© Paula Reed
If it is a lonely life to be the embodiment of sin, lonelier still it is to be a legend. Day to day, little enough changes. I need never jostle my way through a crowd, for it parts where I walk, my neighbors never quite certain what might become of them should they brush against me. Once they feared I might taint them. Then they feared that I might come to know them too deeply, and through me, they might come to know themselves better than they would have wished.
That was long ago. Now, women come to my little cottage to seek my words of advice and comfort, for they see in me a woman not unlike themselves: One who has sinned, suffered, and survived. My touch, however, is not a thing to be borne until, like the minister I loved, one reaches the end of the journey and must lay open the soul and confess all that it was, good and bad, to be human. Fearful of hell, those at the brink hold my hand—a fellow sinner to walk them to the gates. I do not take them past the threshold, but I have felt the heat of eternal fire and showed no fear, so they trust me to give them courage, too. Such is the nature of my legend.
As with all legend, there is some truth and much fiction. The fiction was embellished in the decade that passed between my departure from Boston and my return. The stories people told of me became as elaborate as the letter I wear upon my breast, its gold thread still glittering against the faded red cloth, and the fact that I have been back much longer than ever I was gone has done nothing to diminish those accounts.
In truth, the tale of the letter I wear was but the beginning of my journey. That story may fade as it will, until it is little more than a footnote in some public record house. Herein lie the events of my years away—the middle of my story. For myself, it is my favorite part.
Even the most domestic, mundane tasks present us with moral choices, and for better or for worse, we make them. For example, should I ere to the side of maternal modesty and say that when my daughter, Pearl, was eight, she was competent with a needle, or should I speak upright honesty and say that her talent exceeded my own at her tender age? As a girl, I, too, sat beside my mother in the lamplight and stitched samplers to hone my skills. It took me weeks to fashion "A good name is to be chosen rather than riches" in silk letters even enough to suit my mother's exacting standards. All around this wisdom from Proverbs, I nursed a thread garden of daisies and other simple blooms. It was a fair effort, but I had much to learn.
My Pearl, her dark, glossy head bent over her frame, had been working on her new sampler all week. In time, it would read, "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind." It was to be my birthday gift she said, which, to be fair, did give her some months to complete it. Still, when she had told me what she wished to stitch, I advised her that it was too much and recommended she choose a briefer text. She was resolute. She spent the first three nights on the "A" alone, illuminating it with scrolls and flourishes. Though the colors she selected included neither scarlet nor gold, I thought perhaps it was some of her previous mischief, mocking my own design. Heaven knew, in her earliest years she had been utterly fixated upon my scarlet letter. If her current labors were some new manifestation of this, she hid it well, concentrating on every stitch without a glance or comment to me. On the night our fortunes changed, she had nearly completed the word "transformed," subtly embellishing on her own each of the letters I had blocked out for her in lead.
I found it so hard to converse with her that night. For the first seven years of her life, I had never once wondered what we should speak of. She was the empress of all our dialogue. "What does the scarlet letter mean, Mother, and why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?" And I would engage my mind in how best to answer, telling her neither the truth nor a lie. If Arthur had chosen to hide his part in our lives, who was I to reveal him?
It was in that seventh year, 1649, that he ascended the scaffold and claimed her as his own, disclosing to all the sin that had destroyed him. He kissed Pearl before the whole village and died, taking with him the only child I knew how to raise.
That is imprecise. I never knew how to raise that girl of mine. Arthur altered the child with whom I was familiar. Another Pearl descended the scaffold with me that day. After that, she had no excruciating questions to ask, so we often sat in silence.
Nearly a year had passed since then, and Pearl was carefully drawing her floss through the linen, composing wisdom I had yet to fully understand, while I adorned a christening gown with pale pink roses for the babe of a wealthy family. It was nearly finished, and the compensation I received would help pay our month's meager expenses. I made little for my work (a relic of days when I was held in absolute contempt) and spent even less. Much of my earnings I set aside for charity. By purchase of cloth and labor of needle, it was I who kept the poor of our village clothed, I, as much as the wealthiest of citizens, who eased the hunger of the destitute.
I must, however, confess one indulgence—the lavish garments I wrought for my daughter. Once the christening gown was finished, there would be time to work on the lovely azure dress I had begun for Pearl. She was beautiful in red, but we'd both had enough of that. I had set aside my scarlet badge the day Arthur Dimmesdale died, and for reasons I could not fathom, she never asked where it went. In return, I ceased my previous involuntary yet inevitable inclination to create gowns for Pearl that echoed that mark of infamy.
"Those are fine letters," I praised her, and though she was a much more agreeable child than she had once been, she could still unnerve me with her precocity. She looked at me with my own dark eyes and said, "Yes, they are, aren't they? When I am finished, I will stitch roses like yours around them."
She did, eventually, and though her petals were not as fine as the ones that unfurled under my needle that night, they showed much promise.
So I have made my choice: honesty above modesty. I am untransformed.
In any event, we had exhausted the conversation. It had been so many years since I had engaged in idle chatter that I'd lost whatever aptitude I once possessed, and it was an unexpected relief when someone chose that moment to knock at the door. Pearl started and pricked herself with her needle, then stuck her finger into her mouth and cast an anxious look at the door. Even though it was long past dark, and we were far from the company of others, I felt no alarm. Many times over the years people from town had ventured to our little cottage to ask my help in calamity, and I was ever inclined to lend it, for I knew what it was to want for human kindness. All that had passed between my neighbors and me became obscured at night, and we tried to pretend that the strain between us was not there, but our ambivalence returned again with every sunrise.
The pretense was never easy, even in the dark, so when I opened the door, there was nothing strange about the rigid, discomfited stance of the aged man waiting on the wooden steps, lantern in hand. "Mistress Prynne?" he inquired, though he was well acquainted with me.
He was the Reverend John Wilson, a good and decent man, and the first to implore me to name my baby's father so that I might not bear the burden of shame alone. When Pearl was very small, there were times that he'd shown greater patience than I with her passionate, wild temperament. In his kindness, he even spoke to the governor and urged that I be allowed to remove the letter, having borne its weight long enough in his view. In the end, it was I who chose when to remove it and I who would decide when to take it up again, but I appreciated his efforts.
It was a late summer night, and the air outside was cool, so I invited him in and offered him the wooden chair I had been sitting in. I was about to chase Pearl from the only other seat in the room, but he preferred to stand, so in the end, I let her stay and stood with him. He searched markedly for the words to express his purpose in coming, and I wished things were easier between us. As I said, he was a good man.
In the market, I still covered my hair—no sense in raising new ire while everyone foundered for the old. At home, however, I left it uncovered, and I knew that he was looking at me and remembering the young woman that he had helped to sentence—the one who, before her release from jail, had been made to stand for three hours upon a scaffold, facing the scorn of the entire village. Outwardly, I had rebelled against their judgment. Instead of appearing with my head bowed and my person soberly clad, I held my head high. My long hair fell shamelessly loose down my back, and I wore a fanciful and reckless gown with the letter boldly emblazoned upon the bodice.
It was a farce. Inside, I had never before known such shame. After that day, I wore only gray and kept every strand of hair hidden.
At last, he fixed his eyes on Pearl, who looked just as she always had, despite her changed nature. This appeared to reassure him, and he said, "I come on behalf of the late Roger Chillingworth."
Roger Chillingworth! There was not a soul in the village who did not endeavor, at any inconvenience, to avoid crossing that dark physician's path, I most of all. And then I realized what he'd said. The late Roger Chillingworth. I spoke, but I hardly dared to hope, and my voice was a mere whisper. "Roger Chillingworth is dead?"
The Reverend Mister Wilson nodded. "He is, Mistress."
"Of that no one is certain. He was found in his laboratory, his body wasted and dry, but no cause was apparent. There is much conjecture about the matter. Age and a life ill–spent, the hand of his Dark Master—who can know?"
"A fitting end," I murmured. That Roger had served the devil himself I had no doubt.
The minister seemed disinclined to reply. Instead, he said, "He had become a most eccentric old man. For some reason, though surely reason had no piece in it, he listed your child as his next of kin. You were to be informed immediately upon his death, and all his wealth, here and in England, is to go to young Pearl. I assure you, Mistress Prynne, that wealth is considerable."
For a moment, I was speechless, but Pearl looked at me, and there was no surprise in her keen gaze. She had kept that preternatural perceptiveness with which she was born, and for a moment, she was again the Pearl I knew best. "First the minister stood with us upon the scaffold," she said, "and now the old man…?"
I could not keep the wonder, even relief, from my speech when I answered her. "And now the man who was my husband and once kept me from my happiness has given you the means to find yours."
"He was often nice to me, though he was old and ugly," Pearl observed, and I went to her, taking her fair, artless face between my hands.
"Roger never blamed you; I credit him for that. He soothed you as a troubled babe, and again he eases your way in the world." I pulled her close to me and closed my eyes against tears—eight years of shame for myself mingled with loathing for Roger that I had kept tightly locked away. "Yet even this act of generosity cannot buy my forgiveness of him."
"Excuse me. Your husband?" the Reverend Mister Wilson asked.
In my mind, I suppose, I had dismissed him, so I was a little taken aback that he was still there. "My husband is dead," I told him. If only I could have spoken those words a decade before. How differently my life would have turned out.
The minister stood before me, mouth agape, dignity forgotten. "Am I to understand that old Roger Chillingworth was your husband?"
I looked past his shoulder, through the still open door, and into the dark night beyond. I had thought myself free of Roger before and was wrong. Could it be that this time he was truly gone?
If some malicious bit of him still drifts in the damp sea air, I thought, let it stop my mouth from speaking the truth at last. I took a deep breath and said, "My husband was a scholar by the name of Roger Prynne. He was lost at sea ere my Pearl was conceived. Somehow, he denied the sea her due and, two years after, found his way back to me, a dark shadow of the man to whom I'd given my maidenhood. I once exchanged the secret of his identity for the protection of the man I loved, but it was a false deal, and I am no longer bound by it. Yes, you knew that dark shadow of my husband as Roger Chillingworth."
The words were out, and there was no misshapen demon to silence me.
The minister said nothing; he merely closed his mouth. I knew there had been much speculation about Roger's role in Arthur's death, but no one had ever come close to the truth: Roger had learned the identity of the man with whom I had betrayed him, and he had exacted unpardonable revenge. Afterward, there was no point in revealing our true relationship, and we had a tacit agreement to keep it to ourselves while Roger lived and I remained in my cottage by the sea.
The silence between us stretched on, and while I was much accustomed to silence, he seemed embarrassed by it, his cheeks flushing. At last, he found his tongue. "Well, Mister Chill—rather Pry—the physician has left your daughter the wealthiest girl in New England." He looked at my Pearl with some concern. "It is a sorry truth that even the most virtuous–seeming men may hide demons of desire and greed in their hearts. Pearl is an unusual girl, beautiful and now rich, but notorious, as well, child though she may be. She will be on the edge of womanhood in but a few years..."
No one ever knew; it was not the shame of the scarlet letter that punished me daily. It was the knowledge it imparted—the ability to look into a man's eyes and see what was in his heart. The Reverend Mister Wilson, I saw, still regarded Pearl as a danger. He could not forget the demon-child of those first seven years, and though it disheartened me to know this, it was a reality that I had to face.
No one in that village would ever forget the speculation that Pearl was the devil's child. My own steadfast refusal to name a mortal father and her wildly tempestuous behavior prior to Arthur's death had led them to draw their own fantastic conclusions. Never mind that they had finally learned that her father was simply a man—and a good man, too. They remembered only that she had once refused to bend to any will save her own dark and unnatural one.
"Others cannot comprehend her transformation, and so they do not trust it," I said to him, wondering if he might not feel chastened, knowing that he was no better, but he did not seem at all abashed. He simply shook his head, and I shrugged, admitting, "I hardly trust it myself. No man in New England could love the scandalous offshoot of Hester Prynne without reserve, but for her fortune alone, many would be willing to wed her anyway."
"Precisely my concern," he agreed.
"Roger left her wealth enough to buy a fresh start, I presume, far away from the woe we have known here?" At his nod, I added, " If I may, I beseech you to speak of this to no one until we are gone."
He flushed again, and I knew that he was embarrassed by his relief that I would be quitting his province. "You are indeed a wise woman, Hester Prynne." Mumbling a hasty good night, he made his way back out into the darkness, lantern aloft.
"Where are we going, Mother?" Pearl asked.
I tried not to feel bitter, but I had learned only to mask my emotions, not to master them. I said, "Where your father and I should have taken you long ago, child. England."