The Scarlet Letter HTML version

21. The New England Holiday
Betimes in the morning of the day on which the new Governor was to receive his office
at the hands of the people, Hester Prynne and little Pearl came into the market-place. It
was already thronged with the craftsmen and other plebeian inhabitants of the town, in
considerable numbers, among whom, likewise, were many rough figures, whose attire of
deer-skins marked them as belonging to some of the forest settlements, which surrounded
the little metropolis of the colony.
On this public holiday, as on all other occasions for seven years past, Hester was clad in a
garment of coarse gray cloth. Not more by its hue than by some indescribable peculiarity
in its fashion, it had the effect of making her fade personally out of sight and outline;
while again the scarlet letter brought her back from this twilight indistinctness, and
revealed her under the moral aspect of its own illumination. Her face, so long familiar to
the townspeople, showed the marble quietude which they were accustomed to behold
there. It was like a mask; or, rather like the frozen calmness of a dead woman's features;
owing this dreary resemblance to the fact that Hester was actually dead, in respect to any
claim of sympathy, and had departed out of the world with which she still seemed to
It might be, on this one day, that there was an expression unseen before, nor, indeed,
vivid enough to be detected now; unless some preternaturally gifted observer should have
first read the heart, and have afterwards sought a corresponding development in the
countenance and mien. Such a spiritual sneer might have conceived, that, after sustaining
the gaze of the multitude through several miserable years as a necessity, a penance, and
something which it was a stern religion to endure, she now, for one last time more,
encountered it freely and voluntarily, in order to convert what had so long been agony
into a kind of triumph. "Look your last on the scarlet letter and its wearer!"--the people's
victim and lifelong bond-slave, as they fancied her, might say to them. "Yet a little while,
and she will be beyond your reach! A few hours longer and the deep, mysterious ocean
will quench and hide for ever the symbol which ye have caused to burn on her bosom!"
Nor were it an inconsistency too improbable to be assigned to human nature, should we
suppose a feeling of regret in Hester's mind, at the moment when she was about to win
her freedom from the pain which had been thus deeply incorporated with her being.
Might there not be an irresistible desire to quaff a last, long, breathless draught of the cup
of wormwood and aloes, with which nearly all her years of womanhood had been
perpetually flavoured. The wine of life, henceforth to be presented to her lips, must be
indeed rich, delicious, and exhilarating, in its chased and golden beaker, or else leave an
inevitable and weary languor, after the lees of bitterness wherewith she had been
drugged, as with a cordial of intensest potency.
Pearl was decked out with airy gaiety. It would have been impossible to guess that this
bright and sunny apparition owed its existence to the shape of gloomy gray; or that a
fancy, at once so gorgeous and so delicate as must have been requisite to contrive the
child's apparel, was the same that had achieved a task perhaps more difficult, in imparting