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The Minister's Black Veil, Page 1

Nathaniel Hawthorne





  by Nathaniel Hawthorne

  THE SEXTON stood in the porch of Milford meeting-house, pulling

  busily at the bell-rope. The old people of the village came stooping

  along the street. Children, with bright faces, tripped merrily

  beside their parents, or mimicked a graver gait, in the conscious

  dignity of their Sunday clothes. Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at

  the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them

  prettier than on week days. When the throng had mostly streamed into

  the porch, the sexton began to toll the bell, keeping his eye on the

  Reverend Mr. Hooper's door. The first glimpse of the clergyman's

  figure was the signal for the bell to cease its summons.

  "But what has good Parson Hooper got upon his face?" cried the

  sexton in astonishment.

  All within hearing immediately turned about, and beheld the

  semblance of Mr. Hooper, pacing slowly his meditative way towards

  the meeting-house. With one accord they started, expressing more

  wonder than if some strange minister were coming to dust the

  cushions of Mr. Hooper's pulpit.

  "Are you sure it is our parson?" inquired Goodman Gray of the


  "Of a certainty it is good Mr. Hooper," replied the sexton. "He was

  to have exchanged pulpits with Parson Shute, of Westbury; but Parson

  Shute sent to excuse himself yesterday, being to preach a funeral


  The cause of so much amazement may appear sufficiently slight.

  Mr. Hooper, a gentlemanly person, of about thirty, though still a

  bachelor, was dressed with due clerical neatness, as if a careful wife

  had starched his band, and brushed the weekly dust from his Sunday's

  garb. There was but one thing remarkable in his appearance. Swathed

  about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be

  shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. On a nearer view

  it seemed to consist of two folds of crape, which entirely concealed

  his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not

  intercept his sight, further than to give a darkened aspect to all

  living and inanimate things. With this gloomy shade before him, good

  Mr. Hooper walked onward, at a slow and quiet pace, stooping somewhat,

  and looking on the ground, as is customary with abstracted men, yet

  nodding kindly to those of his parishioners who still waited on the

  meeting-house steps. But so wonder-struck were they that his

  greeting hardly met with a return.

  "I can't really feel as if good Mr. Hooper's face was behind that

  piece of crape," said the sexton.

  "I don't like it," muttered an old woman, as she hobbled into the

  meeting-house. "He has changed himself into something awful, only by

  hiding his face."

  "Our parson has gone mad!" cried Goodman Gray, following him across

  the threshold.

  A rumor of some unaccountable phenomenon had preceded Mr. Hooper

  into the meeting-house, and set all the congregation astir. Few

  could refrain from twisting their heads towards the door; many stood

  upright, and turned directly about; while several little boys

  clambered upon the seats, and came down again with a terrible

  racket. There was a general bustle, a rustling of the women's gowns

  and shuffling of the men's feet, greatly at variance with that

  hushed repose which should attend the entrance of the minister. But

  Mr. Hooper appeared not to notice the perturbation of his people. He

  entered with an almost noiseless step, bent his head mildly to the

  pews on each side, and bowed as he passed his oldest parishioner, a

  white-haired great-grandsire, who occupied an arm-chair in the

  centre of the aisle. It was strange to observe how slowly this

  venerable man became conscious of something singular in the appearance

  of his pastor. He seemed not fully to partake of the prevailing

  wonder, till Mr. Hooper had ascended the stairs, and showed himself in

  the pulpit, face to face with his congregation, except for the black

  veil. That mysterious emblem was never once withdrawn. It shook with

  his measured breath, as he gave out the psalm; it threw its

  obscurity between him and the holy page, as he read the Scriptures;

  and while he prayed, the veil lay heavily on his uplifted countenance.

  Did he seek to hide it from the dread Being whom he was addressing?

  Such was the effect of this simple piece of crape, that more than

  one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meeting-house.

  Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a

  sight to the minister, as his black veil to them.

  Mr. Hooper had the reputation of a good preacher, but not an

  energetic one: he strove to win his people heavenward by mild,

  persuasive influences, rather than to drive them thither by the

  thunders of the Word. The sermon which he now delivered was marked

  by the same characteristics of style and manner as the general

  series of his pulpit oratory. But there was something, either in the

  sentiment of the discourse itself, or in the imagination of the

  auditors, which made it greatly the most powerful effort that they had

  ever heard from their pastor's lips. It was tinged, rather more darkly

  than usual, with the gentle gloom of Mr. Hooper's temperament. The

  subject had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which

  we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from

  our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can

  detect them. A subtle power was breathed into his words. Each member

  of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened

  breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his

  awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or

  thought. Many spread their clasped hands on their bosoms. There was

  nothing terrible in what Mr. Hooper said, at least, no violence; and

  yet, with every tremor of his melancholy voice, the hearers quaked. An

  unsought pathos came hand in hand with awe. So sensible were the

  audience of some unwonted attribute in their minister, that they

  longed for a breath of wind to blow aside the veil, almost believing

  that a stranger's visage would be discovered, though the form,

  gesture, and voice were those of Mr. Hooper.

  At the close of the services, the people hurried out with

  indecorous confusion, eager to communicate their pent-up amazement,

  and conscious of lighter spirits the moment they lost sight of the

  black veil. Some gathered in little circles, huddled closely together,

  with their mouths all whispering in the centre; some went homeward
r />   alone, wrapt in silent meditation; some talked loudly, and profaned

  the Sabbath day with ostentatious laughter. A few shook their

  sagacious heads, intimating that they could penetrate the mystery;

  while one or two affirmed that there was no mystery at all, but only

  that Mr. Hooper's eyes were so weakened by the midnight lamp, as to

  require a shade. After a brief interval, forth came good Mr. Hooper

  also, in the rear of his flock. Turning his veiled face from one group

  to another, he paid due reverence to the hoary heads, saluted the

  middle aged with kind dignity as their friend and spiritual guide,

  greeted the young with mingled authority and love, and laid his

  hands on the little children's heads to bless them. Such was always

  his custom on the Sabbath day. Strange and bewildered looks repaid him

  for his courtesy. None, as on former occasions, aspired to the honor

  of walking by their pastor's side. Old Squire Saunders, doubtless by

  an accidental lapse of memory, neglected to invite Mr. Hooper to his

  table, where the good clergyman had been wont to bless the food,

  almost every Sunday since his settlement. He returned, therefore, to

  the parsonage, and, at the moment of closing the door, was observed to

  look back upon the people, all of whom had their eyes fixed upon the

  minister. A sad smile gleamed faintly from beneath the black veil, and

  flickered about his mouth, glimmering as he disappeared.

  "How strange," said a lady, "that a simple black veil, such as

  any woman might wear on her bonnet, should become such a terrible

  thing on Mr. Hooper's face!"

  "Something must surely be amiss with Mr. Hooper's intellects,"

  observed her husband, the physician of the village. "But the strangest

  part of the affair is the effect of this vagary, even on a

  sober-minded man like myself. The black veil, though it covers only

  our pastor's face, throws its influence over his whole person, and

  makes him ghostlike from head to foot. Do you not feel it so?"

  "Truly do I," replied the lady; "and I would not be alone with

  him for the world. I wonder he is not afraid to be alone with


  "Men sometimes are so," said her husband.

  The afternoon service was attended with similar circumstances. At

  its conclusion, the bell tolled for the funeral of a young lady. The

  relatives and friends were assembled in the house, and the more

  distant acquaintances stood about the door, speaking of the good

  qualities of the deceased, when their talk was interrupted by the

  appearance of Mr. Hooper, still covered with his black veil. It was

  now an appropriate emblem. The clergyman stepped into the room where

  the corpse was laid, and bent over the coffin, to take a last farewell

  of his deceased parishioner. As he stooped, the veil hung straight

  down from his forehead, so that, if her eyelids had not been closed

  forever, the dead maiden might have seen his face. Could Mr. Hooper be

  fearful of her glance, that he so hastily caught back the black

  veil? A person who watched the interview between the dead and

  living, scrupled not to affirm, that, at the instant when the

  clergyman's features were disclosed, the corpse had slightly

  shuddered, rustling the shroud and muslin cap, though the

  countenance retained the composure of death. A superstitious old woman

  was the only witness of this prodigy. From the coffin Mr. Hooper

  passed into the chamber of the mourners, and thence to the head of the

  staircase, to make the funeral prayer. It was a tender and

  heart-dissolving prayer, full of sorrow, yet so imbued with

  celestial hopes, that the music of a heavenly harp, swept by the

  fingers of the dead, seemed faintly to be heard among the saddest

  accents of the minister. The people trembled, though they but darkly

  understood him when he prayed that they, and himself, and all of

  mortal race, might be ready, as he trusted this young maiden had been,

  for the dreadful hour that should snatch the veil from their faces.

  The bearers went heavily forth, and the mourners followed, saddening

  all the street, with the dead before them, and Mr. Hooper in his black

  veil behind.

  "Why do you look back?" said one in the procession to his partner.

  I had a fancy," replied she, "that the minister and the maiden's

  spirit were walking hand in hand."

  "And so had I, at the same moment," said the other.

  That night, the handsomest couple in Milford village were to be

  joined in wedlock. Though reckoned a melancholy man, Mr. Hooper had

  a placid cheerfulness for such occasions, which often excited a

  sympathetic smile where livelier merriment would have been thrown

  away. There was no quality of his disposition which made him more

  beloved than this. The company at the wedding awaited his arrival with

  impatience, trusting that the strange awe, which had gathered over him

  throughout the day, would now be dispelled. But such was not the

  result. When Mr. Hooper came, the first thing that their eyes rested

  on was the same horrible black veil, which had added deeper gloom to

  the funeral, and could portend nothing but evil to the wedding. Such

  was its immediate effect on the guests that a cloud seemed to have

  rolled duskily from beneath the black crape, and dimmed the light of

  the candles. The bridal pair stood up before the minister. But the

  bride's cold fingers quivered in the tremulous hand of the bridegroom,

  and her deathlike paleness caused a whisper that the maiden who had

  been buried a few hours before was come from her grave to be

  married. If ever another wedding were so dismal, it was that famous

  one where they tolled the wedding knell. After performing the

  ceremony, Mr. Hooper raised a glass of wine to his lips, wishing

  happiness to the new-married couple in a strain of mild pleasantry

  that ought to have brightened the features of the guests, like a

  cheerful gleam from the hearth. At that instant, catching a glimpse of

  his figure in the looking-glass, the black veil involved his own

  spirit in the horror with which it overwhelmed all others. His frame

  shuddered, his lips grew white, he spilt the untasted wine upon the

  carpet, and rushed forth into the darkness. For the Earth, too, had on

  her Black Veil.

  The next day, the whole village of Milford talked of little else

  than Parson Hooper's black veil. That, and the mystery concealed

  behind it, supplied a topic for discussion between acquaintances

  meeting in the street, and good women gossiping at their open windows.

  It was the first item of news that the tavern-keeper told to his

  guests. The children babbled of it on their way to school. One

  imitative little imp covered his face with an old black

  handkerchief, thereby so affrighting his playmates that the panic

  seized himself, and he well-nigh lost his wits by his own waggery.

  It was remarkable that of all the busybodies and impertinent people

  in the parish, not one ventured to put the plain question to Mr.

  Hooper, wherefore he did this thing. Hitherto, whenever there appeared
br />   the slightest call for such interference, he had never lacked

  advisers, nor shown himself adverse to be guided by their judgment. If

  he erred at all, it was by so painful a degree of self-distrust,

  that even the mildest censure would lead him to consider an

  indifferent action as a crime. Yet, though so well acquainted with

  this amiable weakness, no individual among his parishioners chose to

  make the black veil a subject of friendly remonstrance. There was a

  feeling of dread, neither plainly confessed nor carefully concealed,

  which caused each to shift the responsibility upon another, till at

  length it was found expedient to send a deputation of the church, in

  order to deal with Mr. Hooper about the mystery, before it should grow

  into a scandal. Never did an embassy so ill discharge its duties.

  The minister received them with friendly courtesy, but became

  silent, after they were seated, leaving to his visitors the whole

  burden of introducing their important business. The topic, it might be

  supposed, was obvious enough. There was the black veil swathed round

  Mr. Hooper's forehead, and concealing every feature above his placid

  mouth, on which, at times, they could perceive the glimmering of a

  melancholy smile. But that piece of crape, to their imagination,

  seemed to hang down before his heart, the symbol of a fearful secret

  between him and them. Were the veil but cast aside, they might speak

  freely of it, but not till then. Thus they sat a considerable time,

  speechless, confused, and shrinking uneasily from Mr. Hooper's eye,

  which they felt to be fixed upon them with an invisible glance.

  Finally, the deputies returned abashed to their constituents,

  pronouncing the matter too weighty to be handled, except by a

  council of the churches, if, indeed, it might not require a general


  But there was one person in the village unappalled by the awe

  with which the black veil had impressed all beside herself. When the

  deputies returned without an explanation, or even venturing to

  demand one, she, with the calm energy of her character, determined

  to chase away the strange cloud that appeared to be settling round Mr.

  Hooper, every moment more darkly than before. As his plighted wife, it

  should be her privilege to know what the black veil concealed. At

  the minister's first visit, therefore, she entered upon the subject

  with a direct simplicity, which made the task easier both for him

  and her. After he had seated himself, she fixed her eyes steadfastly

  upon the veil, but could discern nothing of the dreadful gloom that

  had so overawed the multitude: it was but a double fold of crape,

  hanging down from his forehead to his mouth, and slightly stirring

  with his breath.

  "No," said she aloud, and smiling, "there is nothing terrible in

  this piece of crape, except that it hides a face which I am always

  glad to look upon. Come, good sir, let the sun shine from behind the

  cloud. First lay aside your black veil: then tell me why you put it


  Mr. Hooper's smile glimmered faintly.

  "There is an hour to come," said he, "when all of us shall cast

  aside our veils. Take it not amiss, beloved friend, if I wear this

  piece of crape till then."

  "Your words are a mystery, too," returned the young lady. "Take

  away the veil from them, at least."

  "Elizabeth, I will," said he, "so far as my vow may suffer me.

  Know, then, this veil is a type and a symbol, and I am bound to wear

  it ever, both in light and darkness, in solitude and before the gaze

  of multitudes, and as with strangers, so with my familiar friends.

  No mortal eye will see it withdrawn. This dismal shade must separate

  me from the world: even you, Elizabeth, can never come behind it!"

  "What grievous affliction hath befallen you," she earnestly

  inquired, "that you should thus darken your eyes forever?"

  "If it be a sign of mourning," replied Mr. Hooper, "I, perhaps,