« 上一頁繼續 »
pedestal. Such was the position which the minister occupied, as he bowed his head forward on the cushions of the pulpit, at the close of his Election Sermon. Meanwhile Hester Prynne was standing beside the scaffold of the pillory, with the scarlet letter still burning on her breast!
Now was heard again the clangor of the music, and the measured tramp of the military escort, issuing from the church door. The procession was to be marshalled thence to the town hall, where a solemn banquet would complete the ceremonies of the day.
Once more, therefore, the train of venerable and majestic fathers was seen moving through a broad pathway of the people, who drew back reverently on either side as the Governor and magistrates, the old and wise men, the holy ministers, and all that were eminent and renowned, advanced into the midst of them. When they were fairly in the market place, their presence was greeted by a shout. This-though doubtless it might acquire additional force and volume from the childlike loyalty which the age awarded to its rulers-was felt to be an irrepressible outburst of enthusiasm kindled in the auditors by that high strain of eloquence which was yet reverberating in their ears. Each felt the impulse in himself, and, in the same breath, caught it from his neighbor. Within the church, it had hardly been kept down; beneath the sky, it pealed upward to the zenith. There were human beings enough, and enough of highly wrought and symphonious feeling, to produce that more impressive sound than the organ tones of the blast, or the thunder, or the roar of the sea; even that mighty swell of many voices, blended into one great voice by the universal impulse which makes likewise one vast heart of the many. Never, from the soil of New England, had gone up such a shout! Never, on New England soil, had stood the man so honored by his mortal brethren as the preacher!
How fared it with him then? Were there not the brilliant particles of a halo in the air about his head? So etherealized by spirit as he was, and so apotheosized by worshipping admirers, did his footsteps, in the procession, really tread upon the dust of earth?
As the ranks of military men and civil fathers moved onward, all eyes were turned towards the point where the minister was seen to approach among them. The shout died into a murmur, as one portion of the crowd after another obtained a glimpse of him. How feeble and pale he looked, amid all his triumph! The energyor say, rather, the inspiration which had held him up, until he should have delivered the sacred message that brought its own strength along with it from heavenwas withdrawn, now that it had so faithfully performed its office. The glow, which they had just before beheld burning on his cheek, was extinguished, like a flame that sinks down hopelessly among the late-decaying embers. It seemed hardly the face of a man alive, with such a deathlike hue; it was hardly a man with life in him, that tottered on his path so nervelessly, yet tottered, and did not fall!
One of his clerical brethren-it was the venerable John Wilson-observing the state in which Mr. Dimmesdale was left by the retiring wave of intellect and sensibility, stepped forward hastily to offer his support. The minister tremulously, but decidedly, repelled the old man's arm. He still walked onward, if that movement could be so described, which rather resembled the wavering effort of an infant, with its mother's arms in view, outstretched to tempt him forward. And now, almost imperceptible as were the latter steps of his progress, he had come opposite the well-remembered and weather-darkened scaffold, where, long since, with all that dreary lapse of time between, Hester Prynne had encountered the world's ignominious stare. There stood Hester, holding little Pearl by the hand! And there was the scarlet letter on her breast! The minister here made a pause, although the music still played the stately and rejoicing march to which the procession moved. It summoned him onward-onward to the festival!-but here he made a pause.
Bellingham, for the last few moments, had kept an anxious eye upon him. He now left his own place in the procession, and advanced to give assistance, judging, from Mr. Dimmesdale's aspect, that he must otherwise inevitably fall. But there was something in the latter's
expression that warned back the magistrate, although a man not readily obeying the vague intimations that pass from one spirit to another. The crowd, meanwhile, looked on with awe and wonder. This earthly faintness was, in their view, only another phase of the minister's celestial strength; nor would it have seemed a miracle too high to be wrought for one so holy, had he ascended before their eyes, waxing dimmer and brighter, and fading at last into the light of heaven.
He turned towards the scaffold, and stretched forth his arms.
"Hester," said he, "come hither! Come, my little Pearl!"
It was a ghastly look with which he regarded them; but there was something at once tender and strangely triumphant in it. The child, with the birdlike motion which was one of her characteristics, flew to him, and clasped her arms about his knees. Hester Prynne-slowly, as if impelled by inevitable fate, and against her strongest will-likewise drew near, but paused before she reached him. At this instant, old Roger Chillingworth thrust himself through the crowd-or, perhaps so dark, disturbed and evil, was his look, he rose up out of some nether region-to snatch back his victim from what he sought to do! Be that as it might, the old man rushed forward, and caught the minister by the arm.
"Madman, hold! what is your purpose?" whispered he. "Wave back that woman! Cast off this child! All shall be well! Do not blacken your fame and perish in dishonor! I can yet save you! Would you bring infamy on your sacred profession?"
"Ha, tempter! Methinks thou art too late!" answered the minister, encountering his eye, fearfully but firmly. "Thy power is not what it was! With God's help, I shall escape thee now!"
He again extended his hand to the woman of the scarlet letter.
"Hester Prynne," cried he, with a piercing earnestness, "in the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace, at this last moment, to do what-for my own heavy sin and miserable agony-I withheld myself from doing seven years ago, come hither now, and twine
thy strength about me! Thy strength, Hester; but let it be guided by the will which God hath granted me! This wretched and wronged old man is opposing it with all his might!-with all his own might, and the fiend's! Come, Hester, come! Support me up yonder scaffold!" The crowd was in a tumult. The men of rank and dignity, who stood more immediately around the clergyman, were so taken by surprise and so perplexed as to the purport of what they saw-unable to receive the explanation which most readily presented itself, or to imagine any other-that they remained silent and inactive spectators of the judgment which Providence seemed about to work. They beheld the minister, leaning on Hester's shoulder and supported by her arm around him, approach the scaffold and ascend its steps; while still the little hand of the sin-born child was clasped in his. Old Roger Chillingworth followed, as one intimately connected with the drama of guilt and sorrow in which they had all been actors, and well entitled, therefore, to be present, at its closing scene.
"Hadst thou sought the whole earth over," said he, looking darkly at the clergyman, "there was no one place so secret-no high place nor lowly place where thou couldst have escaped me-save on this very scaffold!" "Thanks be to Him who hath led me hither!" answered the minister.
Yet he trembled, and turned to Hester with an expression of doubt and anxiety in his eyes, not the less evidently betrayed that there was a feeble smile upon his lips.
"Is not this better," murmured he, "than what we dreamed of in the forest?"
"I know not! I know not!" she hurriedly replied. "Better? Yea; so we may both die, and little Pearl die with us!"
"For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order," said the minister; "and God is merciful! Let me now do the will which he hath made plain before my sight. For, Hester, I am a dying man. So let me make haste to take my shame upon me!"
Partly supported by Hester Prynne and holding one hand of little Pearl, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale
turned to the dignified and venerable rulers; to the holy ministers, who were his brethren; to the people, whose great heart was thoroughly appalled, yet overflowing with tearful sympathy, as knowing that some deep lifematter-which, if full of sin, was full of anguish and repentance likewise-was now to be laid open to them. The sun, but little past its meridian, shone down upon the clergyman, and gave a distinctness to his figure, as he stood out from all the earth to put in his plea of guilty at the bar of Eternal Justice.
"People of New England!" cried he, with a voice that rose over them, high, solemn, and majestic-yet had always a tremor through it, and sometimes a shriek, struggling up out of a fathomless depth of remorse and woe-"ye, that have loved me!-ye, that have deemed me holy!-behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last!-at last!-I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood; here, with this woman, whose arm, more than the little strength wherewith have crept hitherward, sustains me, at this dreadful moment, from grovelling down upon my face! Lo, the scarlet letter which Hester wears! Ye have all shuddered at it! Wherever her walk hath been-wherever, so miserably burdened, she may have hoped to find reposeit hath cast a lurid gleam of awe and horrible repugnance round about her. But there stood one in the midst of you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!"
It seemed, at this point, as if the minister must leave the remainder of his secret undisclosed. But he fought back the bodily weakness-and, still more, the faintness of heart-that was striving for the mastery with him. He threw off all assistance, and stepped passionately forward a pace before the woman and the child.
"It was on him!" he continued, with a kind of fierceness, so determined was he to speak out the whole. "God's eye beheld it! The angels were forever pointing at it! The Devil knew it well, and fretted it continually with the touch of his burning finger! But he hid it cunningly from men, and walked among you with the mien of a spirit, mournful, because so pure in a sinful world!-and sad, because he missed his heavenly kindred!