Stage 4 (Sage): The Scarlet Letter, chapter 11

CHAPTER 11: HESTER AND PEARL

And so, old Roger Chillingworth took leave of Hester Prynne and crept onward, his long beard dragging upon the ground as he walked.  

Hester Prynne gazed after him, looking with what seemed like curiosity and bitterness. She wondered if the tender spring grass beneath his feet would be crushed by his every step. She questioned which sort of herbs this old man was so sedulous (1) to gather; would the earth not greet him with deadly and poisonous shrubs?

Or perhaps would every living being he came upon and touched be transformed into some deleterious (2) creature? And did the sun really even fall upon him? Was it only in her imagination that an ominous (3) shadow surrounded him in a sphere, moving along with him?

And now, where was he going? Would he not suddenly sink into the earth, as though trapped by quicksand and in his disappearance, leave behind a barren and blasted spot? Or would he spread the wings of a bat and fly away, growing uglier as he flew higher?

“Whether it is wrong or not,” said Hester, bitterly, “I hate the man!”

She upbraided (4) herself for the sentiment, but could not overcome it.

Gazing after him, she thought of the days of their shared past. He had emerged in the evening from the seclusion (5) of his study, and at their dining table, sit in the light of her nuptial (6) smile. He needed to bask (7) in that smile, he had said, to warm himself of the chill that the lonely hours with his books had brought upon him.

Such scenes, which once had appeared among her happiest moments, were now among her ugliest remembrances. She marvelled at how she had ever decided to marry him!

And in her mind, her greatest crime to be ashamed of was enduring and reciprocating the warmness of his hand, having her lips and eyes mingle and intertwine with his. It seemed as a worse crime committed by Roger Chillingworth, that at that time when her heart knew no better, he had persuaded her that she would be happy by his side. 

“Yes, I hate him!” repeated Hester Prynne, more spitefully (8) than before. “He betrayed me! He has done me worse wrong than I have done him!”

In gazing after the old man, she had revealed much in her mind that she would not have otherwise acknowledged to herself.

When old Roger Chillingworth had disappeared, Hester turned to summon Pearl back. “Pearl! Little Pearl! Where are you?”

Pearl had been at no loss for amusement.

At first, she had flirted with her reflection in a pool of water. She had beckoned (9) it, but soon finding that either she or the image was unreal, she turned elsewhere for amusement.

She made wooden toy boats and sent them out on the water. She seized live horseshoes and made prize of five fingers; then, she laid out a jellyfish to melt in the sun. When a flock of birds came to shore, the naughty child pelted (10) them with pebbles. One little gray bird fluttered away with a broken wing; upon seeing this, Pearl sighed and gave up her sport. It grieved her to have done harm to a little being that was as wild as herself.

Finally, she set her sights on gathering seaweed, making herself a scarf and a headdress to assume the appearance of a little mermaid. As a final touch, Pearl took some eelgrass and arranged it upon her own bosom in the shape of a letter- the letter A- but freshly green instead of scarlet.

She contemplated (11) it with interest. “I wonder if Mother will ask me what it means?” she thought.

Then, she heard her mother’s voice. Flitting along, she appeared before Hester, laughing and pointing with her finger at the letter upon her bosom.

After a moment’s silence, Hester spoke. “My little Pearl, the green letter on thy childish bosom has no meaning. But dost thou know what my letter means?”

“Yes, mother, it is the great letter A thou hast taught me in the hornbook (12).”

Hester looked steadily into Pearl’s face, but could not determine whether Pearl had attached any real meaning to the symbol. She was suddenly overcome by a desire to ascertain (13) the point. “Dost thou know, child, wherefore thy mother wears this letter?”

“I do! It is for the same reason the minister keeps his hand over his heart.”

Hester half-smiled at the absurd incongruity (14) of the observation but then turned pale. “What has the letter to do with any heart besides mine?”

“I have told all I know,” answered Pearl. “But in good earnest, mother, what does this scarlet letter mean? And why dost thou wear it? And why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?”

Pearl took her mother’s hands in her own and gazed into her eyes with an uncharacteristic seriousness.

Hester wondered if the child was attempting to establish a meeting point of sympathy with her.

Despite loving her child dearly, she had always compared Pearl to an April breeze. With its gusts of capricious (15) passion and a sentiment that was petulant (16) at best, it might caress Hester gently, but would soon flit away and be gone. She had never let herself expect that Pearl might become anything else.

But now she wondered if Pearl might have reached the age where she could be entrusted with her mother’s secrets. Perhaps Pearl might have been sent from the heavens, a messenger to ease her mother’s sorrows that had long been trapped in the tomb of her heart!

It was not as though principles (17) were not emerging in her Pearl’s character, and she possessed affections too, despite them being mostly bitter.  With all these sterling (18) attributes, Hester hoped that a noble woman might yet grow out of little Pearl.

These thoughts stirred in her mind with such vivacity (19) that it seemed as though they were being spoken aloud. And all the while, little Pearl was repeating her questions again and then again. “What does the letter mean, mother? And why dost thou wear it? And why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?”

“What shall I say?” thought Hester. “No! If this is the price of the child’s sympathy, I cannot pay it. ”

Then she spoke. “Silly Pearl, what questions are these for a child to ask? What do I know about the minister’s heart? And as for the scarlet letter, I wear it for the sake of its gold thread.”

In all those seven years, Hester had never once lied about the symbol on her bosom.

The earnestness passed from little Pearl’s face, but she did not let the matter drop. As they walked homeward at suppertime and while Hester was putting her to bed, Pearl would look up, mischief gleaming in her black eyes, “Mother,” said she, “what does the scarlet letter mean?”

And the next morning–

“Mother! Why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?”

“Hold thy tongue, naughty child!” answered her mother, with an asperity (20) she had never spoken with before. “Do not tease me or else I shall put thee in the closet!”

+GLOSSARY:

1/sedulous(adj): diligent; rigorous; careful; attentive

2/deleterious(adj): harmful, in a subtle manner; causing damage; injurious

3/ominous(adj): giving the impression that something bad is going to happen; inauspicious

4/upbraid(v): to scold; to find fault with; to chide; to admonish

5/seclusion(n): a state where one is separate from any other person; privacy; solitude; isolation

6/nuptial(adj): referring to the early days of a marriage or the first few days after a wedding; bridal; matrimonial

7/bask(v): to take pleasure in; to indulge oneself in; to be exposed to light

8/spitefully(adv): bitterly; unkindly; cruelly

9/beckon(v): to gesture forward; to invite; to call

10/pelt(v): to throw; to attack something by throwing something at it

11/contemplate(v): to wonder, reflectively; to think about; to deliberate over

12/horn-book(n): a historical teaching aid in the form of a wooden tablet that shows children the alphabet, the first ten numbers, and the Lord’s Prayer

13/ascertain(v): to make sure of; to discover; to learn

14/incongruity(n): the state of being out of place, as though random; inappropriate

15/capricious(adj): unpredictable; temperamental; fickle

16/petulant(adj): sulky; grumpy; petty; irritable

17/principle(n): a fundamental basis for something; a belief; a moral

18/sterling(adj): splendid; exceptional; excellent; admirable

19/vivacity(n): a state of liveliness or animation; a state of high spirits; full of life

20/asperity(n): a tone characterized by harshness; severity; sharpness

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