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The Scarlet Letter

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This phenomenon, in the various shapes which it assumed, indicated no external change, but so sudden and important a change in the spectator of the familiar scene, that the intervening space of a single day had operated on his consciousness like the lapse of years. The minister’s own will, and Hester’s will, and the fate that grew between them, had wrought this transformation. It was the same town as heretofore; but the same minister returned not from the forest. He might have said to the friends who greeted him,—“I am not the man for whom you take me! I left him yonder in the forest, withdrawn into a secret dell, by a mossy tree-trunk, and near a melancholy brook! Go, seek your minister, and see if his emaciated figure, his thin cheek, his white, heavy, pain-wrinkled brow, be not flung down there like a cast-off garment!” His friends, no doubt, would still have insisted with him,—“Thou art thyself the man!”—but the error would have been their own, not his. The town hadn’t changed. Rather, there had been a sudden and important change in the viewer of this familiar scene. One day had worked on his mind like the passage of many years. The minister’s will, and Hester’s will, and the fate that bound them together had created this transformation. It was the same town as before, but not the same minister. He could have said to the friends who greeted him: “I am not the man you think I am! I left him back there in the forest, in a secret dell by a mossy tree trunk, near a melancholy brook! Go look for your minister there, and see if his emaciated body, his thin cheek, and his white brow, wrinkled in pain, aren’t all left behind there, cast aside like old rags!” No doubt, his friends would have kept insisting: “You are the man yourself!” But the error would have been theirs, not his.
Before Mr. Dimmesdale reached home, his inner man gave him other evidences of a revolution in the sphere of thought and feeling. In truth, nothing short of a total change of dynasty and moral code, in that interior kingdom, was adequate to account for the impulses now communicated to the unfortunate and startled minister. At every step he was incited to do some strange, wild, wicked thing or other, with a sense that it would be at once involuntary and intentional; in spite of himself, yet growing out of a profounder self than that which opposed the impulse. For instance, he met one of his own deacons. The good old man addressed him with the paternal affection and patriarchal privilege, which his venerable age, his upright and holy character, and his station in the Church, entitled him to use; and, conjoined with this, the deep, almost worshipping respect, which the minister’s professional and private claims alike demanded. Never was there a more beautiful example of how the majesty of age and wisdom may comport with the obeisance and respect enjoined upon it, as from a lower social rank and inferior order of endowment, towards a higher. Now, during a conversation of some two or three moments between the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale and this excellent and hoary-bearded deacon, it was only by the most careful self-control that the former could refrain from uttering certain blasphemous suggestions that rose into his mind, respecting the communion-supper. He absolutely trembled and turned pale as ashes, lest his tongue should wag itself, in utterance of these horrible matters, and plead his own consent for so doing, without his having fairly given it. And, even with this terror in his heart, he could hardly avoid laughing to imagine how the sanctified old patriarchal deacon would have been petrified by his minister’s impiety! Before Mr. Dimmesdale reached home, his mind gave him more evidence of a revolution in his thoughts and feelings. Only a total change in his morals could explain the impulses that now startled the minister. At every turn, he was inclined to do something strange, or wild, or wicked—and he had the sense that doing these things would be both unintentional and intentional. He would be acting in spite of himself, yet in agreement with some deeper self. For instance, he met one of the deacons from his church. The good old man addressed Mr. Dimmesdale with the fatherly affection and privilege the deacon’s age, character, and position gave him and with the graciousness and respect the minister’s stature demanded. It was a beautiful example of how wise old age can pay its respects to a man of superior accomplishments. The two men talked for only a few moments, during which Mr. Dimmesdale could barely keep himself from shouting blasphemies at this excellent and gray-haired deacon. He trembled and turned pale, afraid that his tongue would speak his thoughts aloud and claim that he had consented to the speech. But even with this terror in his heart, he could hardly keep from laughing at the thought of how the holy old deacon would react to his minister’s crude outburst.
Again, another incident of the same nature. Hurrying along the street, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale encountered the eldest female member of his church; a most pious and exemplary old dame; poor, widowed, lonely, and with a heart as full of reminiscences about her dead husband and children, and her dead friends of long ago, as a burial-ground is full of storied gravestones. Yet all this, which would else have been such heavy sorrow, was made almost a solemn joy to her devout old soul by religious consolations and the truths of Scripture, wherewith she had fed herself continually for more than thirty years. And, since Mr. Dimmesdale had taken her in charge, the good grandam’s chief earthly comfort—which, unless it had been likewise a heavenly comfort, could have been none at all—was to meet her pastor, whether casually, or of set purpose, and be refreshed with a word of warm, fragrant, Heaven-breathing Gospel truth from his beloved lips into her dulled, but rapturously attentive ear. But, on this occasion, up to the moment of putting his lips to the old woman’s ear, Mr. Dimmesdale, as the great enemy of souls would have it, could recall no text of Scripture, nor aught else, except a brief, pithy, and, as it then appeared to him, unanswerable argument against the immortality of the human soul. The instilment thereof into her mind would probably have caused this aged sister to drop down dead, at once, as by the effect of an intensely poisonous infusion. What he really did whisper, the minister could never afterwards recollect. There was, perhaps, a fortunate disorder in his utterance, which failed to impart any distinct idea to the good widow’s comprehension, or which Providence interpreted after a method of its own. Assuredly, as the minister looked back, he beheld an expression of divine gratitude and ecstasy that seemed like the shine of the celestial city on her face, so wrinkled and ashy pale. And similar things kept happening. As he hurried along the street, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale ran into the eldest member of his church. She was a holy old woman, a poor lonely widow with a heart full of memories about her dead husband, her children, and friends of long ago. She could have been deeply sad, but her devotion turned her pain into solemn joy. For thirty years now, she had fed her soul with religious thoughts and the truths of Scripture. Since Mr. Dimmesdale had become her minister, the good old woman’s chief comfort was to see him. Whenever they met, she felt refreshed by the warm words of the gospel that flowed from his lips into her attentive (though slightly deaf) ears. But this time, as he leaned in to speak into the old woman’s ear, Mr. Dimmesdale could recall no word of Scripture, nor anything else—except a brief and seemingly unanswerable argument against life after death. If he had spoken this, the old woman would probably have dropped down dead, as though he’d poured poison in her ear. What he actually whispered, the minister could never recall. Perhaps he said something confusing that didn’t make any real impression. Yet as the minister looked back at her, he saw an expression of holy joy and gratitude that seemed to shine like Heaven itself on her pale, wrinkled face.

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