The Scarlet Letter eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 247 pages of information about The Scarlet Letter.
that ever-wakeful one which had seen him in his closet, wielding the bloody scourge.  Why, then, had he come hither?  Was it but the mockery of penitence?  A mockery, indeed, but in which his soul trifled with itself!  A mockery at which angels blushed and wept, while fiends rejoiced with jeering laughter!  He had been driven hither by the impulse of that Remorse which dogged him everywhere, and whose own sister and closely linked companion was that Cowardice which invariably drew him back, with her tremulous gripe, just when the other impulse had hurried him to the verge of a disclosure.  Poor, miserable man! what right had infirmity like his to burden itself with crime?  Crime is for the iron-nerved, who have their choice either to endure it, or, if it press too hard, to exert their fierce and savage strength for a good purpose, and fling it off at once!  This feeble and most sensitive of spirits could do neither, yet continually did one thing or another, which intertwined, in the same inextricable knot, the agony of heaven-defying guilt and vain repentance.

And thus, while standing on the scaffold, in this vain show of expiation, Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with a great horror of mind, as if the universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over his heart.  On that spot, in very truth, there was, and there had long been, the gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain.  Without any effort of his will, or power to restrain himself, he shrieked aloud:  an outcry that went pealing through the night, and was beaten back from one house to another, and reverberated from the hills in the background; as if a company of devils, detecting so much misery and terror in it, had made a plaything of the sound, and were bandying it to and fro.

“It is done!” muttered the minister, covering his face with his hands.  “The whole town will awake and hurry forth, and find me here!”

But it was not so.  The shriek had perhaps sounded with a far greater power, to his own startled ears, than it actually possessed.  The town did not awake; or, if it did, the drowsy slumberers mistook the cry either for something frightful in a dream, or for the noise of witches, whose voices, at that period, were often heard to pass over the settlements or lonely cottages, as they rode with Satan through the air.  The clergyman, therefore, hearing no symptoms of disturbance, uncovered his eyes and looked about him.  At one of the chamber-windows of Governor Bellingham’s mansion, which stood at some distance, on the line of another street, he beheld the appearance of the old magistrate himself with a lamp in his hand a white night-cap on his head, and a long white gown enveloping his figure.  He looked like a ghost evoked unseasonably from the grave.  The cry had evidently startled him.  At another window of the same house, moreover appeared old Mistress Hibbins, the Governor’s sister, also with a lamp, which even thus far off revealed the expression of her sour and discontented face.  She thrust forth her head from the lattice, and looked anxiously upward.  Beyond the shadow of a doubt, this venerable witch-lady had heard Mr. Dimmesdale’s outcry, and interpreted it, with its multitudinous echoes and reverberations, as the clamour of the fiends and night-hags, with whom she was well known to make excursions in the forest.

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The Scarlet Letter from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.