Chapter 16: “The New England Holiday”
On the morning of which the Governor was to begin his new term, Hester and little Pearl ventured to the marketplace.
It was already filled with craftsmen and other inhabitants of the town, as well as Indians who had come from the forest.
On this public holiday, as on all other occasions during the past seven years, Hester donned a gray garment. Not due to its hue, but because of some indescribable peculiarity of it, the garment made her fade out of sight. It was the scarlet letter that brought her back.
Her face showed its characteristic marble quietude. It was like a mask; or perhaps more like the calmness of a dead woman. After all, Hester had seemed to already have departed from this Puritan world. After sustaining the misery of her position, she now took the gaze of the townspeople freely, converting her pain into a sort of triumph.
“Look your last on the scarlet letter!” She, the people’s lifelong bond-slave, might say to them. “Just a little longer and she will be beyond your reach!”
On the other hand, Pearl’s garments and entire appearance were one and the same – of an ethereal gaiety. Moreover, there was a certain excitement in her mood. Children often sense the troubles of those closest in their affections; thus, Pearl, in her wild shouts and erratic movements, revealed the stirrings buried deep within her mother’s heart.
When they reached the marketplace, Pearl grew even more restless. “What is this, mother?” She cried. “Wherefore are all these people assembled today? Is it a play-day for the world!” And after a moment, “And why does that old jailer smile at me?”
“He remembers thee from when thou was a little babe, my child,” answered Hester.
“He still should not smile at me! He is a black and ugly man. He may look at thee, however, for thou wearest the scarlet letter. But, mother, wherefore are all these people here today?”
“They have come to see the procession.”
“Will the minister be there?” Pearl eagerly asked. “Will he hold hands with us today?”
“He will be there today, my child, but he will not approach us, nor should thou approach him.”
“What a strange, sad man is he!” Pearl said, as if speaking to herself. “In the dark of night, on the scaffold, he had called us to him and held our hands. And in the deep forest, where only the old trees and brook can hear, he talked with thee! But here, despite the sunny day and all the people, he knows us not nor must we know him! A strange, sad man is he, with his hand always over his heart!”
“Be quiet, Pearl. Thou does not understand these things. Do not think of the minister now, but look about. The people are certainly joyful today.”
It was as Hester said. There was an uncharacteristic gaiety that brightened the faces of the people. The Puritans, perhaps, had compressed whatever mirth they allowed in their lives into this one holiday. Yet these were not ancestors of Puritanic gloom, but native Englishmen. Their fathers had lived in the Elizabethan epoch, a time of sunny richness and jollity. Thus, there was some attempt of the gaiety of that time – a mere shadow, a dilution – today.
The respected fathers of the town saw it as their duty then, to assume an outward state of majesty. The people too were countenanced. There were no types of popular merriment—no theatrical shows, no minstrel, no juggler. All such jocularity would have been sternly repressed, not only by the law, but by the townspeople’s general sentiment which gave the law its strength.
Yet, there were wrestling matches here and there, and on the platform of the pillory, two men had begun an exhibition of swordsmanship. However, much to the crowd’s disappointment, this business was quickly dismantled by the town beadle, who found it wholly crude for one of the law’s most consecrated places to be thus violated.
While the townspeople of the marketplace largely donned garments of gray, brown, and black, there was a hint of color from the diversity of hue and savage finery of the Indians. Yet even they were not as wild as the mariners—a part of the crew from the Spanish Main—who had come ashore to see the humors of Election Day. These were rough–looking men, with tanned faces and scraggly beards. They transgressed without fear, for the rules of behaviour binding on all others did not apply to them. They smoked under the beadle’s very nose and quaffed spirits at their pleasure, which they freely offered to the gaping crowd around them.
It remarkably characterized the incomplete morality of the age, rigid as we may call it, that the seafaring class may be given this license. The sailor of that day would surely be condemned as a pirate in our own.
Thus, the Puritan elders smiled not malevolently at the rude deportment of these seafaring men; and it disturbed no one when old Roger Chillingworth entered the marketplace in close talk with the commander of the questionable vessel.
After parting from the physician, the commander of the ship strolled idly through the marketplace until he approached Hester.
As was usually the case wherever she stood, there was a small vacant circle about her. This moral solitude was inevitable, due to the scarlet letter. However, now it enabled Hester and the seaman to speak together without risk of being overheard; and so changed was Hester’s reputation, that the matron, most well known for her rigid morality, could not have held such conversation with less result of scandal than herself.
“So, mistress,” said the mariner, “I must tell the steward to prepare for one more voyager. Ay, at the very least, we shall have no fear of scurvy or ship fever this voyage.”
“What mean you?” inquired Hester, startled. “Do you have another passenger?”
“Why, don’t you know!” He cried. “The physician here—old man Chillingworth—is minded to join your party. He tells me that he is a close friend to the gentleman you spoke of.”
“Yes, they know each other well,” replied Hester, with a facade of calmness.
No further words passed between the mariner and Hester. But at that instant she beheld old Roger Chillingworth, standing in the remotest corner of the marketplace and smiling at her; a smile which—across the wide and bustling square, and through all the talk and laughter—conveyed secret and fearful meaning.