THE PRISON DOOR
A throng of bearded men 0 , in sad-coloured garments and grey steeple-crowned hats , inter-mixed with
women 1 ,
some wearing hoods 2 , and
others bareheaded 3 , was assembled in front of
a wooden edifice 4 , the door of which was heavily timbered with oak , and studded with iron spikes .
founders 6 of
a new colony 5 , whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness
they 6 might originally project , have invariably recognised it among
their 6 earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as
a cemetery 7 , and another portion as the site of
a prison 8 .
In accordance with this rule it may safely be assumed that
the forefathers of
Boston 5 6
the first prison-house 8
, almost as seasonably as
somewhere in the Vicinity of
Cornhill 10 9
they 6 marked out
the first burial-ground 7 , on
, and round about
Isaac Johnson 11
's lot 12
his 11 grave , which subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated sepulchres in
the old churchyard of
King 's Chapel 13 7
Certain it is that , some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of
the town 5 ,
the wooden jail 8 was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age , which gave a yet darker aspect to
its 8 beetle-browed and gloomy front .
The rust on the ponderous iron-work of
its 8 oaken door looked more antique than anything else in
the New World 14 .
Like all that pertains to crime ,
it 8 seemed never to have known a youthful era .
this ugly edifice 8 , and between
it 8 and the wheel-track of
the street 15 , was
a grass-plot , much overgrown with burdock , pig-weed , apple-pern , and such unsightly vegetation , which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilised society ,
a prison 8 16
But on one side of the portal , and rooted almost at the threshold , was a wild rose-bush , covered , in this month of June , with its delicate gems , which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to
the prisoner 17 as
he 17 went in , and to
the condemned criminal 17 as
he 17 came forth to
his 17 doom , in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to
him 17 .
This rose-bush , by a strange chance , has been kept alive in history ; but whether it had merely survived out of
the stern old wilderness 18 , so long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally overshadowed it , or whether , as there is fair authority for believing , it had sprung up under the footsteps of
the sainted Ann Hutchinson 19 as
she 19 entered the prison-door ,
we 20 shall not take upon
us 20 to determine .
Finding it so directly on the threshold of
our 20 narrative , which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal ,
we 20 could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers , and present it to the reader .
It may serve , let
us 20 hope , to symbolise some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track , or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow .
THE MARKET-PLACE 21
, on a certain summer morning , not less than two centuries ago , was occupied by a pretty large number of
The grass-plot before
the jail 8
Prison Lane 15 16
, all with
the inhabitants of
Boston 5 22
their 22 eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door .
Amongst any other population , or at a later period in the history of
New England 23 , the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of
these good people 22 would have augured some awful business in hand .
It could have betokened nothing short of the anticipated execution of
some noted culprit 24 , on whom the sentence of
a legal tribunal 25 had but confirmed the verdict of public sentiment .
But , in that early severity of the Puritan character , an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn .
It might be that
a sluggish bond-servant 26 , or
, was to be corrected at the whipping-post .
an undutiful child , whom
had given over to
the civil authority 29 27
It might be that
an Antinomian 30 ,
a Quaker 31 , or
other heterodox religionist 32 , was to be scourged out of
the town 5 , or
, was to be driven with stripes into the shadow of
an idle or vagrant Indian , whom
the white man 34
's firewater had made riotous about
the streets 35 33
the forest 36 .
It might be , too , that
a witch 37 , like
old Mistress Hibbins 38 ,
, was to die upon the gallows .
the bitter-tempered widow of
the magistrate 39 69
In either case , there was very much the same solemnity of demeanour on the part of
the spectators 22 , as befitted
a people among whom religion and law were almost identical , and in whose character both were so thoroughly interfused , that the mildest and severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful 22 .
Meagre , indeed , and cold , was the sympathy that
a transgressor 40 might look for , from
such bystanders 22 , at the scaffold .
On the other hand , a penalty which , in
our 20 days , would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule , might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself .
It was a circumstance to be noted on the summer morning when
our 20 story begins its course , that
the women 41 , of whom there were several in the crowd , appeared to take a peculiar interest in whatever penal infliction might be expected to ensue .
The age had not so much refinement , that any sense of impropriety restrained
the wearers of petticoat and farthingale 41 from stepping forth into the public ways , and wedging
, if occasion were , into the throng nearest to the scaffold at an execution .
not unsubstantial persons 41
Morally , as well as materially , there was a coarser fibre in
those wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding 41 than in
, separated from
fair descendants 42
them 41 by
a series of six or seven generations 43 ; for , throughout that chain of ancestry ,
every successive mother 44 had transmitted to a fainter bloom , a more delicate and briefer beauty , and a slighter physical frame , if not character of less force and solidity than
her 44 own .
The women who were now standing about the prison-door 41 stood within less than half a century of the period when
the man-like Elizabeth 46 had been the not altogether unsuitable representative of the sex .
They 41 were : and the beef and ale of , with a moral diet not a whit more refined , entered largely into
their 41 composition .
The bright morning sun , therefore , shone on broad shoulders and well-developed busts , and on round and ruddy cheeks , that had ripened in
the far-off island 47 , and had hardly yet grown paler or thinner in the atmosphere of
New England 23 .
There was , moreover , a boldness and rotundity of speech among
these matrons 41 , as most of
them 41 seemed to be , that would startle
us 20 at the present day , whether in respect to its purport or its volume of tone .
Goodwives 41 , " said
a hard-featured dame of fifty 48 , "
I 48 'll tell ye a piece of
my 48 mind .
It would be greatly for the public behoof if
women 41 , being of mature age and
church-members 41 in good repute , should have the handling of
such malefactresses as
this Hester Prynne 49 49
What think ye , gossips ?
the hussy 49 stood up for judgment before
us 41 five , that are now here in a knot together , would
she 49 come off with such a sentence as
the worshipful magistrates 50 have awarded ?
I 48 trow not . "
People 51 say , " said
another 68 , " that
the Reverend 52
Master Dimmesdale 52 , , takes it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon . "
The magistrates 50 are
God-fearing gentlemen 73 , but merciful overmuch -- that is a truth , " added
a third autumnal matron 54 .
" At the very least ,
they 50 should have put the brand of a hot iron on
Hester Prynne 49 's forehead .
Madame Hester 49 would have winced at that ,
I 54 warrant
me 54 .
she 49 --
the naughty baggage 74 -- little will
she 49 care what
they 50 put upon the bodice of
her 49 gown !
Why , look
you 55 ,
she 49 may cover it with a brooch , or such like heathenish adornment , and so walk
the streets 35 as brave as ever ! "
" Ah , but , " interposed , more softly ,
a young wife 56 , holding
a child 57 by the hand , " let
her 49 cover the mark as
she 49 will , the pang of it will be always in
her 49 heart . "
" What do
we 41 talk of marks and brands , whether on the bodice of
her 49 gown or the flesh of
her 49 forehead ? "
another female 58 ,
the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of
these self-constituted judges 41 75
This woman 49 has brought shame upon
us 41 all , and ought to die ; is there not law for it ?
Truly there is , both in the Scripture and the statute-book .
the magistrates , who have made it of no effect 50 , thank
themselves 50 if and
daughters 60 go astray . "
" Mercy on
us 61 ,
goodwife 58 ! "
a man in the crowd 62 , " is there no virtue in
woman 63 , save what springs from a wholesome fear of the gallows ?
That is the hardest word yet !
Hush now ,
gossips 41 for the lock is turning in the prison-door , and here comes
Mistress Prynne 49
herself 49 . "
The door of
the jail 8 being flung open from within there appeared , in the first place , like a black shadow emerging into sunshine , the grim and grisly presence of
the town-beadle 64 , with a sword by
his 64 side , and
his 64 staff of office in
his 64 hand .
This personage 64 prefigured and represented in
his 64 aspect the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law , which it was
his 64 business to administer in its final and closest application to
the offender 49 .
Stretching forth the official staff in
his 64 left hand ,
he 64 laid
his 64 right upon the shoulder of
a young woman 49 , whom
he 64 thus drew forward , until , on the threshold of the prison-door ,
she 49 repelled
him 64 , by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character , and stepped into the open air as if by
her 49 own free will .
She 49 bore in
her 49 arms
a child 65 ,
a baby of some three months old 70 , who winked and turned aside
its 65 little face from the too vivid light of day ; because
its 65 existence , heretofore , had brought
it 65 acquaintance only with the grey twilight of
a dungeon 66 , or
other darksome apartment 67 of
the prison 8 .
the young woman 49 --
-- stood fully revealed before the crowd , it seemed to be
the mother of
this child 65 71
her 49 first impulse to clasp
the infant 65 closely to
her 49 bosom ; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection , as that
she 49 might thereby conceal a certain token , which was wrought or fastened into
her 49 dress .
In a moment , however , wisely judging that one token of
her 49 shame would but poorly serve to hide another ,
she 49 took
the baby 65 on
her 49 arm , and with a burning blush , and yet a haughty smile , and a glance that would not be abashed , looked around at
townspeople 22 and
neighbours 22 .
On the breast of
her 49 gown , in fine red cloth , surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread , appeared the letter A .
It was so artistically done , and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy , that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which
she 49 wore , and which was of a splendour in accordance with the taste of the age , but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of
the colony 5 .