"I would speak a word with you," said she,--"a word that concerns us much."
"Aha! And is it Mistress Hester that has a word for old Roger
Chillingworth?" answered he, raising himself from his stooping posture.
"With all my heart! Why, Mistress, I hear good tidings of you on all hands!
No longer ago than yester-eve, a magistrate, a wise and godly man, was
discoursing of your affairs, Mistress Hester, and whispered me that there
had been question concerning you in the council. It was debated whether or
no, with safety to the commonweal, yonder scarlet letter might be taken off
your bosom. On my life, Hester, I made my entreaty to the worshipful
magistrate that it might be done forthwith!"
"It lies not in the pleasure of the magistrates to take off this badge,"
calmly replied Hester. "Were I worthy to be quit of it, it would fall away
of its own nature, or be transformed into something that should speak a
"Nay, then, wear it, if it suit you better," rejoined he, "A woman must
needs follow her own fancy, touching the adornment of her person. The
letter is gayly embroidered, and shows right bravely on your bosom!"
All this while, Hester had been looking steadily at the old man, and was
shocked, as well as wonder-smitten, to discern what a change had been
wrought upon him within the past seven years. It was not so much that he
had grown older; for though the traces of advancing life were visible, he
bore his age well, and seemed to retain a wiry vigor and alertness. But the
former aspect of an intellectual and studious man, calm and quiet, which
was what she best remembered in him, had altogether vanished, and been
succeeded by an eager, searching, almost fierce, yet carefully guarded
look. It seemed to be his wish and purpose to mask this expression with a
smile; but the latter played him false, and flickered over his visage so
derisively, that the spectator could see his blackness all the better for
it. Ever and anon, too, there came a glare of red light out of his eyes; as
if the old man's soul were on fire, and kept on smouldering duskily within
his breast, until, by some casual puff of passion, it was blown into a
momentary flame. This he repressed as speedily as possible, and strove to
look as if nothing of the kind had happened.
In a word, old Roger Chillingworth was a striking evidence of man's faculty
of transforming himself into a devil, if he will only, for a reasonable
space of time, undertake a devil's office. This unhappy person had effected
such a transformation by devoting himself, for seven years, to the constant
analysis of a heart full of torture, and deriving his enjoyment thence, and
adding fuel to those fiery tortures which he analyzed and gloated over.
The scarlet letter burned on Hester Prynne's bosom. Here was another ruin,
the responsibility of which came partly home to her.
"What see you in my face," asked the physician, "that you look at it so
"Something that would make me weep, if there were any tears bitter enough
for it," answered she. "But let it pass! It is of yonder miserable man that
I would speak."
"And what of him?" cried Roger Chillingworth eagerly, as if he loved the
topic, and were glad of an opportunity to discuss it with the only person
of whom he could make a confidant. "Not to hide the truth, Mistress Hester,
my thoughts happen just now to be busy with the gentleman. So speak freely;
and I will make answer."
"When we last spake together," said Hester, "now seven years ago, it was
your pleasure to extort a promise of secrecy, as touching the former
relation betwixt yourself and me. As the life and good fame of yonder man
were in your hands, there seemed no choice to me, save to be silent, in
accordance with your behest. Yet it was not without heavy misgivings that I
thus bound myself; for, having cast off all duty towards other human
beings, there remained a duty towards him; and something whispered me that
I was betraying it, in pledging myself to keep your counsel. Since that
day, no man is so near to him as you. You tread behind his every footstep.
You are beside him, sleeping and waking. You search his thoughts. You
burrow and rankle in his heart! Your clutch is on his life, and you cause
him to die daily a living death; and still he knows you not. In permitting
this, I have surely acted a false part by the only man to whom the power
was left me to be true!"
"What choice had you?" asked Roger Chillingworth. "My finger, pointed at
this man, would have hurled him from his pulpit into a dungeon,--thence,
peradventure, to the gallows!"
"It had been better so!" said Hester Prynne.