The Minister’s Black Veil, abridged Nathaniel Hawthorne The sexton1

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The Minister’s Black Veil, abridged

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The sexton1 stood on the porch of the church, ringing the bell. The old people in the village came stooping along the street. Children tripped along beside their parents, or walked proudly in their Sunday best. Good-looking bachelors glanced at pretty young girls and imagined that the Sabbath sun made them even prettier. As the crowds moved into the church, the sexton continued ringing bell while watching for the Reverend Mr. Hooper to come. When he saw the pastor he stopped ringing the bell.

“What has Reverend Hooper got on his face?” the sexton cried out.

Everyone who heard turned and saw the face of Mr. Hooper as he walked slowly toward the church. They all stared in more and more amazement.

“Is this really our pastor?” asked Mr. Gray.

“It certainly is,” replied the sexton. “It is his turn to preach.”

The reason for their wonder may seem small. He was young man of about 30, still single, and dressed in his usual neatness as if a wife had helped him. However, over his forehead and covering his face, down over his nose, was a black veil. It seemed to be made of black crape2 and hid his face completely, except for his mouth and chin. He likely could see through it, though it would darken all things. With this gloomy covering Mr. Hooper arrived, walking slowly and greeting his parishioners.

“It doesn’t seem like good Mr. Hooper’s face could be behind that veil,” said the sexton.

“I don’t like it,” muttered and old woman. “He has changed himself into something awful, just by hiding his face.

“Our pastor has gone mad!” cried Mr. Gray.

The whole congregation was stirred up over this. They all turned their heads to watch him. Mr. Hooper did not seem to notice. He moved on up to the front of the church and went through Scripture, through prayer, through his sermon never removing the veil. Was he hiding his face from God?

Mr. Hooper was a good preacher, though not an energetic one. His sermon today was simple and meant to draw his people toward Heaven. It seemed, however, to be the most powerful sermon he had preached. It was tainted by the gloom of veil. The topic was on secret sin, the things we hide from ourselves and others. People of all ages listened carefully, feeling that Mr. Hooper could peak around that veil and know all their own darkest secrets. They trembled and shook and wished for just a small breeze to blow the veil aside so they could see the face of Mr. Hooper.

They hurried from the building when the service was over. They were eager to talk amongst themselves about this oddity. They huddled in circles, some whispering, some talking loudly, all trying to explain the mystery of the veil. Mr. Hooper soon came along and greeted them all as he did every Sabbath. However, this Sabbath none joined him. None invited him home for dinner. He went away with a sad smile.

“How strange,” commented one lady, “that a simple veil should become such a terrible thing!”

“Something must be wrong with him,” said the woman’s husband. “But the strangest part is that it seems to affect his whole person, not just his face.”

That afternoon there was a funeral for a young girl. Mr. Hooper, still wearing the veil, now seemed to fit in with his gloomy appearance. He stopped at the coffin and bent over to give his last farewell to the girl. Now the veil hung straight down from his forehead, so that had the girl woken from her death, she would have been able to see his face. Mr. Hooper, realizing this fact, quickly pulled the veil to his face. A superstitious old woman watching this thought she saw the body shudder. After the funeral talk, the mourners took the coffin to the cemetery. A woman in the crowd imagined that the pastor and the girl were walking hand in hand.

That night there was a wedding between the most popular couple in town. The wedding crowd eagerly waited for the pastor, who was always a welcomed presence at wedding. They all guessed that he would have finally taken off the veil for an occasion such as this. But when he arrived, the first thing they all saw was the awful veil. It brought with it a cloud of doom over the wedding. The bride trembled and was so pale she looked like the young girl who had died.

The next day the whole town talked about the veil and the mystery behind it. Still, not a single person in town came forward to ask Mr. Hooper about the veil. Though he always took their questions and criticisms well, no one wanted to ask him about the veil. They all told someone else to do it, shifting the responsibility until at last the job fell upon a group of church members. They went to him in fear and sat silently before him. They could not ask him about it as long as it hung over his face.

There was one person who was not afraid. She determined to get rid of this strange gloomy cloud around the minister. She was engaged to him and she felt she should be allowed to know what was behind that veil. So she asked him the next time he visited her. “There is nothing bad about that veil except that it hides your lovely face,” she told him. “Take it off and tell me why you put it on.”

Mr. Hooper smiled. “There is a time when we will all remove our veils,” he said. “But I will wear my veil until then.”

“Your words are a mystery. At least take away the veil.”

“Elizabeth, this is a symbol and I will wear it forever, in light and darkness, in private and in a crowd, with strangers and also with close friends. No one alive will see it taken off. It must separate me from the world, including you, Elizabeth.”

“What has happened to you that you must hid your eyes forever?”

Mr. Hooper replied, “I, as all humans, have many sorrows.”

“But what if no one believes that this is innocent sorrow? You are so loved and respected, but they may think you are hiding some secret sin. For the sake of your job, take off the mask!” She blushed as she hinted at rumors already spreading through the village. But Mr. Hooper just smiled, that same sad smile.

“If I hide my face out of sorrow, there is reason. And if I hide a secret sin, what human shouldn’t do the same?”

And thus he resisted all her pleading. She finally sat in silence, lost in thought, thinking, perhaps, how else she might convince her lover to leave this dark fantasy, which seemed almost a mental illness. A tear rolled down her cheek. But suddenly, she felt the terror of the veil and arose, trembling.

“You feel it then, at last?” he asked sadly.

She didn’t answer, but covered her eyes and turned to leave. He rushed forward and caught her arm.

“Be patient with me, Elizabeth! Do not leave me, though this veil is between us here on Earth. Be mine, and eventually there will be no veil and no darkness in our souls. It is only a mortal3 veil; it is not forever! You don’t know how lonely and afraid I am alone behind this veil. Don’t leave me in this loneliness forever!”

“Lift the veil once and look me in the face,” she said.

“I cannot! Never!” he replied.

“Then goodbye.”

She pulled away from his grasp and left slowly, pausing at the door to give one last shuddering gaze that seemed to go beyond the mystery of the veil. But despite his grief, Mr. Hooper smiled when he thought that only a material symbol had kept him from happiness, even though far worse horrors divide even the best lovers.

From then on, no one tried to get Mr. Hooper to remove the veil or to understand what it hid. Some people guessed it was just a crazy idea he had. But Mr. Hooper was forever affected by it. He was too afraid that even the most gentle and shy of people would turn from him in fear, so he had to give up his normal walks. It saddened him deeply that children ran away from him. This made him believe more than anything that there was some kind of evil within the veil. He himself was so disgusted by it that he could not look in a mirror or even glance at his reflection in a pond. And so a cloud drew over the minister, so that he remained in sadness; no love or pity could relieve him. Even the wind respected his sadness and secret and never blew the veil from his face.

Despite the bad it brought to him, the veil did make Mr. Hooper a better minister. People suffering in sin found that he could sympathize with them. People came from all over to see his veil, and his sermons were delivered with great power.

And so Mr. Hooper lived a long life, behaving perfectly and yet surround by suspicion. He was kind and loving and yet feared. He lived alone, up to the end of his life when his turn came to rest.

Several people were there at his deathbed. He had no family, but there was a doctor, and some of the deacons and other members of the church. A younger minster was also there, and a nurse—a lady who’s affection for him had lived on in secret. It was Elizabeth! There lay Mr. Hooper on his deathbed, the veil still covering his face. It had been there all the rest of his life, keeping him from love and friendships, and now, still there in his final hour.

Even though his mind had faded and he showed confusion about where he was, in moments of complete insanity, he still worried that the veil would slip. The loyal woman at his pillow would have turned her eyes and covered his face if this had happened.

At last his breathing grew weak. The young minister came close.

“Great Mr. Hooper, the moment of rest is here. Are you ready to lift the veil that shuts you out from eternity?”

Mr. Hooper at first just weakly moved his hand. Then, afraid this would be misunderstood, he worked up the strength to speak.

“My soul will wait until the veil is lifted.”

“Is it right that a man so devoted to prayer and a blameless lifestyle should leave such a shadow on his memory?” asked the young pastor. “I beg you, brother, let us be glad for you as you go to your reward. Before the veil of eternity is lifted, let me lift this earthly one from your face!”

And he reached forward to remove the veil. With a might effort, Mr. Hooper grasped a hold of the veil and held it tightly until he could speak. “Why do you fear only me?” he asked. “Fear each other! Have people been afraid only because of the veil? What has made this piece of crape so awful expect for what it represents? Who has shown his friend his deepest secrets? What lover has revealed every last dark secret? What man hasn’t tried in vain to hide sin from our Creator? They call me a monster because of the symbol I have lived with and die with. But I look around and see on every face a black veil!”

While everyone shrank back, Mr. Hooper fell back on his pillow, now a veiled corpse. Still veiled, they put him in his coffin and buried him, with the veil. Years passed and grass grew on the grave. His face became dust, but how awful to think that it faded away under that black veil.

1 A church official, like an assistant to a minister

2 A type of fabric, usually used in funeral veils

3 Human, not lasting forever

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