The Scarlet Letter
12. The Minister's Vigil
Walking in the shadow of a dream, as it were, and perhaps actually under the influence of
a species of somnambulism, Mr. Dimmesdale reached the spot where, now so long since,
Hester Prynne had lived through her first hours of public ignominy. The same platform or
scaffold, black and weather-stained with the storm or sunshine of seven long years, and
foot-worn, too, with the tread of many culprits who had since ascended it, remained
standing beneath the balcony of the meeting-house. The minister went up the steps.
It was an obscure night in early May. An unwearied pall of cloud muffled the whole
expanse of sky from zenith to horizon. If the same multitude which had stood as eye-
witnesses while Hester Prynne sustained her punishment could now have been
summoned forth, they would have discerned no face above the platform nor hardly the
outline of a human shape, in the dark grey of the midnight. But the town was all asleep.
There was no peril of discovery. The minister might stand there, if it so pleased him, until
morning should redden in the east, without other risk than that the dank and chill night air
would creep into his frame, and stiffen his joints with rheumatism, and clog his throat
with catarrh and cough; thereby defrauding the expectant audience of to-morrow's prayer
and sermon. No eye could see him, save 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!"