"Hearken unto me, Hester Prynne!" said the voice.
It has already been noticed, that directly over the platform on which Hester
Prynne stood was a kind of balcony, or open gallery, appended to the
meeting-house. It was the place whence proclamations were wont to be made,
amidst an assemblage of the magistracy, with all the ceremonial that attended
such public observances in those days. Here, to witness the scene which we are
describing, sat Governor Bellingham himself, with four sergeants about his
chair, bearing halberds, as a guard of honor. He wore a dark feather in his hat,
a border of embroidery on his cloak, and a black velvet tunic beneath; a
gentleman advanced in years, and with a hard experience written in his wrinkles.
He was not ill fitted to be the head and representative of a community, which
owed its origin and progress, and its present state of development, not to the
impulses of youth, but to the stern and tempered energies of manhood, and the
sombre sagacity of age; accomplishing so much, precisely because it imagined and
hoped so little. The other eminent characters, by whom the chief ruler was
surrounded, were distinguished by a dignity of mien, belonging to a period when
the forms of authority were felt to possess the sacredness of divine
institutions. They were, doubtless, good men, just, and sage. But, out of the
whole human family, it would not have been easy to select the same number of
wise and virtuous persons, who should he less capable of sitting in judgment on
an erring woman's heart, and disentangling its mesh of good and evil, than the
sages of rigid aspect towards whom Hester Prynne now turned her face. She seemed
conscious, indeed, that whatever sympathy she might expect lay in the larger and
warmer heart of the multitude; for, as she lifted her eyes towards the balcony,
the unhappy woman grew pale and trembled.
The voice which had called her attention was that of the reverend and famous
John Wilson, the eldest clergyman of Boston, a great scholar, like most of his
contemporaries in the profession, and withal a man of kind and genial spirit.
This last attribute, however, had been less carefully developed than his
intellectual gifts, and was, in truth, rather a matter of shame than
self-congratulation with him. There he stood, with a border of grizzled locks
beneath his skull-cap; while his gray eyes, accustomed to the shaded light of
his study, were winking, like those of Hester's infant, in the unadulterated
sunshine. He looked like the darkly engraved portraits which we see prefixed to
old volumes of sermons; and had no more right than one of those portraits would
have, to step forth, as he now did, and meddle with a question of human guilt,
passion, and anguish.
"Hester Prynne," said the clergyman, "I have striven with my young brother here,
under whose preaching of the word you have been privileged to sit,"--here Mr.
Wilson laid his hand on the shoulder of a pale young man beside him,--"I have
sought, I say, to persuade this godly youth, that he should deal with you, here
in the face of Heaven, and before these wise and upright rulers, and in hearing
of all the people, as touching the vileness and blackness of your sin. Knowing
your natural temper better than I, he could the better judge what arguments to
use, whether of tenderness or terror, such as might prevail over your hardness
and obstinacy; insomuch that you should no longer hide the name of him who
tempted you to this grievous fall. But he opposes to me, (with a young man's
over-softness, albeit wise beyond his years,) that it were wronging the very
nature of woman to force her to lay open her heart's secrets in such broad
daylight, and in presence of so great a multitude. Truly, as I sought to
convince him, the shame lay in the commission of the sin, and not in the showing
of it forth. What say you to it, once again, brother Dimmesdale? Must it be thou
or I that shall deal with this poor sinner's soul?"
There was a murmur among the dignified and reverend occupants of the balcony;
and Governor Bellingham gave expression to its purport, speaking in an
authoritative voice, although tempered with respect towards the youthful
clergyman whom he addressed.
"Good Master Dimmesdale," said he, "the responsibility of this woman's soul lies
greatly with you. It behooves you, therefore, to exhort her to repentance, and
to confession, as a proof and consequence thereof."
The directness of this appeal drew the eyes of the whole crowd upon the Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale; a young clergyman, who had come from one of the great English
universities, bringing all the learning of the age into our wild forest-land.
His eloquence and religious fervor had already given the earnest of high
eminence in his profession. He was a person of very striking aspect, with a
white, lofty, and impending brow, large, brown, melancholy eyes, and a mouth
which, unless when he forcibly compressed it, was apt to be tremulous,
expressing both nervous sensibility and a vast power of self-restraint.
Notwithstanding his high native gifts and scholar-like attainments, there was an
air about this young minister,--an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened
look,--as of a being who felt himself quite astray and at a loss in the pathway
of human existence, and could only be at ease in some seclusion of his own.
Therefore, so far as his duties would permit, he trode in the shadowy by-paths,
and thus kept himself simple and childlike; coming forth, when occasion was,
with a freshness, and fragrance, and dewy purity of thought, which, as many
people said, affected them like the speech of an angel.
Such was the young man whom the Reverend Mr. Wilson and the Governor had
introduced so openly to the public notice, bidding him speak, in the hearing of
all men, to that mystery of a woman's soul, so sacred even in its pollution. The
trying nature of his position drove the blood from his cheek, and made his lips
"Speak to the woman, my brother," said Mr. Wilson. "It is of moment to her soul,
and therefore, as the worshipful Governor says, momentous to thine own, in whose
charge hers is. Exhort her to confess the truth!"
The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale bent his head, in silent prayer, as it seemed, and
then came forward.
"Hester Prynne," said he, leaning over the balcony, and looking down steadfastly
into her eyes, "thou hearest what this good man says, and seest the
accountability under which I labor. If thou feelest it to be for thy soul's
peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to
salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and
fellow-sufferer! Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him;
for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and
stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than
to hide a guilty heart through life. What can thy silence do for him, except it
tempt him--yea, compel him, as it were--to add hypocrisy to sin? Heaven hath
granted thee an open ignominy, that thereby thou mayest work out an open triumph
over the evil within thee, and the sorrow without. Take heed how thou deniest to
him--who, perchance, hath not the courage to grasp it for himself--the bitter,
but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips!"
The young pastor's voice was tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and broken. The
feeling that it so evidently manifested, rather than the direct purport of the
words, caused it to vibrate within all hearts, and brought the listeners into
one accord of sympathy. Even the poor baby, at Hester's bosom, was affected by
the same influence; for it directed its hitherto vacant gaze towards Mr.
Dimmesdale, and held up its little arms, with a half pleased, half plaintive
murmur. So powerful seemed the minister's appeal, that the people could not
believe but that Hester Prynne would speak out the guilty name; or else that the
guilty one himself, in whatever high or lowly place he stood, would be drawn
forth by an inward and inevitable necessity, and compelled to ascend the
Hester shook her head.