Stretching forth the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon
the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward until, on the threshold
of the prison-door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity
and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free-will.
She bore in her arms a child, a baby of some three months old, who winked
and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of day; because
its existence, heretofore, had brought it acquainted only with the gray twilight
of a dungeon, or other darksome apartment of the prison.
When the young woman--the mother of this child--stood fully revealed before
the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to
her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might
thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress.
In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but
poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning
blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked
around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine
red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes
of gold thread, appeared the letter A.
Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might have seen in
this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the
infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity,
which so many illustrious painters have vied with one another to represent;
something which should remind him, indeed, but only by contrast, of that sacred
image of sinless motherhood, whose infant was to redeem the world. Here, there
was the taint of deepest sin in the most sacred quality of human life, working
such effect, that the world was only the darker for this woman's beauty, and
the more lost for the infant that she had borne.
Lastly, in lieu of these shifting scenes, came back the rude market-place of the Puritan settlement, with all the townspeople assembled and levelling their stern regards at Hester Prynne,--yes, at herself,--who stood on the scaffold of the pillory, an infant on her arm, and the letter A, in scarlet, fantastically embroidered with gold thread, upon her bosom!
Could it be true? She clutched the child so fiercely to her breast, that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes!--these were her realities,--all else had vanished!