Stage 4 (Sage): The Scarlet Letter, chapter 20


After a few days had passed, the people had arranged their thoughts. They began to tell several differing accounts of what had occurred upon that scaffold.


Most of the witnesses reported having seen a scarlet letter upon the minister’s breast–the very same as that of Hester Prynne’s! Some believed that he had been wearing this scarlet letter upon his breast since Hester herself had taken upon the shame. Others perceived that it was only the dark magic and necromancy of old Roger Chillingworth which brought the letter to be engraved into the minister’s skin. Still others–those, perhaps, most understanding of the minister’s sensitivities–contended that the awful symbol was the effect of his remorse, Heaven’s dreadful judgment gnawing itself outwards.


Yet it is singular that despite all of these accounts, certain persons denied any existence whatsoever of a mark upon the minister’s breast. Nor did they believe that his words had any confession of guilt with regard to the fallen Hester Prynne. Rather, these highly respectable witnesses contended that the minister’s dying actions and words were intended to be a parable. Yes, a parable to convey how we are all sinners alike. We must consider this version of the story as only an instance that shows the devotion of a man’s friends to uphold his character.


From the many morals that press upon us from the unfortunate minister’s experience, however, we must express the following: “Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, some trait from which your worst may be inferred!”


Nothing was more remarkable than the change in old Roger Chillingworth after the minister has passed away. He seemed feeble, as though drained of all motivation and energy. He had long been solely driven by revenge; and now, that the Devil’s deed was done, he was left waiting for another victim.


Yet it remains a curious thing to consider-whether hate and love are not the same in the end. In life, both lovers and haters become each other’s source of sustenance, each intimate with the other’s heart. And each leaves the other forlorn and desolate. Perhaps it can be said that in the spiritual world, the old physician and the minister may have, unaware of it, found their earthly hatred transmuted into golden love.


For shortly after the minister’s passing, old Roger Chillingworth had passed away. By his last will, it was declared that his quite considerable estate would be bequeathed to little Pearl. And thus, little Pearl–the elf-child–the demon offspring–became the richest heiress of her day in the New World. Thus, it is not improbable that if she had remained in that settlement, when she came of age, her blood would have mingled with the purest of the lot.


Yet soon after the turn of events, little Pearl and her mother disappeared across the sea. The story of the scarlet letter grew into a legend. But its spell remained potent, for both the scaffold and the little cottage wherein Hester Prynne and Pearl had seven years dwelt were left untouched.


One afternoon, several children were at play near the cottage–and came to a pause. There, they beheld a tall woman approach the cottage door and glide, shadow-like, through it. She seemed to pause over the threshold, as if she could not bear her former dreary life. Yet she only hesitated for a moment, enough time for the scarlet letter on her breast to be seen by the children.


Hester Prynne had returned, taking up her long-forsaken shame. But where was little Pearl?


None knew whether the maiden had gone to an untimely grave or had remained across the sea. Yet much hinted at the latter-and that Pearl too had come into the love and graces of another. Letters with armorial seals came to the cottage, with trinkets of luxury and comfort-ones only wealth and affection could have purchased. And, once, Hester was seen embroidering a baby-garment, one with such a lavish richness that it would have brought about uproar among the Puritans.


The gossips of that day contended that Pearl was not only happily married and mindful of her mother, but that she would have most joyfully entertained her sad mother in that lonely cottage. Yet in that desolate cottage, there was a more real life for Hester than there had or could have been elsewhere. Here had been her sin and sorrow; here was yet to be her penitence. She had returned–out of free will, for not even the sternest magistrate of that time would have imposed it–to wearing the dark scarlet letter. Never afterwards did it leave her bosom.


But the years of her life had been thoughtful and toilsome and so the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma. Rather, it was looked upon with awe, and with a sort of reverence. Women of the town–both those who had partaken in erring, wrongful sin and those who felt unsought–came to the unselfish Hester with their worries, seeking her counsel-for she too had undergone a mighty trouble. She comforted them as best as she could, and assured them of her firm belief: that a brighter period would soon come, one where the relation between man and woman would be transmuted into one of mutual happiness.


Earlier in her life, Hester had vainly imagined that she could be the prophetess of this message. Since then, she had come to believe that only a woman untouched by sin–moreover, one wise from joy rather than from sorrow–could be the messenger of this divine and ethereal truth.


After many, many years, a new grave was dug near an old and sunken one. A space remained between the two, as though even their ashes had no right to mingle. Yet one tombstone served for them both. It bore a brief description, which may serve as a sort of motto of our now concluded legend:

“On a field, sable, the letter A, gules.”


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