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The Scarlet Letter

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Again, a third instance. After parting from the old church-member, he met the youngest sister of them all. It was a maiden newly won—and won by the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale’s own sermon, on the Sabbath after his vigil—to barter the transitory pleasures of the world for the heavenly hope, that was to assume brighter substance as life grew dark around her, and which would gild the utter gloom with final glory. She was fair and pure as a lily that had bloomed in Paradise. The minister knew well that he was himself enshrined within the stainless sanctity of her heart, which hung its snowy curtains about his image, imparting to religion the warmth of love, and to love a religious purity. Satan, that afternoon, had surely led the poor young girl away from her mother’s side, and thrown her into the pathway of this sorely tempted, or—shall we not rather say?—this lost and desperate man. As she drew nigh, the arch-fiend whispered him to condense into small compass and drop into her tender bosom a germ of evil that would be sure to blossom darkly soon, and bear black fruit betimes. Such was his sense of power over this virgin soul, trusting him as she did, that the minister felt potent to blight all the field of innocence with but one wicked look, and develop all its opposite with but a word. So—with a mightier struggle than he had yet sustained—he held his Geneva cloak before his face, and hurried onward, making no sign of recognition, and leaving the young sister to digest his rudeness as she might. She ransacked her conscience,—which was full of harmless little matters, like her pocket or her work-bag,—and took herself to task, poor thing, for a thousand imaginary faults; and went about her household duties with swollen eyelids the next morning. And this happened a third time. After parting from that aged church member, he met the youngest of them all. It was a young woman newly claimed for God’s kingdom, won over by Mr. Dimmesdale himself. The morning after he stood on the platform, the minister had convinced her to trade the fleeting pleasures of the world for the hope of an everlasting life to come. She was as lovely and as pure as a lily that had bloomed in Paradise. The minister knew she had enshrined him in her heart, where she hung pure white curtains around his image—giving religion the warmth of love, and love the purity of religion. That afternoon, Satan had surely led this poor young girl away from her mother and put her in the path of this tempted, lost, and desperate man. As she drew close, the Devil whispered to him that he should drop an evil seed in her heart and watch it blossom and bear black fruit. The minister felt such power over this pure soul, who trusted him so much. He could destroy her innocence with just one wicked look and develop her lust with only a word. After a great struggle, he covered his face with his cloak and hurried past the woman without greeting her, leaving her to interpret his rudeness however she wanted. She rifled through her conscience, which was as full of little nothings as her pocket. She took herself to task—poor thing!—for a thousand imaginary faults and cried herself to sleep that night.
Before the minister had time to celebrate his victory over this last temptation, he was conscious of another impulse, more ludicrous, and almost as horrible. It was,—we blush to tell it,—it was to stop short in the road, and teach some wicked words to a knot of little Puritan children who were playing there, and had but just begun to talk. Denying himself this freak, as unworthy of his cloth, he met a drunken seaman, one of the ship’s crew from the Spanish Main. And, here, since he had so valiantly forborne all other wickedness, poor Mr. Dimmesdale longed, at least, to shake hands with the tarry blackguard, and recreate himself with a few improper jests, such as dissolute sailors so abound with, and a volley of good, round, solid, satisfactory, and Heaven-defying oaths! It was not so much a better principle, as partly his natural good taste, and still more his buckramed habit of clerical decorum, that carried him safely through the latter crisis. Before the minister had time to celebrate his victory over this last temptation, he became aware of another impulse. It was more absurd than what had come before and almost as horrible. It was (I blush to describe it) to teach some wicked words to a cluster of little Puritan children who were playing in the road. These kids had only just learned to talk. Restraining himself from this, he met a drunken sailor, a crewman from the Spanish ship. Since he had so courageously resisted all other wickedness, Mr. Dimmesdale longed to at least shake hands with the man. He would enjoy a few off-color jokes, which sailors are so full of, and a barrage of good, solid, anti-God curses! It was not exactly his better principles that kept him from doing so, as much as his natural good taste and habitual decorum.
“What is it that haunts and tempts me thus?” cried the minister to himself, at length, pausing in the street, and striking his hand against his forehead. “Am I mad? or am I given over utterly to the fiend? Did I make a contract with him in the forest, and sign it with my blood? And does he now summon me to its fulfilment, by suggesting the performance of every wickedness which his most foul imagination can conceive?” “What is it that haunts and tempts me like this?” cried the minister to himself. He paused in the street and hit his hand against his forehead.“Have I gone crazy? Or have I given my soul to the Devil? Did I make a deal with him in the forest and sign it with my blood? And is he now demanding I hold up my end of the bargain by suggesting as many evil deeds as his hellish imagination can dream up?
At the moment when the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale thus communed with himself, and struck his forehead with his hand, old Mistress Hibbins, the reputed witch-lady, is said to have been passing by. She made a very grand appearance; having on a high head-dress, a rich gown of velvet, and a ruff done up with the famous yellow starch, of which Ann Turner, her especial friend, had taught her the secret, before this last good lady had been hanged for Sir Thomas Overbury’s murder. Whether the witch had read the minister’s thoughts, or no, she came to a full stop, looked shrewdly into his face, smiled craftily, and—though little given to converse with clergymen—began a conversation. At the moment when the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale was speaking to himself in this way, and striking his forehead with his hand, it is said that old Mistress Hibbins, the rumored witch, passed by. She wore a large headdress, a rich velvet gown, and a heavily starched ruff. It was a special starch: Her friend Anne Turner taught her the trick before the good lady had been hanged for Sir Thomas Overbury’s murder. Maybe the witch had read the minister’s thoughts and maybe she hadn’t, but either way she stopped, looked into his face, and smiled craftily. Though she didn’t often speak to clergymen, she began a conversation.
“So, reverend Sir, you have made a visit into the forest,” observed the witch-lady, nodding her high head-dress at him. “The next time, I pray you to allow me only a fair warning, and I shall be proud to bear you company. Without taking overmuch upon myself, my good word will go far towards gaining any strange gentleman a fair reception from yonder potentate you wot of!” “So, reverend sir, you have visited the forest,” observed the witch-lady, nodding her high headdress at him. “The next time you go, let me know and I will be proud to keep you company. I don’t mean to brag, but a good word from me will help you get in good with that powerful man of whom you know.”

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