The Scarlet Letter HTML version

20. The Minister In A Maze
As the minister departed, in advance of Hester Prynne and little Pearl, he threw a
backward glance, half expecting that he should discover only some faintly traced features
or outline of the mother and the child, slowly fading into the twilight of the woods. So
great a vicissitude in his life could not at once be received as real. But there was Hester,
clad in her gray robe, still standing beside the tree-trunk, which some blast had
overthrown a long antiquity ago, and which time had ever since been covering with moss,
so that these two fated ones, with earth's heaviest burden on them, might there sit down
together, and find a single hour's rest and solace. And there was Pearl, too, lightly
dancing from the margin of the brook--now that the intrusive third person was gone--and
taking her old place by her mother's side. So the minister had not fallen asleep and
In order to free his mind from this indistinctness and duplicity of impression, which
vexed it with a strange disquietude, he recalled and more thoroughly defined the plans
which Hester and himself had sketched for their departure. It had been determined
between them that the Old World, with its crowds and cities, offered them a more eligible
shelter and concealment than the wilds of New England or all America, with its
alternatives of an Indian wigwam, or the few settlements of Europeans scattered thinly
along the sea-board. Not to speak of the clergyman's health, so inadequate to sustain the
hardships of a forest life, his native gifts, his culture, and his entire development would
secure him a home only in the midst of civilization and refinement; the higher the state
the more delicately adapted to it the man. In futherance of this choice, it so happened that
a ship lay in the harbour; one of those unquestionable cruisers, frequent at that day,
which, without being absolutely outlaws of the deep, yet roamed over its surface with a
remarkable irresponsibility of character. This vessel had recently arrived from the
Spanish Main, and within three days' time would sail for Bristol. Hester Prynne--whose
vocation, as a self-enlisted Sister of Charity, had brought her acquainted with the captain
and crew--could take upon herself to secure the passage of two individuals and a child
with all the secrecy which circumstances rendered more than desirable.
The minister had inquired of Hester, with no little interest, the precise time at which the
vessel might be expected to depart. It would probably be on the fourth day from the
present. "This is most fortunate!" he had then said to himself. Now, why the Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale considered it so very fortunate we hesitate to reveal. Nevertheless--to
hold nothing back from the reader--it was because, on the third day from the present, he
was to preach the Election Sermon; and, as such an occasion formed an honourable epoch
in the life of a New England Clergyman, he could not have chanced upon a more suitable
mode and time of terminating his professional career. "At least, they shall say of me,"
thought this exemplary man, "that I leave no public duty unperformed or ill-performed!"
Sad, indeed, that an introspection so profound and acute as this poor minister's should be
so miserably deceived! We have had, and may still have, worse things to tell of him; but
none, we apprehend, so pitiably weak; no evidence, at once so slight and irrefragable, of
a subtle disease that had long since begun to eat into the real substance of his character.