CHAPTER 12: A FOREST WALK
Hester Prynne had resolved to divulge (1) to Mr. Dimmesdale the true character of old Roger Chillingworth.
For several days, however, she was unable to address him. At last, she learned the details of his return from a visit to the Apostle (2) Elliot, and with Pearl, set forth into the primeval (3) forest. Their path was hemmed (4) in by dense shrubs, but a breeze stirred at the clouds overhead, a gleam of sunshine flickering at the path’s end. As they neared it, the sunlight vanished.
“Mother,” said little Pearl, “the sunshine runs from you, afraid of something on your bosom. Stand here and let me catch it. It will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!”
“Nor ever will, I hope.”
“Why not? Will it not come when I become a woman grown?”
“Run away, child,” answered her mother, “and catch the sunshine! It will soon be gone.”
Pearl set forth and, as Hester smiled to see, did actually catch the sunshine.
As Hester neared, she stretched her hands out to grasp the sunshine. Yet as she attempted to do so, the sunshine vanished; or perhaps, Pearl had absorbed it.
Pearl’s vigour (5) impressed Hester. Almost all children of that time had the disease of sadness – yet perhaps this too was a disease. Hester wanted a grief to humanise her Pearl, but there was still time.
“Come, my child! We will sit down a little way within the wood to rest.”
“I am not weary, mother. But you may sit down if you will tell me a story.”
“A story, child! About what?”
“Oh, about the Black Man,” answered Pearl, half earnestly, half mischievously. “How he haunts this forest and offers his book to all who pass to write their names therein. Then, he sets marks upon their bosoms. Didst thou ever meet him, mother?”
“Who told you this story, Pearl?” Hester recognized a common superstition.
“An old dame. She said that the scarlet letter was the Black Man’s mark on thee. Is it true, mother? Dost thou go to meet him in the night?” And she repeated her questions oncemore.
“Wilt thou let me be at peace if I tell thee?”
“Once I met the Black Man! This scarlet letter is his mark!”
Thus conversing, they entered deep into the wood. They sat on a heap of moss in a little dell (6), where between two leaf-strewn banks was a flowing brook. The stream kept up a babble, kind but doleful (7).
“Oh, brook!” cried Pearl, “Why art thou so sad?”
Pearl resembled the brook in that her life had originated from a spring as mysterious and had flowed through scenes shadowed as heavily. But, unlike the stream, she danced and sparkled.
“What does this sad little brook say, mother?”
“If thou hadst a sorrow of thine own, the brook might tell thee of it, as it is telling me of mine. But now Pearl, I hear footsteps. Go play and leave me to speak with him that comes yonder.”
“Is it the Black Man?”
“Wilt thou go and play, child?”
“If it be the Black Man, wilt thou not let me stay?”
“Silly child, it is no Black Man!” She said impatiently. “Thou canst see him now. It is the minister!”
“It is! He has his hand over his heart! Is it from when he wrote his name in the Black Man’s book? But why does he not wear it upon his bosom, as thou dost, mother?”
“Go now, child! But do not stray far.”
Her elf–child having departed, Hester beheld the haggard (8) minister advancing alone. He portrayed a nerveless despondency (9), one he feared to reveal to the eyes of the public. He exhibited no suffering, except that, as little Pearl had remarked, he kept his hand over his heart.
“Who speaks?” he answered, suddenly standing erect (10). Moving forward, he beheld an indistinct form and stepped closer upon discovering the scarlet letter. “Hester! Art thou in life?”
“And thou, Arthur Dimmesdale, dost thou live?”
Their meeting in the dim wood was so strange that it was not a mystery that they questioned each other’s existences.
Tremulously (11), he offered his chill hand into that of Hester’s. With an unexpressed consent of silence, they sat upon the heap of moss.
When they first spoke, it was only about the weather. So long estranged (12), it was necessary that they went step by step into approaching the questions brooding (13) deepest in their hearts.
After awhile, the minister fixed his eyes on Hester Prynne’s. “Hester, hast thou found peace?”
She smiled drearily (14), looking upon her bosom. “Hast thou?”
“None! I am most miserable!”
“The people reverence thee, and thou workest good among them! Doth this bring thee no comfort?”
“Only the more misery! What can my ruined soul do for the redemption (15) of other souls?”
“You have deeply and sorely repented,” said Hester gently. “Should your penitence (16) not bring you peace?”
“None! Fortunate are you, Hester, that you wear the scarlet letter; mine burns in secret! What relief it is to see one that recognizes me for what I am! If only I had one friend—or enemy—to whom I could daily betake myself, I could continue to live.”
Hester hesitated. She was fully sensible of her responsibility for this miserable man’s deep injury. She brought the man–which she had once, whom she still so passionately loved–to ruin! Yet conquering her fears, Hester finally confessed: “Thou hast long had such an enemy, and dwellest with him!”
The minister started to his feet, clutching at his heart. “What mean you?”
Rather than having confessed at that moment, she would gladly have died. “Oh, Arthur, forgive me! Roger Chillingworth was my husband!”
The minister looked at her with an unbridled (17) frown. But then, suddenly, as if weakened, he buried his face in his hands. “I did know it,” murmured he. “The natural recoil (18) of my heart at my first sight of him told me so. Why did I not understand? Oh, Hester, thou art accountable for my suffering! I cannot forgive me!”
“Thou must!” cried Hester, flinging herself by his feet. “Let God punish me, but thou must forgive!”
With sudden and desperate tenderness, she threw her arms around him and pressed his head against her bosom.
“Wilt thou not forgive me?”
At length, he replied, voice sad but no longer angry. “I do forgive you, Hester. May God forgive us both. After all, there is one sinner worse than us both–that old man. We never violated the sanctity (19) of a human heart!”
“Never! What we did had a consecration (20) of its own. Hast thou forgotten it?”
“No, I have not!”
They sat there hand in hand, lingering in the charm of that golden light.
But then, all of a sudden, the minister jumped. “Hester! Roger Chillingworth knows that he has been revealed. What will be the course of his revenge?”
“He has other means of satiating his dark passion. Thus, it is unlikely he will reveal our secret.”
“But how can I live longer with such a deadly enemy!”
“But what choice is there?”
Hester fixed her magnetic eyes on the minister. “Is the world confined to this town? This path leads back to the town, but also deeper into the wilderness where thou art free! And even further, in London or Italy, you could be beyond the power of Roger Chillingworth and begin anew! Preach! Write! Act! Do anything, save lie down and die here!”
“Oh, Hester.” His voice was resigned. “I have no strength or courage to venture into that wide, strange, and difficult world alone!”
“Thou shalt not go alone!”
Then, all was spoken.
1/divulge(v): to disclose; to reveal; to tell the truth
2/apostle(n): a disciple of Jesus; a Christian missionary in a land of indigenous people
3/primeval(adj): primitive; ancient; untouched by humans
4/hem(v): to restrict or lessen the space and movement of; to keep something within bounds
5/vigour(n): an exuberant energy or force characterized by strength and vitality of character
6/dell(n): a small valley, typically within a forest, surrounded by trees; often secluded
7/doleful(adj): mournful; gloomy; melancholy
8/haggard(adj): describing an exhausted appearance, typically caused from fatigue or stress
9/despondency(n): hopelessness; despair; weakened spirits from a lack of courage
10/erect(adj): rigidly straight; aroused; alert
11/tremulously(adv): shakily, as if with wonder; trembling, potentially caused by fear or weakness
12/estranged(adj): alienated; separated by time or place; kept at a distance
13/brooding(v): to reside deeply, particularly in reference to unhappy thoughts
14/drearily(adv): gloomy; dismal; bleak
15/redemption(n): the action of being freed or absolved of one’s sin; absolution
16/penitence(n): the state of expressing sorrow for one’s wrongdoings; regret; repentance
17/unbridled(adj): uncontrolled; unrestrained; unrestricted
18/recoil(n): a sudden flinch backwards, as caused by horror or disgust
19/sanctity(n): a state of being holy or sacred; purity; a state of being incorruptible
20/consecration(n): the act of making something sacred or holy