)
12/beseech(v): to ask fervently; to implore; to plead
13/despondency(n): a feeling of despair or hopelessness
14/pulpit(n): the place where a preacher stands when delivering a sermon; a raised platform
15/sexton(n): an official of the church whose responsibilities include its upkeep
16/imprudent(adj): foolish; unwise; ill-advised
17/visionary(n): as if from a dream or trance-like state; unreal
18/portent(n): an omen; a signal