From Missing Pearl: A True Tale of Hester Prynne
A reminder from your schooling (perhaps).
“The Custom House” is the fictional frame of the novel The Scarlet Letter. The authorial voice is strong–perhaps overstrong, as Mr. Hawthorne became quite carried away, creating a piece that is almost complete on its own, for a story that hardly needs anything to contain or protect it.
No, the tale of lust and the minister and the lovechild and the woman of the Scarlet Letter has endured quite well, and the frame has been tossed aside.
So “The Custom House” is not a very good frame. The more romantic among readers (and I include myself) have even wondered if it is fictional. Hawthorne’s authorial voice is much like his own, just as many a poet’s “speaker” seems to be the confessional poet.
Hawthorne was indeed a surveyor in the Salem Custom House for three years. He did spend real time exploring the attic. How could he not have been inspired by its very real contents?
I have always had a soft spot for “The Custom House,” with its insistence on its own truth, its droll asides and its political commentary–and so I include my own explanatory frame here. If I do so out of respect, or stubbornness, or some deep need to over-explain, I don’t claim to understand myself.
My introduction is only a fraction of Hawthorne’s length, and I skip the political commentary (any commentary on anything being too fraught in these times).
I suppose it is also less droll, but most drollery has gone the way of commentary, as well.
The Tiny House
[And here, ironically–or appropriately–I will beg your pardon, and continue my excerpt for Tandeta with the heart of the story.]
Scaffold: The First
You may remember the structure of The Scarlet Letter.
More likely, you do not, unless you wrote a tedious paper, carefully reworded from Spark/Cliff/Wiki/StudyNotes. It was perhaps five paragraphs (but eight pages) long, and titled “The Structure of the Scarlet Letter.” It surely brought your American Literature teacher a bitter ten minutes closer to death while grading it, and another 10 minutes closer while arguing that it was no better than a B. Nonetheless, you remember the structure of the novel.
More likely, your paper was titled “Symbolism in the Scarlet Letter,” or perhaps “The Letter A,” or “The Scarlet Letter”–and so I will remind you that The Scarlet Letter is structured around three scenes at the Boston scaffold. The first cluster of chapters is generally centered around the adultress Hester’s first appearance on the scaffold, wearing the Scarlet A and holding her baby, Pearl, while she is lectured and ridiculed and harangued by all of Boston (and most of the prominent old men of all of New England).
The backstory is painful, mostly told in flashback as Hester stands on the hot scaffold, holding baby Pearl and nearly fainting. We learn that Hester has borne the child, though her husband has been two years gone, and presumed lost at sea. We learn (though often forget) that Hester is young, perhaps as young as sixteen or seventeen, and probably no older than twenty. A bit of tricky history and math sets the opening of the tale in 1642; we are in Boston, Massachusetts.
In a stunning bit of coincidence (one of Hawthorne’s favorite devices), her husband arrives at the Boston square precisely during Hester’s public shaming. That evening, she finishes her prison term and her husband, Roger Prynne, is kept in a cell while the town figures out his ransom (rather than lost at sea, he has been held captive by Indians). He and Hester come to an agreement. Rather than be known as a cuckold, Roger has called himself Chillingworth in place of Prynne. He will not demand that she reveal the name of her lover (which is obvious to the reader soon enough); in turn, she will not reveal his (Prynne’s) identity to anyone.
Chillingworth’s (Prynne’s) shrewd secret propels the plot until the next scaffold scene.
But that is Hawthorne’s tale. What follows is quite different: it is the tale I have determined to be most (or equally) true, based on that brown paper package of artifacts, and my own insights into the human heart.
Hester stood in the town square, her movement now constricted by the gathering crowd so that she could no longer pass gracefully through its center. She had intended to be seen, around and about, as the grim festivities began, and then make her quiet way to the small room she leased from Mister and Mrs. Aleworth. But she had become entangled in conversation when young Margaret Peabody grabbed her elbow, which held a basket of limp, bitter late-summer greens from the parish garden. Margaret had much to say this morning. And then came the steady arrival of the bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, and more women, some wearing hoods, and others bare-headed. It seemed as if the whole town were present, stirring up and then tamping down the dust of the sheep-grazed turf of the Boston square.
As time came near, the assembled townspeople one by one, and then group by quietly-chatting group, turned to face a squat, irregularly shaped building. The door of this building, the already ancient-seeming jail, was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the New World. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era–sin, of course, being synonymous with crime to the Puritan mind, and sin being as old as Eve’s misfortunate meeting with the serpent.
In contrast, next to it was the taller-built many-purposed courthouse, meeting, and gathering place. It fairly gleamed, as its white-wash had recently been renewed–perhaps for this occasion. It had a steep gable from which a small balcony protruded, overlooking the scaffold and pillory. Various magistrates, dignitaries, and ministers, both local and from days’ rides away, were crowded there, and they were none too subtly jockeying for position. Of course the best space was sought, Hester mused, as the task was grim and promised much drama and opportunity for speeches and harangues. She had found even herself, as she was looking for an escape, being pulled by the crowd–and perhaps, another force–toward the town hall, the jail, and the scaffold. Her eyes strained upwards against the mid-morning sun to the balcony, looking for one minister in particular, but she could not find him.
“I hope they do not force the poor girl into the stockade,” Margaret Peabody said, in a voice straining to be bold. The glares from the older dames nearby were withering, though Goody Close, who had slipped in next to Hester, nodded her head soberly in agreement. “We are all sinners,” Margaret added, somewhat more tentatively, “After all…” she concluded with a whimper.
“Indeed, my dear,” Goody Close responded, placing a gentle hand on Margaret’s shoulder for a moment.
“We are all sinners, yes, but there is sin, and there is the bold sin of the hussy!” said Goody Huff, a particularly strident dame of fifty, her eyes landing lightly on young Margaret, then finding their way through a sideways glance to settle firmly upon Hester. Hester shivered. This shudder must have been visible, as Goody Close slyly reached down and held Hester’s hand reassuringly for a moment before pulling away. Old dame Huff seemed to be able to sense sin, thought Hester, like some she-devil… Or more likely, like many of the old, she did not sleep well, and spent an inordinate amount of time in the early morning hours staring out her small window overlooking the town’s few streets, spying on the comings and goings of sinners and fishermen in the dark.
“Well then! Perhaps it is time? The Governor seems to be signaling for attention,” chimed Goody Close, perhaps a little loudly.
“Time for a stoning!” interjected another one of the old dames, her nose so high in the air that one and all could see the profusion of hairs growing within, as well as a number of them that had found their way out. “Or at least a good branding! There is no need for talk.”
“Aye, the Good Lord knows there has been talk enough,” concluded Goody Close firmly.
Although not as strident as her fellow widows and old maids, those oldest of the first generation to tackle this harsh New World, Goody Close wielded a certain power amongst these women and the townspeople as a whole: her reputation was particularly spotless, her losses particularly grievous–her husband, a boy child, a girl child, two stillborn in addition, as well as the loss of all worldly fortune she had brought with her, consumed in a fire. Further, her strength was undeniable and her charity toward all without doubt. She cast her eye about the gathered gossips, but landed a particularly pointed glance upon Mrs. Huff.
But Mistress Huff would not be cowed so easily. “I do expect good Reverend Dimmesdale will be speaking to the girl. Hester, dear, you have younger eyes. Can you spy him amongst the dignitaries on the balcony?”
Hester had, at that very moment, been searching again for Arthur Dimmesdale, but did not see his tall figure. She shook her head, maintaining a neutral expression with some difficulty. Where was he?
“I wonder,” said Mistress Huff, “if the good Reverend will have much to say on the subject of adultery? I would expect so. For a young man, his homilies are often quite moving and informative on the most, shall we say, mature, of subjects.”
“Hush, now! The Governor speaks!” Goody Close admonished.
And so he spoke. And he spoke. The words “ignominy,” “disrepute,” “Eve,” “Serpent,” “Repent,” and of course “Damnation” were repeated relentlessly. Hester looked toward the stern old dames, so practiced in maintaining their stony faces that they could contain almost anything underneath, whether the hot lava of ancient and suppressed passion or the glacial cold of moral austerity. Even Goody Close was inscrutable, for the moment. Poor Margaret, the innocent dove, shuddered or blanched or blushed at every word.
Hester only blushed at “Eve.”
Hester had known the duties of the marital bed, but the name Eve connotes an understanding of sin and sexuality that she herself had only just discovered. She warmed at a recent memory, of taut ruddy forearms with veins she could trace with her fingers above the tan line at the elbows, where he often rolled his shirtsleeves, then across the pale but well-formed chest all the way to his heart; she thought then of his fingers upon her, and his hands, ministerially gentle, but manly with travel and hard work. She allowed herself to close her eyes for a moment, to picture his dear face dappled with sunlight under the cool trees off the forest path, their hiding place.
Her eyes were closed for little more than a blink, but before they opened the spell was broken. She could not fight the only comparison she had. She shuddered at a distant memory of the marital bed, of a shoulder sloped and crippled from an injury at birth, and the arm, functional, but dangling and clumsy because it held no feeling. And then she saw in cruel intrusive visions the sagging yellow skin–yellow from tobacco, yellow from age and decay, yellow perhaps from a habit of brandy–though in truth, the brandy could have merely pickled him slightly and preserved him, lengthening his years on earth. He had been missing so long, now–approaching two years–but not long enough that she could reasonably be declared a widow. His absence had also been so long that she feared she might find herself in the same predicament as the pitiful soul waiting behind the heavy wooden door of the jail, waiting for the pronouncement of her sentence.
Hester shook her head and briefly held a hand to her fevered cheek. She must not betray too much emotion in the company of the shrewd, sensitive old wives. As a distraction, she took in the crowd to her front right, mostly men. Hester noted that many held the advantage of a beard to hide any emotion, while others had the distinct handicap of being clean-shaven. These men, bearded or no, mostly clenched a jaw or chewed a bottom lip and gazed into the distance with some strong emotion roiling behind their eyes–in a glance, she took in what she thought to be remorse, judgment, betrayal, and lust, though perhaps some of her impressions were influenced by gossip. Hester briefly chided herself. She looked again for Arthur Dimmesdale amongst the dignitaries on the balcony, and caught a shock of black hair against a high forehead, towards the rear.
As the Governor concluded, almost total silence fell. The crowd was anticipating the release (for punishment) of the young female prisoner, and all eyes fell upon the Beedle, dressed in rare finery for the occasion, carrying a tall gleaming staff in one hand and a document in the other. He waited with the crowd for a gesture from the Governor. However, elderly Magistrate Wright came to the fore of the cluster on the balcony. He must have worked his way forward underneath the armpits of the other men of importance, as his figure, hunched and diminutive through age, appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Magistrate Wright was a greatly respected man; stern, but kind, and though as consistent as the sunrise when he took notice of an offense, was rumored, on occasion, for a greater good, to have turned a blind eye (leaving the offense unseen, and thus, logically, not noticed). He was sought by men and women both, on matters of faith and family, but also politics, finances, and crops. The Indians seemed rather to adore him, and he had twice now single-handedly saved Boston from pillage and ruin with, to all outward appearances, a gesture of his hand and a wry smile.
The crowd remained silent throughout his speech, but only out of respect; except for the men surrounding him, not a soul was able to hear his words–only the high, faded shrill of a man too elderly to speak effectively outside of the quiet of office or parlor. He was an especial friend to Goody Close. Although he was slightly older, and a good deal less spry, they took comfort in each other, and shared a good deal of affection of both mind and spirit, it seemed to Hester. They were a first generation of pioneers, and among the oldest individuals anyone in the New World knew. Hester strained to hear anything of sense, but there was little that she was able to discern.
And so, Hester’s mind began to wander… Poor Jenny, she thought. What did the magistrates have in store for her? What cruel punishment had they conjured? Arthur would only say of it, “I have tried my best” and “They have asked my counsel, but…” Though several years Hester’s senior, Dimmesdale was still a young man, particularly for his position, and the elder clergy and politicians were not willing to share every compelling bit of power. Perhaps he was still in a sort of “mentored” phase, Hester thought, not unfairly; she mentioned this, by way of making him feel better, but it made him indignant. Men could be so defensive; Hester surmised that their positions of power made them feel exposed; nonetheless, it was not an attractive trait. But, he was a man, and so he defended himself: had he not studied hard, been promoted on merit, and served well? Did he not know his congregation better than any other man?
(He had known one of his parishioners far too well, Hester thought, with fear and shame. She silently wondered if the harsh old men suspected this of their protege.)
And did he not know this poor girl, as one who had sought his particular counsel? And he feared for her. And the precedent a harsh punishment might set.
Their last conversation on the subject had ended in argumentative silence. Hester was always one to express herself verbally, but Arthur–though just as desperate in some ways to share–was not always a particularly talkative man, at least when the subject was something temporal rather than spiritual, theoretical, or philosophical. And so, as with most conversations of real-world import, Hester was often compelled to tease out his emotions and opinions while engaged in other activities–tending the parsonage garden, whose fruits were placed in baskets along the fence for those in need of sustenance or spice; or, of course, walking along the forest path; or even while dusting the benches of the meeting house on an occasional Monday morning, when they might find a moment to put their heads together for what to others may appear to be an exchange of pleasantries, but was really an exchange of much more in coded language and prolonged glances.
As your narrator, I interject now to note that Arthur was beginning to develop that particularly stubborn male look of Puritan reticence which would in later years translate well to the trapper pioneer crossing the mountains, or the cowboy of the plains, and other such rugged individuals. It was a tightness in the jaw, that together with a softness of the lips gave the impression of trembling without any movement–and the eyes, glassy and dead on the surface, yet holding something charged within. Hester–as with many of her American sisters to follow–found the look quite… shall we say, compelling.
And of course there were the truly private times when Arthur’s reticence caused her to lean into him boldly, ready to reach into the depths and extract that core of emotion. She would search his eyes for the precise moment of vulnerability. “We mustn’t,” he would say. And then they would.
More often than not, he could not deny her… Could not deny her anything: a thought, a word, a kiss, a moment longer in each other’s arms–sometimes so many moments that she would need to gather up shoes and stockings and hide within his inner closet, or scramble downhill to the bank of the stream as he scrambled up to the forest path. And yet somehow, she was not the aggressor. It was a clever trick–but neither of them were fooled.
No. She was complicit. But she was not fooled as to who had first pursued whom.
But now we must return to the matters of the marketplace, as Hester returns from her reverie. The situation became clear to her again as a boy and girl, little more than toddlers–the Matron Huff’s grandchildren, cousins to each other, it so happened–had quietly begun to gather weedy flowers and fronds from the rough, untended plot between the prison and the dusty wheel-tracks, turning them into elaborate bunches. It was a fine season for the innocents, who knew no difference between a weed and a flower; the apple peru bloomed its exotic blue flowers as big as their hands, and dandelions shone more yellow than any sun Hester had seen since her trip across the Atlantic. They supplemented these with white and blue chickories, and surrounded their bouquets with maiden ferns and pigweed, and twined the heart-shaped leaves and vine of bindweed around the bases and strung its blushing pink trumpets up into their bouquets. The boy and girl to any person more modern would have looked like miniature adults, as Puritan children tended to do when dressed in their adult Sunday best. And so the boy, holding his bouquet as if on his way to court, next reached for a wild rose, which happened to grow in the same forsaken little patch. He was immediately repulsed by a thorn.
“There is a metaphor here,” mused Hester, “certainly one with mixed meaning, and not overly tender.” The boy’s mother, Prissy Belmont, then noticed the pair and motioned sternly and desperately for the two urchins–by Puritan standards–to come to her and behave. The boy pouted and blushed and stuck his finger in his mouth, but crossed the rutted path and sidled up against his mother. The girl, on the other hand, stomped a foot and picked a final dandelion before trodding none-too-delicately after her cousin.
Hester, momentarily charmed, had not been the only one observing the muddled morality play. Goody Close, though outwardly bemused and frowning appropriately, was actually, to Hester’s keen eye, near hilarity. A gentleman just in front of Hester had nudged his wife and pointed his sharp chin for her eyes to follow, upon which they discreetly laced their pinkies. Yet another gentleman seemed profoundly sad. As for Grandmother Huff, she scowled and seethed behind her stony visage.
Magistrate Wright at last finished his mysterious remarks, and the crowd, unable to sustain its quiet suspense without some release, let forth a low, appropriately approving mumble. Goody Huff, however, could no longer contain herself: “Since their mothers each almost died bringing them into this world,” she grumbled, eyes burning into Prissy’s back, “one would think they would have some concern that their next world is not filled with everlasting brimstone!” Poor young Margaret, again, blushed at the intimation of Hell, and then turned crimson upon realizing the old woman was speaking of her own grandchildren.
“But Madam!” she began, before being interrupted by the Beadle’s bell. All eyes then snapped forward and the crowd listened to his pronouncement: the offending woman, Mistress Jenny Harding, he explained with pomp, would be sentenced to live outside of the town proper; she would report regularly to her pastor, Arthur Dimmesdale, to receive instruction in the raising of a Godly child, assuming its soul be salvageable; and she must be at the town’s disposal for such work as the magistrates deemed fit to send to her, as reimbursement for the necessities of earthly dwelling they must provide for her, but more importantly, for her child–and to relieve her invalid mother of such weight. With the exception of pastor Dimmesdale, the town was now instructed–upon pain of the pillory–to shun her in all ways, but especially in speech and companionship. She would spend three hours on the scaffold this day, babe in arms, to listen to such descriptions of damnation the wise men of God and Boston here gathered could provide. She would, finally, be compelled to wear upon her bosom the Scarlet Letter A, to signify to strangers her sin, and to remind herself and the community of her punishment.
Should she name her partner in iniquity, some portion of her lifelong sentence might be reconsidered.
This seemed to many of the stone-faced old women to be completely unsatisfactory, and whispers to that effect circulated around Hester in ever-increasing volume as Jenny mounted the steps, sweat upon her brow as she carried the child with her up the unrailed steps. The Beadle, who could quite easily have steadied her with a simple hand upon an elbow, watched as her knees came close to buckling on each step. At last she tripped upon the top step and stumbled. Through great effort, she remained upright but on her knees, the babe miraculously still in her arms. The boldest of the young people, concentrated toward the front, let out a series of “Aye, serves you right” and “Whore” and such jeering noises as had no meaning but as cries of scorn. Jenny breathed heavily, swaying slightly forward and back, as her tears began to flow. Hester glanced sideways to see a tear in Goody Close’s eye, a tear intermingled with sweat on Margaret’s cheek, and a look of sheer deviltry upon Goody Huff’s face. The old crone’s eyes twinkled, and her pursed lips turned up ever-so-slightly at one corner.
A wicked, wicked woman, thought Hester. And one always to be wary of, now and forever, she reminded herself.
Perspiration was now dripping down Jenny’s back, under her arms, and around her waist. She wore no stays, and her waistcoat and petticoats were overly tight, emphasizing the unstructured flesh of new motherhood underneath. She had been voluptuous for a very young woman–really only a girl–when she must have first sinned, but what had previously been the outer extent of pleasing plumpness had metamorphosed into the unpleasant rolls of a matron. The roses of her cheeks, once jolly with good humor, had somehow slid down her face to rest under her chin as jowls, leaving her cheeks gaunt and pitiful brown circles below her eyes.
“Such an ugly girl,” someone behind Hester said aloud.
“Not so ugly as to keep Young John Goode away,” thought Hester, knowing there were at least a handful of younger adults such as herself that could be thinking the same thing. Would Jenny name him? She had three hours to weigh her harsh fate against her soft heart.
Jenny had the more immediate problem of being frozen in fear, kneeling at the top step. It seemed like in any next moment–the crowd breathless with anticipation–she would tip either forward or back, depending upon whichever way her body might shift as she lost consciousness. But she rallied. She raised her eyes to Heaven, perhaps in prayer, and then boldly looked down and kissed her babe upon the forehead. She gathered one leg beneath her and planted a slippered foot, and slowly rose. Putting one determined foot in front of the other, she made her way to the front edge of the scaffold. Tears streamed down her face, and blood trickled down her shins into her shoes from her scraped and splintered knees, but she was standing. The crowd continued to variously stare and mock.
“If I were true to my God and myself, I would join her there,” Hester thought with a sudden and honest self-recrimination that surprised her. The need to vomit worked its way up her throat, so that she was barely able to contain the bile. “Never again will I place myself in such jeopardy,” she thought. “Never.” Her eyes–heretofore fixed upon the poor young woman–drifted of their own accord up to the balcony, to find Reverend Dimmesdale, with his dark hair and high forehead, and his thin but athletic build mostly hidden in an overly large black suit coat. “And they would kill Arthur,” she realized, with a shock. “No, never again.”
She felt suddenly exposed, as though it were she on the scaffold. It was as if her heart had been flung into the wheel-trodden path for all to spurn and trample on. She felt scalding eyes upon her, as if she were the most conspicuous object in the square. She felt as if she had been branded and paraded through the marketplace, as if her soul had been opened for all to see and the sun overhead to wilt.
Because it was her nature, she did not shrink and cower, or go weak at the knees, at the grim fancy; rather, she stood more tall, more straight, and more proud. She surveyed the crowd instinctively, looking out among the crowd for those who would accuse her, standing firm against any judgment.
And so it came that Hester beheld a man she’d had no expectation of ever seeing again. He was a man well stricken in years, with a pale, thin, scholar-like face; his eyes were dim and blurred by the lamplight under which he had pored over many ponderous books. Hester’s most private, womanly memories could not fail to recall the man’s bodily deformation, with the left shoulder higher than the right, the right arm’s slack muscle, and the hand’s graceless, dead touch.
The man stood at the edge of the square, gravely chatting with a townsman Hester knew only by sight. He was dressed in garb both civilized and savage, and he was accompanied by an Indian dressed in his own native clothing. The Indian’s bearing suggested it was he who was the leader of the two. It was an uncommon, but recognizable circumstance; perhaps there was to be a hostage exchange. It was also possible that a (literally) lost “saint” was returning from a missionary expedition that had brought him too far afield, and the Indian had guided him back and was awaiting his fee. Whatever the circumstance, it would be the talk of the town–on the morrow.
Even from across the square she could sense the strange, penetrating power the man had to read beneath the surface and straight into the human soul. She felt, more than saw, that he was scanning the crowd for her.
Hester’s mind plunged into an unwelcome reverie, each memory landing atop the next faster and faster until she felt the physical weight of them on her shoulders, on her chest, in her gut. She remembered first the intricate and narrow thoroughfares, the tall gray houses, the huge cathedrals, and the ancient public buildings of Amsterdam, where he had taken her after the courthouse ceremony, and the sobbing goodbyes with her still-schoolgirl friends. She remembered all too well the stricken look of her elderly father, who struggled to hold back tears of regret on what should have been a happy day, regret that he could do no better for his only child. She remembered this man’s moist, limp-lipped kiss goodbye which missed her lips, as she prepared for her voyage across the Atlantic alone. She remembered her guilty relief at hearing he had been lost at sea.
These shifting scenes found their way to the present again, to the rude market-place of Puritan Boston, the towns-people assembled and leveling their stern regards at poor Jenny Harding on the scaffold of the pillory with the infant on her arm and the letter A, in scarlet, embroidered immaturely and inexpertly upon her bosom, as the old men had cruelly required her to do.
Hester could no longer hear the crowd, whether it had become hushed of its own accord or whether her mind had gone numb and silent within as she stared at the man, her seemingly resurrected husband, Roger Prynne.
She looked quickly away, first turning her face toward the pathetic figure of Jenny Harding on the scaffold, and then down and away, looking for a chance to escape Roger’s preternatural ability to find what he sought. Her heart pounded in her chest. Could he hear it?
“I do not feel well,” she whispered to Goody Close. “I must find some shade.”
“Of course, my dear. Shall I come with you?”
“No, no. Please. But will you perhaps check on me later? Indeed, I think I shall find my bed.”
“Let me come,” whispered young Margaret. “You look so poorly. Perhaps…”
But one look from Hester let Margaret know she was unwelcome, and the girl blanched at Hester’s rebuff.
“Now, now, dear Margaret,” Hester whispered. “It is just the unexpected heat, but I must lie down. And it is nice,” Hester whispered again, with a meaningful glance toward Goody Huff and the gossips, “that you remain for the duration.”
And with this, she disappeared in a slow, purposeful wandering, hunching her shoulders and lowering her head in an attempt to keep her tall frame, striking raven-colored hair, and (she knew, without shame) attractive face below the other heads and faces of the crowd as she made her way to her room.
Since the presumed loss of her husband, and subsequent lack of funds, she had leased a small apartment just off the square–one small, windowless room shaped in an awkward L–from the Aleworths. They were uncommonly good people, who kept to themselves and allowed her to keep to herself, and occasionally offered to barter for rent or allowed her to delay payment somewhat, as Hester’s sale of artful embroidered goods was less than consistent. From time to time, firewood or lamp oil would be replaced mysteriously within the room; and Mrs. Aleworth had now twice found that in the darkest days of winter she had too many eggs laid in straw, and in the grayest days before spring she had found an extra jar of fruit preserves.
With sweat-stung eyes and disobedient knees, Hester did find her room, entered, and lay down without removing so much as her bonnet and stockings. She was unwell in heart and mind, and her body seemed determined to follow. Despite her swirling panic, she eventually fell into a fitful sleep on the simple cot. The same unwelcome and increasingly grim procession of memories of a past life filled her sleep, with the guilt and memories (and thus further guilt) of her time with Arthur intruding rudely upon those. Her sleep was unnatural, as if she were fevered or deranged; and though asleep and dreaming, she was yet conscious she was dreaming–and also cognizant of the very worldly plight she now found herself in.
Though she gained a groggy, hot consciousness at points during the day, she only fully awoke in the early evening to Goody Close knocking on her door urgently, and calling her name.
“She left the square this morning, ill,” Hester heard Goody Close say outside the thin door. “I have thrice now tried to rouse her.”
“Oh, dear,” Mary Aleworth answered.
“I can’t conceive what might be the matter, that she does not answer. Or, good heavens, can not. Or perhaps she is not here–but then, where?”
“I must find my husband for the key. I have never known this door to be locked! I am quite afraid.”
“Hester, Hester, please!”
Sweating and flushed and still fully dressed, Hester realized she had little choice but to open the door. Perhaps Goody Close, who somehow knew and understood far more than what Hester had confided in her, would have some counsel. Even so, Hester’s shock and shame made her sluggish. At last, she managed the scant four feet and fumbled with the locked doorknob.
“You are ill!”
“In heart and mind!”
“Let’s get you properly to bed,” Goody Close said, leading Hester to the cot. “Do take off your bonnet. My goodness.” Goody Close removed her woolen waistcoat and turned her around, then loosened her tight stays and untied her petticoats. “We must get you a canvas waistcoat in the spring, my dear; it need not be expensive. You simply can’t spend an entire year in wool… Your figure is delightful without such tight stays and busk. And reeds! My dear, it is vanity, a sin you have paid for today, I warrant… And yet more wool,” she tsked, folding petticoats and skirt, and prompting Hester to lie down so she could untie the ribbon garters holding up Hester’s woolen stockings. At the pretty garters, Hester’s one truly indulgent item, Goody Close paused.
“I don’t doubt you have a heavy soul today, witnessing poor Jenny and her fate.”
“You know I can not deny this to you.”
“Nor do I ask you to.” Goody Close pushed damp hair off Hester’s forehead and laid a hand upon her hot, flushed cheek. “You have made yourself ill.”
“My day has been more difficult than you know,” Hester ventured, hoping to tell her of her resurrected husband.
“Do not ask me for more pity than I have already expressed,” Goody Close said, though not unkindly. “You must realize your earthly discomfort this day cannot compare to that poor girl’s. The cruelty. You do not know, but she could not descend the steps of the scaffold, and no one would help her until the Governor ordered the Beadle to take the child from her arms. Still, she missed the final step and fell straight forward, and at the least split her lip. I fear she lost her teeth.”
As Goody Close finished, Mr. and Mrs. Aleworth came into the small room, and Hester felt her head swim.
“She is ill,” said Goody Close. “Someone must fetch the doctor.”
“I believe he is at the prison with the girl and her babe,” said Mr. Aleworth. “I will bring him if I can.”
“My dear Mrs. Aleworth, would you be so kind as to find some cool water, and a glass, and a cloth?”
Mr. and Mrs. Aleworth bustled out of the room on their errands.
“You don’t understand, you don’t understand!” Hester said, trying to sit up.
“Lie down, lie down. What don’t I understand? I understand you are sick in your soul, and your body has followed suit.”
“Yes, but there’s more. There was a man at the edge of the square, a man with an Indian. Did you see him?”
“Yes, an older man, but short of elderly. The gossip is that he has been held by a tribe far south of here, and they bring him for ransom. What, do you know him?”
“He is Roger Prynne. He is my husband.”
With this, Goody Close pulled back from Hester and found a chair, and sat next to her.
“You knew a day like this might yet come.”
“I lived in dread.”
“You must face it. You must get your strength, and face it straight on.”
Hester sobbed once, but gathered herself. Goody Close took her hand.
“The sooner, the better. You have said yourself that he loved you.”
“I didn’t understand love! I had never felt it! Now, I don’t know whether he loved me, or something else. I only know what he said. And I told you I did not love him.”
“You accepted him as your husband. There isn’t more to say on the matter, unless he is cruel.”
Hester did not answer. Roger had never exactly been cruel to her. Indeed, he had always been solicitous and gentle. Then again. She had now experienced what Roger said was his love, and what she had now felt of love. And she was now old enough to understand what their differences in age and experience meant in terms of their choices and behaviors. When she agreed to marry him, she had believed her thought process to be worldly and practical; now she understood she had been naive. Hester wondered if she could articulate to Goody Close the nature of Roger’s proposal, his persistence–his insistence. He had asked her father for her hand before they had even been introduced; then, realizing her father cherished her feelings and did not consider her a burden, he insinuated himself into their lives; he plied each with special gifts and kindnesses as he learned more about their personalities and their impoverished situation; his language and demeanor changed toward each as he grew to understand what father desired for his daughter, and what she would endure to please and comfort her father. At last, both father and daughter had relented, believing it was somehow their own decisions and not Roger’s. Did not his method of proposal constitute cruelty? Or at the very least, reveal a propensity?
“Child, if he is cruel, now is the time to reveal your circumstances and beg for your release. Reverend Wright is a man of great compassion and experience; he would understand your plight.”
Hester was still finishing her thoughts in her own mind. It was a few moments before she spoke, and the words did not convey her memory and analysis of those days to her satisfaction.
“We should never have married. He was wrong to ask, wrong to persist. He took advantage of our poverty. He took advantage of my father’s weaknesses, and my own inexperience.”
Goody Close sighed. She took Hester’s hand and held it firmly for a moment.
“The very nature of Man–to be fair, some type of man, or some part of man–does not in itself constitute cruelty.” She paused for a moment, “Or perhaps, if it is cruel, it is a cruelty women are doomed to bear. Someday…” Again she paused. These ideas and feelings had simmered (indeed, at times roiled) beneath the surface of articulation throughout her adult life, but she had had no opportunity to articulate them. She knew she was not alone in her thoughts. She had served, at various points, as the community midwife, and was thus privy to the most harrowing details of Woman’s plight. And for her own part, she was not the only woman who had felt huge relief in widowhood (though she had had a husband she had come to love, in a way). Now dear, troubled Hester had entered the sisterhood, from an unfortunate angle, and Goody Close’s heart was close to breaking. “Someday, this all may change, but not today. For now, you must tell me–has he beaten you?”
Hester shook her head slowly.
“Has he… forced himself with violence?”
Again, Hester shook her head.
“These are his rights, but they are frowned upon. If you are ever to plead your case for independence, it is now. The town knows you. You have friends. ” She hesitated to say the next, but it was the truth. “You may have enemies. You have kept your secret well, but you are not above suspicion.”
Hester found that she could not lie. She was an unrepentant, mortal sinner, and by even her most generous calculations bound for hell–but she could not tell the lies that would free her from Roger Prynne for a short while on this Earth.
“I do not think he is capable of such things,” Hester said, truthfully.
She could say no more. The violence in the man was too subtle, too difficult. Goody Close understood, perhaps, but what was the use in this world of old men. And young men, too.
She felt fevered again, and too confused to fight whatever heavenly, earthly–or indeed, infernal–fates were at work upon her.
Goody Close had known this all by instinct, and Hester’s words and demeanor were confirmation. The older woman’s sadness could have brought her to tears, had she been alone, but tears were an unhelpful indulgence. Instead, she reached to hold Hester’s fevered cheek in her hand. Hester closed her eyes for a few moments.
“My dear, I do not mean to scold, but there are women who would consider you quite lucky.”
“They would be wrong.”
“You must not be bitter. And, perhaps, the man’s recent experiences have changed him. He may yet make a good husband.”
At this Hester wailed. She turned over on the small cot, and screamed into the thin pillow, and pounded her fists like a child.
Now, Goody Close had had quite enough, despite her deep sympathy. Just as she was about to tell Hester so, the Aleworths and Dr. Smith rushed into the tiny room. The doctor looked to Goody Close for some explanation.
“I believe it is some kind of fever fit,” she said. “She grew overwarm today, and overcrowded.”
“When it passes, we should bleed her.”
Again, Hester screamed into her pillow.
“Oh, dear, she is possessed!” cried Mrs. Aleworth, who had brought the fire to life and was boiling water, because in her experience, a doctor inevitably asked for boiling water.
Mr. Aleworth, however, saw not possession, but the terrible wrath of a young woman denied something she wished for dearly, or hoped to avoid dearly, or was confused about or contrary about. He had had four spirited daughters, each one determined to have what she wished–and each one had spared no energy in raging against a world which said she could not. Young Mrs. Prynne, despite her experience and rather grand demeanor, was not far removed from the worst of those years. He agreed with the doctor: a good bloodletting would take the edge off, if only to physically weaken the body until the mind could find its reason again. He kept his thoughts to himself.
“She is fevered,” said Goody Close, firmly but politely, “and I think that we should perhaps empty the room and damp the fire. Dr. Smith? What do you think?
“I agree, for now. At least until I can examine her. Goody Close, would you have a word with me outside the door? Mrs. Aleworth,” who was dampening the fire already, sheepish and submissive for having acted upon an incorrect guess, “I will need water, you were quite right, but perhaps you can bring some to a simmer and keep it at the boiling until I call for it?”
While the medicine of the day was close to useless, a good doctor then and now has some insight into human nature, and Dr. Smith was one of the more observant and insightful of his day.
At last Hester, whose wails had turned to sobs and then to muffled weeping and snuffling, was alone again for a moment. She found a rag and some of the water that hadn’t been placed on the stove; she wiped her face and the back of her neck, and blew her nose, and once she was done gasping she tried to fill her lungs and hold the air. She had thought at one point that she would drown. Like most in the midst of drowning, she found she preferred to live.
Despite her efforts, the path forward was a mystery, and again she felt despair creeping up on her. Just then, a gentle knock came, followed by the doctor. Hester remained seated on the edge of the bed
“I see you are feeling better.”
“Yes. I was overheated this morning, and became overexcited.”
“Any soft heart feels distress this day, I imagine. The elders are kind in their punishment, though, compared to some suggestions I have heard.”
“Aye,” Hester said, feeling at least tentatively that the doctor would be harmless. “I understand.” She was intent on avoiding a bloodletting, however. “I was overexcited and feverish, but the heat seems to have left me, now. I have always been unbalanced in my humors,” Hester said, not believing the medicine, but understanding the theory. “Time has always been a sufficient cure. I feel much relieved at present.”
“Still, I would like you to lie back and allow me to examine you.”
She did lie back, and allowed him to feel at her wrist for the circulation of her blood, and tried to keep her breathing even and slow, in hopes her racing circulation might follow suit, though she understood the two systems were unrelated. He felt her forehead, and cheeks. He inquired delicately about her urine, and she answered as vaguely as she could. He spent an inordinate amount of time feeling about her torso–she understood this to mean he was looking for melancholia and other splenetic conditions, but he seemed ultimately to dismiss this direction.
“You will be fine with cool rest. There is no need for bloodletting as yet. But Mrs. Prynne…” (Hester blanched at the name) “Goody Close has suggested, and I am in agreement, that your physical condition has been precipitated by matters of the soul.”
Dr. Smith waited for some reaction. Hester hoped she could respond properly–and with no revelation.
“I have been contemplating matters of the spirit overly much, perhaps,” she finally said. “I should perhaps spend more time with scripture, and less with such matters that confound the the soul.”
“This is a wise response,” said the doctor, nodding gravely. “I would like to suggest that you meet with a spiritual counselor. Perhaps the body will follow the spirit, if the spirit might be relieved.”
Hester’s heart leaped. Would the good doctor actually prescribe a meeting with Arthur? And if so, was this a gift from Heaven, or a trick of the Devil himself? It was all she could do to maintain a regular appearance, even as her heart raced. She hoped the doctor would not see her flush, even as she felt the hot blood run to her cheeks.
“Goody Close has suggested that the Reverend Wright would have strong counsel, but I myself believe you would benefit from the recommendations of a person closer to you in age and experience. The Reverend Dimmesdale is not much older than you, really, and he too is an immigrant who had to find his way alone in this New World. I believe he would visit you in your chamber, if I may request it of him.”
Hester paused. Was this a trick?
“He is your pastor, is he not? You have no objection? You may say so in confidence, if you do.”
The man was sincere, Hester decided. If it were a trick, it was of the Devil himself.
She could not resist, and nodded, and took a deep breath, and lay back.
“There, there. I will speak with him the first I can.”
At that moment, there was a knock on the door, and a strange man’s voice requested the doctor. The doctor left, for some time; she could hear the voices first in the hall and then on the street, the walls being quite thin and cracked, and then they faded. Goody Close came in with some beef in aspic, and forced Hester to at least taste the salty goo before rejecting it outright. It slid down her throat, and she gagged in disgust.
“Hester, you must prepare yourself. You must find your usual strength. Your husband’s ransom has been paid, and his presence is known throughout Boston–or will be shortly. You must meet him tonight.”
“But I was going to see Arthur tomorrow! I wanted to speak with him, see him, once more before…”
“That is the most foolish thing I have heard yet today,” Goody Close said.
“But the doctor…”
“No. You shall do no such thing. You will find yourself and Arthur both stoned in a pit!”
“But who knows? And what do they know? They can’t know a thing!”
“Pay attention to me! I have been listening to the old wives gossip and bicker for the better part of the last hour, and they have half a mind to hang you for your suspicious behavior today. And if Goody Huff does not know of your relationship with the Reverend, I’d be very surprised. I think it is a matter of sheer jealousy that she keeps the secret–she wants to be the one with all the candy, so to speak.”
Slow tears had begun to fall down Hester’s cheeks. She knew Goody Close was right. For herself, she did not care. It was Arthur who was in danger.
“Listen. You will meet with your husband tonight. You will spend as much time with him as he wishes. There is a bed for him at the Governor’s mansion, where he then will stay until lodgings for the two of you are secured. This is what the good doctor will be in tell you shortly. He is a gentle man, Dr. Smith, but he is as strict as the next. You must listen to me: You will be happy to see your husband, if you would like Arthur to have any further Earthly future. I know that at the moment you care little for yourself. Do this for Arthur.”
Hester closed her eyes, but the tears still came, and came, and came. Goody Close finally sat down on the one chair, and patted Hester’s shoulder a few times. It was enough to stanch the flood, which allowed Hester to think.
Her behavior had been suspicious. Goody Huff was a witch, or, as dangerous, an observant sneak and a malicious gossip. She and Arthur were both in mortal danger. Further, Hester had decided she was likely hellbound–and so, she might as well extend her time on Earth for as long as Arthur was alive. If she could just once more… Well, the pain of brimstone would be the same if she were to sin again. Even if she never saw him again, if they were both alive they shared some sympathy of spirit that was consolation for an otherwise empty existence.
And then there was Roger. She would have to face Roger. While she doubted Goody Close’s optimism that he would make any kind of husband to her, perhaps they could manage… something. It would be a trial. Perhaps a redemptive trial…
But no. To think she were a candidate for redemption was insupportable.
Hester’s thoughts were spinning again, and her breath came fast and hard like she was sobbing, but she was not. Even lying down she felt faint.
“Enough. Calm yourself. You must be a woman, now. There is much at stake,” Goody Close said. “You have made womanly decisions before; you must make the womanly decision now.”
Hester nodded, and motioned for the rag, to wipe her face again. Goody Close rinsed it in the cool water, and laid it on her forehead. For a long while, all was quiet in the little room, and Hester drank in the silence and tried to imagine that it was filling her. She must begin again, from this empty silence, if she were to move forward.
A quiet knock came, and Dr. Smith entered. Goody Close rose as if to leave, but the doctor motioned for her to stay.
“Mrs. Prynne,” he said, and sat by Hester’s side. He felt her wrist, and her cheek, leaving the cool cloth in its place. “You are much improved.”
Hester nodded, her voice caught in her chest.
“I believe you are ready for some news that may give you further relief.”
Hester nodded again.
“It is surprising news, but I believe you will find it is good news. Very good news, indeed.” The doctor seemed barely able to contain his own good feelings. Hester was reassured, now, that at least he had no suspicions of her. He held her hand.
“It has been long believed that your good husband was lost.”
Hester tried to keep an appropriate expression, though hopeful was beyond her abilities.
“But he is alive. He has had an ordeal, but he is alive.”
“Oh!” Hester managed. “But how?”
“His ship landed far south, in unsettled territory. He was taken by heathens.”
“But they were friendly, in their way. In time, he was traded from one tribe to another, and at last…” The doctor paused, to let the facts settle in her mind.
When Hester thought the pause had lasted long enough, she ventured to say, “And?”
“Well, he is here, in Boston. He arrived this morning, and the Governor arranged ransom this afternoon, after the proceedings.”
The doctor still held her hand. Hester struggled to find words. At last, she decided that she should sit up. It might help her to feel stronger to be upright, she thought, and she was correct.
“Does he wish to see me?”
“Would you send Goody Close to help me become presentable?”
“I suspect it would not matter in the least, Mrs. Prynne. He is quite anxious.”
“I understand,” she said. “But still, I… I would like to present myself in a way… I want for him to…” Her incoherence worked to her advantage.
“Of course, my dear Mrs. Prynne, of course,” and he smiled, and took both her hands and shook them in congratulations.
And so it was that Goody Close returned, and helped her to bathe the worst of the sweats of the day, and help her into her stays and waist coat and petticoats, and smooth her hair and calm her and coach her, and remind her that she must keep her mind and spirit under control.
“I do not know where he waits, but I will find him, and tell him you are ready,” Goody Close said.
And Hester was alone. Again, she attempted to fill her soul with the silence of the room.
And then, there was a knock. The doctor entered, and behind him appeared the figure of Roger Prynne, somewhat smaller than she remembered, but as misshapen, and far more than two years advanced. His demeanor was calm, his outward appearance humble and quiet. But his eyes, a sad gray and somewhat bleary and moist, and absent of their glasses, were nonetheless powerful when at last they adjusted to the dim light. He took in the small, impoverished room, and her physical demeanor, and the stricken look on her face (which the doctor mistook for nostalgic surprise).
Roger’s look bore into her soul. Hester felt then that she had been exposed, even if he knew nothing of her secret. She stood. The good doctor withdrew. And they were alone.
“I am glad to see you escaped the worst tribulations of the Atlantic. It is lucky you came before me.”
“And I am glad you survived your ordeals.” Hester found some truth in these words, though she had intended them only as formality. “Please, sit where you would like.” He chose the chair, and sat slowly, in the manner of the elderly, though he was shy of those years. She chose the edge of the cot, a short distance from him. She sat on the edge, as a bird on a wire, ready to fly at a moment’s notice.
“You have been unwell?”
“Just this day.”
“My old studies in alchemy,” he said, “and my sojourn, among a people well versed in the kindly properties of herbs and such, have made a better physician of me than many that claim the medical degree.” With calm and intent scrutiny, he boldly reached forward to feel her pulse, and again looked into her eyes—a gaze that made her heart shrink and shudder, because so familiar, and yet so strange and cold, and as before, so penetrating. Finally, seemingly satisfied with his investigation, he took out a small leather case and removed a tiny envelope, as doctors often kept powders in.
“If I may,” he said, and proceeded to mingle a greenish powder into her cup of water.
“I have learned many new secrets in the wilderness, but this is not one of them. It is simple peppermint powder, and may further help cool your hot blood.” He presented the cup to Hester, who received it with a slow, earnest look into his face. She felt, not precisely fear, but doubt and questioning as to what his purpose might be. She decided he had no reason to suspect he had been made a cuckold, and the gesture could only be one of kindness.
Hester took a sip, and another. She was thirsty and its cooling properties welcome, and she finished the glass.
“Hester,” said Roger. “Are you happy? Do you have any joy here?”
Hester looked down at her lap.
“I have friends. With the kindness of others, I have been able to support myself.”
“You are distraught that I have returned.”
Roger sighed, and watched an unbidden tear drop.
“The reason is not far to seek. It is my folly. I am a man of thought—the book-worm of great libraries—a man already in decay, having given my best years to feed the hungry dream of knowledge. I should not have tried to consort with youth and beauty like your own! Misshapen from my birth-hour, how could I delude myself with the idea that intellectual gifts might veil physical deformity in a young girl’s dreams?”
“But indeed, I allowed it,” she said softly but firmly. “That too, was foolish. I understand that now.” She did not attempt to stop her slow, large tears. They seemed to nourish what strength to speak she could muster.
“Men call me wise,” he continued, with the gravity of a sage. “If sages were ever wise on their own behalf, I might have foreseen your unhappiness at my arrival and perhaps found a home somewhere else. But I had to know for certain.” He closed his leather case of medicines, and tucked it back into his jacket. He took his right elbow into his left hand, and moved the arm onto his lap. It seemed to Hester the deformity was more crippling now than it had been when she had left him.
“Indeed,” Roger continued. “I should count myself lucky that it was not yourself upon the scaffold today, having found a lover and fallen into sin during my absence.”
Hester was rendered speechless for a moment at the accusation. She wondered again what he knew, whether through some intuition planted by the Devil, or his own keen observation and conjecture, or some gossip’s malicious suggestion.
“That is a terrible thing to say,” she said, now alert and wary. “Please tell me you jest, however unfunny it is.”
“I am sorry. I, too, am unhappy today.”
This, Hester did not doubt.
“You are gravely disappointed at my lack of feeling,” she said, with some sympathy.
Roger nodded soberly. “My disappointment is not a reason to cast such aspersion. But yes, my disappointment is deep. I had hoped…”
“Thou knowest,” said Hester—for, weary as she was, she could not endure the idea that he might rewrite the story of their failed marriage. It was not her fault; the marriage had failed at its inception. “Thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any.”
“True!” he replied. “It was my folly! I have said it. But, up to that epoch of my life, I had lived in vain. The world had been so cheerless! My heart was a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and chill, and without a household fire. I longed to kindle one!” He paused for a moment, and ran his hand through his thin, overlong hair. “It seemed not so wild a dream—old as I was, and somber as I was, and misshapen as I was—that the simple bliss, which is scattered far and wide, for all mankind to gather up, might yet be mine. And so…” Again, he paused, as if deciding to continue. “And so, Hester, I drew thee into my heart, into its innermost chamber, and sought to warm thee by the warmth which thy presence made there!”
“I have greatly wronged thee,” murmured Hester, and reached to briefly touch his arm despite herself. Then realizing that she sounded as if she were confessing, she withdrew her hand and clarified her statement. “I have wronged thee with my churlishness at your arrival, when a wife should be glad.”
Both were quiet for a long time. She lifted her head, and again he looked deep into her tear-filled eyes. She felt flushed and weak again, and in her weakness it was all she could do to keep from sobbing outright. Had his moving speech been a trick, on his part, to compel her to confess? And was it only mint that had been mixed into her drinking water?
“We have wronged each other,” answered Roger. “Mine was the first wrong, when I took advantage of your inexperience–and compelled your youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay.”
Again, Hester felt an uncomfortable pressure–a pressure to confess, to lay out her heart, and let the burden of what to do next rest upon him. But she did not. He was right in this: his was the first wrong, and the worst, she reminded herself. She would not give him the satisfaction of any confession, particularly one which could cost her her own life, and worse. She held strong.
On another point, she found herself to be weak. She did hate his first sin, of compelling her into marriage–but she could only partly hate the man, whatever he suspected, for what he suspected was all too true.
“You are weary,” he said, and took her hand. She did not look up; she would not allow his penetrating gaze to meet her eyes again. In fact, she was barely able to hold up her head. The room dimmed, and blurred, and she felt him lay her down on the cot and pull the light cover up to her chin.
“Is there anything you would like to tell me?” she thought she heard him say. “Is it only my sudden appearance that has turned you from me so completely?”
“Yes… No…” she heard herself say. “I am too tired to speak,” she said, tasting the minty water at the back of her throat. “I will speak no more.”
“Well then,” said Roger. “We can talk tomorrow of what tomorrow will be.”
She heard the soft click of the door, and slow steps down the short hallway, and she was asleep.
Hester awoke the next morning with an unnatural ache in her head, and such a heaviness of heart and fear for the future that she scarcely knew what to do. After several minutes of stillness, she let her body lead her mind, and so she bathed and rinsed her teeth and dressed, and sought the sunshine that her windowless apartment denied all entry to. But she thought of the words of Goody Close–she must either seek, and prove, some depravity in her recently-returned husband, or she must be his wife. She had not forgotten the disturbing manner in which she had fallen to sleep. But however foul her mood had been upon awakening–and which to large extent remained throughout the morning–once she had stepped into the cleansing light and breathed the sweet air, the suspicion that her drink had been contaminated was simply too far-fetched for even her imagination.
Hester had half expected that Roger would be anxiously awaiting her, but he was not to be seen in the square or its immediate environs. More than once, she believed she was being watched, but she could find no evidence. She instead found Goody Close, who invited Hester onto her small swept-dirt patio for a mug of morning cider and buttered toast.
After pleasantries and some quiet, Hester at last sighed and told of the previous night’s encounter, leaving her deepest suspicion unmentioned.
“My heart is heavy with guilt. I continually imagined that he had divined my secret, and would have me confess,” was the most she said on the subject.
As they sat and drank their mild morning draughts, and some considerable extra as the sun rose toward noon, Hester speculated as to her future. Sometimes she did so out loud, Goody Close nodding, or adding a word of affirmation or caution–but more substantially, within her own mind. Her friend sat quietly with the sage but wry look Hester had come to appreciate, although she in no way took it as a look of complete agreement.
Hester said at last that she could not abandon Boston. Where would she go, without encountering either poverty or iniquity or capture by heathens? Although life amongst the heathens might match her most wayward moods (and she did thoroughly consider), it was entirely impractical.
No, she must cultivate some daily custom, some series of habits she could endure; and she must either sustain and carry that life forward by the ordinary resources of her nature–which she knew to be strong–or sink beneath it. She could no longer look to the future for happiness; instead, she must live each day knowing that the next day would bring a similar trial, and so would the next day, and so would the next; each day would have its sadness, its guilt, and its responsibilities, and the days would become years, which would become a life. She did not expect that the Life After held much for her but punishment; but perhaps, until then, she could carve out some corner of existence in which she could do good. Perhaps she could work with the young people, or serve as nurse to Roger’s doctoring, or sell her embroidery to support a missionary’s work, or give to the poorest or most desperate among them. Perhaps she could quietly help support poor Jenny and her child; this seemed most appropriate, if she could find the way. Boston was where she had made the fatal choice, and it was in Boston that she would atone, to the best of her ability. Though the bonds were transparent and light, she was still chained to this place. She was part prisoner to Roger, but more so prisoner to her sin. This is what she told herself.
And so, beginning with this self-conversation and with Goody Close as witness, Hester put herself to work developing a life she could endure, by her husband’s side. She became a some-time midwife, taking on Goody Close’s responsibilities, and an occasional nurse, and Roger’s record-keeper and secretary. She worked with Reverend Wright to develop a children’s program for the half hour after Sunday service, and assisted whatever schoolteachers were in need of aid with the burgeoning Boston population–to her great pleasure, for some time she assisted dear Margaret, whose shyness among adults turned into delight when she was among the youngest, most innocent of the children.
She and Roger attended weekly services, of course, and more, and became highly respected members of the Reverend Dimmesdale’s church. Each Sunday she closed her eyes with great concentration during the homily, and listened word by word, struggling to focus on the Good Reverend’s meaning rather than the sound of the sweet, compelling voice that had once whispered in her ear, and which perhaps, she thought in weaker moments, might intimate that he remembered her and, perhaps, even spoke to her in a double language, as he had done before–so long ago, it seemed–while they tended the rectory garden within earshot of the town gossips on their daily, snooping errands.
And of course, she tended to her needlework, which we shall describe in a subsequent chapter, but which the reader will remember from Mr. Hawthorne’s account was particularly elaborate and skillful.
And in this way, her daily routine turned into a life, and a good one, most would say. Sometimes she felt Roger’s probing gaze, and she would blush. Sometimes he seemed to jab at her conscience by remarking upon a particularly hale and hearty young man in the community, and a few hours later he would ask if she would not have been happier had she been able to choose a husband more honestly. She would have none of such tricks.
She and Roger rarely shared a bed, their house being large enough for an office, where he mostly slept as well as studied, and a bedroom, which she occupied. When he came to her, he asked for very little, and was satisfied with almost nothing at all.
Thus, the years passed. And while at first she had occasionally dreamt of escape, she always dismissed it. But surely the reader suspects that what she compelled herself to believe–what she had reasoned upon for staying–was only half truth, and half self-delusion. For here, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt. Here was a life with Roger, and here was her duty to the community and to God–those very things she had betrayed. Here was the scene of her guilt, where she must live out her earthly days. Eventually, perhaps, the guilt would purge her soul, and mend the rift between her and her God.
It might be, too—doubtless it was so, although she hid the secret from herself, and grew pale whenever it struggled out of her heart, like a serpent from its hole… It might be that another feeling kept her in Boston. Here lived one with whom she deemed herself connected in a union–a union that, unrecognized on earth, would bring them together before the bar of final judgment, and make that their marriage altar, if only for a future (together! infinitely!) of endless retribution. Over and over again, the tempter of souls had thrust this idea upon Hester’s contemplations, and laughed.
And sometimes, once in many days, or perchance in many months, often–quite curiously–at some moment when she felt keenly the old pang within her heart, or the sting of Roger’s questioning, or the sidewise glance of condemnation from Goody Huff–she felt an eye—a human eye—upon her heart, where she could well be wearing the same ignominious Scarlet Letter that Jenny Harding was compelled to suffer under. Those eyes would then rise to meet hers, and that look, though painful in its recognition, also gave a momentary relief–as if half of her pain were shared.
The next instant, back it all rushed again, with still a deeper throb of pain; for, in that brief interval of memory, she had sinned anew.
Had Hester sinned alone?
~ Greta Ode ~
Table of Contents
Publisher’s Note: Kimberly Gladman
“Entanglement” (flash fiction): Kimberly Gladman
Not Richard Rolle
“The Fire of Love” (excerpt): Kimberly Gladman
“Confession of an Anchoress” (short story): Greta Ode
“Yes I” (poetry): Kimberly Gladman
“Cold Truths”: Greta Ode (short story)
“An Anger Artist” (flash fiction): Kimberly Gladman
Not McMurtry, and Not McCarthy
From Gunslinger (novel excerpt): Greta Ode
“The Path Over Many Histories” (short story): Kimberly Gladman
From Missing Pearl (novel excerpt): Greta Ode
Not Safe for Work
From Testament, a revisioning of Wuthering Heights (novel excerpt): Kimberly Gladman
From Desert Moon (novel excerpt): Greta Ode