University of Virginia Library


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22. XXII.

Before Hester Prynne could call together her
thoughts, and consider what was practicable to be
done in this new and startling aspect of affairs, the
sound of military music was heard approaching along
a contiguous street. It denoted the advance of the
procession of magistrates and citizens, on its way towards
the meeting-house; where, in compliance with a
custom thus early established, and ever since observed,
the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale was to deliver an Election

Soon the head of the procession showed itself, with
a slow and stately march, turning a corner, and making
its way across the market-place. First came the
music. It comprised a variety of instruments, perhaps
imperfectly adapted to one another, and played with no
great skill, but yet attaining the great object for which
the harmony of drum and clarion addresses itself to
the multitude,—that of imparting a higher and more
heroic air to the scene of life that passes before the
eye. Little Pearl at first clapped her hands, but then
lost, for an instant, the restless agitation that had kept
her in a continual effervescence throughout the morning;
she gazed silently, and seemed to be borne upward,


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like a floating sea-bird, on the long heaves and
swells of sound. But she was brought back to her
former mood by the shimmer of the sunshine on the
weapons and bright armour of the military company,
which followed after the music, and formed the honorary
escort of the procession. This body of soldiery—
which still sustains a corporate existence, and marches
down from past ages with an ancient and honorable
fame—was composed of no mercenary materials. Its
ranks were filled with gentlemen, who felt the stirrings
of martial impulse, and sought to establish a kind of
College of Arms, where, as in an association of Knights
Templars, they might learn the science, and, so far as
peaceful exercise would teach them, the practices of
war. The high estimation then placed upon the military
character might be seen in the lofty port of each
individual member of the company. Some of them,
indeed, by their services in the Low Countries and on
other fields of European warfare, had fairly won their
title to assume the name and pomp of soldiership.
The entire array, moreover, clad in burnished steel,
and with plumage nodding over their bright morions,
had a brilliancy of effect which no modern display can
aspire to equal.

And yet the men of civil eminence, who came immediately
behind the military escort, were better worth
a thoughtful observer's eye. Even in outward demeanour
they showed a stamp of majesty that made the
warrior's haughty stride look vulgar, if not absurd. It
was an age when what we call talent had far less consideration
than now, but the massive materials which


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produce stability and dignity of character a great deal
more. The people possessed, by hereditary right, the
quality of reverence; which, in their descendants, if it
survive at all, exists in smaller proportion, and with a
vastly diminished force in the selection and estimate of
public men. The change may be for good or ill, and
is partly, perhaps, for both. In that old day, the English
settler on these rude shores,—having left king,
nobles, and all degrees of awful rank behind, while
still the faculty and necessity of reverence were strong
in him,—bestowed it on the white hair and venerable
brow of age; on long-tried integrity; on solid wisdom
and sad-colored experience; on endowments of that
grave and weighty order, which gives the idea of permanence,
and comes under the general definition of
respectability. These primitive statesmen, therefore,
—Bradstreet, Endicott, Dudley, Bellingham, and their
compeers,—who were elevated to power by the early
choice of the people, seem to have been not often brilliant,
but distinguished by a ponderous sobriety, rather
than activity of intellect. They had fortitude and self-reliance,
and, in time of difficulty or peril, stood up for
the welfare of the state like a line of cliffs against a
tempestuous tide. The traits of character here indicated
were well represented in the square cast of
countenance and large physical development of the
new colonial magistrates. So far as a demeanour of
natural authority was concerned, the mother country
need not have been ashamed to see these foremost
men of an actual democracy adopted into the House
of Peers, or made the Privy Council of the sovereign.


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Next in order to the magistrates came the young
and eminently distinguished divine, from whose lips the
religious discourse of the anniversary was expected.
His was the profession, at that era, in which intellectual
ability displayed itself far more than in political life;
for—leaving a higher motive out of the question—it
offered inducements powerful enough, in the almost
worshipping respect of the community, to win the most
aspiring ambition into its service. Even political power
—as in the case of Increase Mather—was within the
grasp of a successful priest.

It was the observation of those who beheld him now,
that never, since Mr. Dimmesdale first set his foot on
the New England shore, had he exhibited such energy
as was seen in the gait and air with which he kept his
pace in the procession. There was no feebleness of
step, as at other times; his frame was not bent; nor
did his hand rest ominously upon his heart. Yet, if the
clergyman were rightly viewed, his strength seemed
not of the body. It might be spiritual, and imparted
to him by angelic ministrations. It might be the exhilaration
of that potent cordial, which is distilled only
in the furnace-glow of earnest and long-continued
thought. Or, perchance, his sensitive temperament
was invigorated by the loud and piercing music, that
swelled heavenward, and uplifted him on its ascending
wave. Nevertheless, so abstracted was his look, it
might be questioned whether Mr. Dimmesdale even
heard the music. There was his body, moving onward,
and with an unaccustomed force. But where
was his mind? Far and deep in its own region, busying


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itself, with preternatural activity, to marshal a procession
of stately thoughts that were soon to issue
thence; and so he saw nothing, heard nothing, knew
nothing, of what was around him; but the spiritual element
took up the feeble frame, and carried it along,
unconscious of the burden, and converting it to spirit
like itself. Men of uncommon intellect, who have
grown morbid, possess this occasional power of mighty
effort, into which they throw the life of many days,
and then are lifeless for as many more.

Hester Prynne, gazing steadfastly at the clergyman,
felt a dreary influence come over her, but wherefore or
whence she knew not; unless that he seemed so remote
from her own sphere, and utterly beyond her reach.
One glance of recognition, she had imagined, must needs
pass between them. She thought of the dim forest,
with its little dell of solitude, and love, and anguish, and
the mossy tree-trunk, where, sitting hand in hand, they
had mingled their sad and passionate talk with the
melancholy murmur of the brook. How deeply had
they known each other then! And was this the man?
She hardly knew him now! He, moving proudly past,
enveloped, as it were, in the rich music, with the procession
of majestic and venerable fathers; he, so unattainable
in his worldly position, and still more so in that
far vista of his unsympathizing thoughts, through which
she now beheld him! Her spirit sank with the idea
that all must have been a delusion, and that, vividly as
she had dreamed it, there could be no real bond betwixt
the clergyman and herself. And thus much of
woman was there in Hester, that she could scarcely


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forgive him,—least of all now, when the heavy footstep
of their approaching Fate might be heard, nearer,
nearer, nearer!—for being able so completely to withdraw
himself from their mutual world; while she
groped darkly, and stretched forth her cold hands, and
found him not.

Pearl either saw and responded to her mother's feelings,
or herself felt the remoteness and intangibility
that had fallen around the minister. While the procession
passed, the child was uneasy, fluttering up and
down, like a bird on the point of taking flight. When
the whole had gone by, she looked up into Hester's

“Mother,” said she, “was that the same minister
that kissed me by the brook?”

“Hold thy peace, dear little Pearl!” whispered her
mother. “We must not always talk in the marketplace
of what happens to us in the forest.”

“I could not be sure it was he; so strange he
looked,” continued the child. “Else I would have run
to him, and bid him kiss me now, before all the people;
even as he did yonder among the dark old trees. What
would the minister have said, mother? Would he
have clapped his hand over his heart, and scowled on
me, and bid me begone?”

“What should he say, Pearl,” answered Hester,
“save that it was no time to kiss, and that kisses are
not to be given in the market-place? Well for thee,
foolish child, that thou didst not speak to him!”

Another shade of the same sentiment, in reference
to Mr. Dimmesdale, was expressed by a person whose


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eccentricities—or insanity, as we should term it—led
her to do what few of the townspeople would have
ventured on; to begin a conversation with the wearer
of the scarlet letter, in public. It was Mistress Hibbins,
who, arrayed in great magnificence, with a
triple ruff, a broidered stomacher, a gown of rich velvet,
and a gold-headed cane, had come forth to see
the procession. As this ancient lady had the renown
(which subsequently cost her no less a price than her
life) of being a principal actor in all the works of necromancy
that were continually going forward, the
crowd gave way before her, and seemed to fear the
touch of her garment, as if it carried the plague among
its gorgeous folds. Seen in conjunction with Hester
Prynne,—kindly as so many now felt towards the
latter,—the dread inspired by Mistress Hibbins was
doubled, and caused a general movement from that
part of the market-place in which the two women stood.

“Now, what mortal imagination could conceive it!”
whispered the old lady confidentially to Hester. “Yonder
divine man! That saint on earth, as the people uphold
him to be, and as—I must needs say—he really
looks! Who, now, that saw him pass in the procession,
would think how little while it is since he went
forth out of his study,—chewing a Hebrew text of
Scripture in his mouth, I warrant,—to take an airing
in the forest! Aha! we know what that means, Hester
Prynne! But, truly, forsooth, I find it hard to believe
him the same man. Many a church-member saw
I, walking behind the music, that has danced in the
same measure with me, when Somebody was fiddler,


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and, it might be, an Indian powwow or a Lapland wizard
changing hands with us! That is but a trifle, when a
woman knows the world. But this minister! Couldst
thou surely tell, Hester, whether he was the same man
that encountered thee on the forest-path!”

“Madam, I know not of what you speak,” answered
Hester Prynne, feeling Mistress Hibbins to be of infirm
mind; yet strangely startled and awe-stricken by the
confidence with which she affirmed a personal connection
between so many persons (herself among them)
and the Evil One. “It is not for me to talk lightly of
a learned and pious minister of the Word, like the
Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale!”

“Fie, woman, fie!” cried the old lady, shaking her
finger at Hester. “Dost thou think I have been to the
forest so many times, and have yet no skill to judge
who else has been there? Yea; though no leaf of the
wild garlands, which they wore while they danced, be
left in their hair! I know thee, Hester; for I behold
the token. We may all see it in the sunshine; and it
glows like a red flame in the dark. Thou wearest it
openly; so there need be no question about that. But
this minister! Let me tell thee in thine ear! When
the Black Man sees one of his own servants, signed
and sealed, so shy of owning to the bond as is the
Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, he hath a way of ordering
matters so that the mark shall be disclosed in open daylight
to the eyes of all the world! What is it that the
minister seeks to hide, with his hand always over his
heart? Ha, Hester Prynne!”

“What is it, good Mistress Hibbins?” eagerly
asked little Pearl. “Hast thou seen it?”


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“No matter, darling!” responded Mistress Hibbins,
making Pearl a profound reverence. “Thou thyself
wilt see it, one time or another. They say, child, thou
art of the lineage of the Prince of the Air! Wilt
thou ride with me, some fine night, to see thy father?
Then thou shalt know wherefore the minister keeps his
hand over his heart!”

Laughing so shrilly that all the market-place could
hear her, the weird old gentlewoman took her departure.

By this time the preliminary prayer had been offered
in the meeting-house, and the accents of the Reverend
Mr. Dimmesdale were heard commencing his discourse.
An irresistible feeling kept Hester near the
spot. As the sacred edifice was too much thronged to
admit another auditor, she took up her position close
beside the scaffold of the pillory. It was in sufficient
proximity to bring the whole sermon to her ears, in the
shape of an indistinct, but varied, murmur and flow of
the minister's very peculiar voice.

This vocal organ was in itself a rich endowment;
insomuch that a listener, comprehending nothing of the
language in which the preacher spoke, might still have
been swayed to and fro by the mere tone and cadence.
Like all other music, it breathed passion and pathos,
and emotions high or tender, in a tongue native to the
human heart, wherever educated. Muffled as the
sound was by its passage through the church-walls,
Hester Prynne listened with such intentness, and sympathized
so intimately, that the sermon had throughout
a meaning for her, entirely apart from its indistinguishable


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words. These, perhaps, if more distinctly heard,
might have been only a grosser medium, and have
clogged the spiritual sense. Now she caught the low
undertone, as of the wind sinking down to repose
itself; then ascended with it, as it rose through progressive
gradations of sweetness and power, until its volume
seemed to envelop her with an atmosphere of awe and
solemn grandeur. And yet, majestic as the voice
sometimes became, there was for ever in it an essential
character of plaintiveness. A loud or low expression of
anguish,—the whisper, or the shriek, as it might be conceived,
of suffering humanity, that touched a sensibility
in every bosom! At times this deep strain of pathos
was all that could be heard, and scarcely heard, sighing
amid a desolate silence. But even when the minister's
voice grew high and commanding,—when it
gushed irrepressibly upward,—when it assumed its
utmost breadth and power, so overfilling the church as
to burst its way through the solid walls, and diffuse
itself in the open air,—still, if the auditor listened intently,
and for the purpose, he could detect the same
cry of pain. What was it? The complaint of a
human heart, sorrow-laden, perchance guilty, telling
its secret, whether of guilt or sorrow, to the great heart
of mankind; beseeching its sympathy or forgiveness,
—at every moment,—in each accent,—and never in
vain! It was this profound and continual undertone
that gave the clergyman his most appropriate power.

During all this time Hester stood, statue-like, at the
foot of the scaffold. If the minister's voice had not
kept her there, there would nevertheless have been an


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inevitable magnetism in that spot, whence she dated the
first hour of her life of ignominy. There was a sense
within her,—too ill-defined to be made a thought, but
weighing heavily on her mind,—that her whole orb of
life, both before and after, was connected with this
spot, as with the one point that gave it unity.

Little Pearl, meanwhile, had quitted her mother's
side, and was playing at her own will about the market-place.
She made the sombre crowd cheerful by her
erratic and glistening ray; even as a bird of bright
plumage illuminates a whole tree of dusky foliage by
darting to and fro, half seen and half concealed, amid
the twilight of the clustering leaves. She had an undulating,
but, oftentimes, a sharp and irregular movement.
It indicated the restless vivacity of her spirit,
which to-day was doubly indefatigable in its tiptoe
dance, because it was played upon and vibrated with
her mother's disquietude. Whenever Pearl saw any
thing to excite her ever active and wandering curiosity,
she flew thitherward, and, as we might say, seized
upon that man or thing as her own property, so far as
she desired it; but without yielding the minutest degree
of control over her motions in requital. The Puritans
looked on, and, if they smiled, were none the less inclined
to pronounce the child a demon offspring, from
the indescribable charm of beauty and eccentricity that
shone through her little figure, and sparkled with its
activity. She ran and looked the wild Indian in the
face; and he grew conscious of a nature wilder than
his own. Thence, with native audacity, but still with a
reserve as characteristic, she flew into the midst of a


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group of mariners, the swarthy-cheeked wild men of
the ocean, as the Indians were of the land; and they
gazed wonderingly and admiringly at Pearl, as if a
flake of the sea-foam had taken the shape of a little
maid, and were gifted with a soul of the sea-fire, that
flashes beneath the prow in the night-time.

One of these seafaring men—the shipmaster, indeed,
who had spoken to Hester Prynne—was so
smitten with Pearl's aspect, that he attempted to lay
hands upon her, with purpose to snatch a kiss. Finding
it as impossible to touch her as to catch a humming-bird
in the air, he took from his hat the gold
chain that was twisted about it, and threw it to the
child. Pearl immediately twined it around her neck
and waist, with such happy skill, that, once seen there,
it became a part of her, and it was difficult to imagine
her without it.

“Thy mother is yonder woman with the scarlet
letter,” said the seaman. “Wilt thou carry her a
message from me?”

“If the message pleases me I will,” answered

“Then tell her,” rejoined he, “that I spake again
with the black-a-visaged, hump-shouldered old doctor,
and he engages to bring his friend, the gentleman she
wots of, aboard with him. So let thy mother take no
thought, save for herself and thee. Wilt thou tell her
this, thou witch-baby?”

“Mistress Hibbins says my father is the Prince of
the Air!” cried Pearl, with her naughty smile. “If
thou callest me that ill name, I shall tell him of thee;
and he will chase thy ship with a tempest!”


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Pursuing a zigzag course across the market-place,
the child returned to her mother, and communicated
what the mariner had said. Hester's strong, calm,
steadfastly enduring spirit almost sank, at last, on beholding
this dark and grim countenance of an inevitable
doom, which—at the moment when a passage
seemed to open for the minister and herself out of
their labyrinth of misery—showed itself, with an unrelenting
smile, right in the midst of their path.

With her mind harrassed by the terrible perplexity
in which the shipmaster's intelligence involved her, she
was also subjected to another trial. There were many
people present, from the country roundabout, who had
often heard of the scarlet letter, and to whom it had
been made terrific by a hundred false or exaggerated
rumors, but who had never beheld it with their own
bodily eyes. These, after exhausting other modes
of amusement, now thronged about Hester Prynne
with rude and boorish intrusiveness. Unscrupulous
as it was, however, it could not bring them nearer
than a circuit of several yards. At that distance they
accordingly stood, fixed there by the centrifugal force
of the repugnance which the mystic symbol inspired.
The whole gang of sailors, likewise, observing the
press of spectators, and learning the purport of the
scarlet letter, came and thrust their sunburnt and desperado-looking
faces into the ring. Even the Indians
were affected by a sort of cold shadow of the white
man's curiosity, and, gliding through the crowd, fastened
their snake-like black eyes on Hester's bosom;
conceiving, perhaps, that the wearer of this brilliantly


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embroidered badge must needs be a personage of high
dignity among her people. Lastly, the inhabitants
of the town (their own interest in this worn-out subject
languidly reviving itself, by sympathy with what
they saw others feel) lounged idly to the same quarter,
and tormented Hester Prynne, perhaps more than
all the rest, with their cool, well-acquainted gaze at her
familiar shame. Hester saw and recognized the self-same
faces of that group of matrons, who had awaited
her forthcoming from the prison-door, seven years
ago; all save one, the youngest and only compassionate
among them, whose burial-robe she had since
made. At the final hour, when she was so soon to
fling aside the burning letter, it had strangely become
the centre of more remark and excitement, and was
thus made to sear her breast more painfully than at
any time since the first day she put it on.

While Hester stood in that magic circle of ignominy,
where the cunning cruelty of her sentence seemed to
have fixed her for ever, the admirable preacher was
looking down from the sacred pulpit upon an audience,
whose very inmost spirits had yielded to his control.
The sainted minister in the church! The woman of
the scarlet letter in the market-place! What imagination
would have been irreverent enough to surmise
that the same scorching stigma was on them both?