The Scarlet Letter (Chapter 2, page 1 of 10)


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Chapter 2

The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain
summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by
a pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston, all with
their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door.
Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the
history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the
bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured
some awful business in hand. It could have betokened nothing
short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit, on
whom the sentence of a legal tribunal 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,
or an undutiful child, whom his parents had given over to the
civil authority, was to be corrected at the whipping-post.

It might be that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox
religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle or
vagrant Indian, whom the white man's firewater had made riotous
about the streets, was to be driven with stripes into the shadow
of the forest. It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress
Hibbins, the bitter-tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die
upon the gallows. In either case, there was very much the same
solemnity of demeanour on the part of the spectators, 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. Meagre, indeed,
and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for,
from such bystanders, at the scaffold. On the other hand, a
penalty which, in our 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.

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