Skip over navigation

The Scarlet Letter

Original Text

Modern Text

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 Sermon. Before Hester could gather her thoughts and consider what she ought to do with this new and startling information, the sound of military music approached along a nearby street. It signaled the procession of magistrates and citizens on its way toward the meetinghouse. According to a custom established early and observed ever since, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale would there deliver an Election Sermon.
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, 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. The front of the procession soon arrived with a slow and stately march. It turned a corner and made its way across the marketplace. The band came first. It contained a variety of instruments, poorly selected and badly played. Yet they achieved their objective, giving a higher and more heroic impression to the scene. Little Pearl clapped her hands at first but then for a moment lost the energy that had kept her in continual motion all morning. She gazed silently, seemingly carried on the waves of sound and as a seabird is carried on the wind. She was brought back to earth by the gleam of the sunshine on the weapons and bright armor of the military company. The soldiers followed the band as an honorary escort for the procession. The company, which still exists today, contained no mercenaries. Its ranks were filled with gentlemen who wished to be soldiers and sought to establish a sort of College of Arms where they might learn the theory and, as far as peaceful exercises could teach, practice of war. The pride each member of the company carried himself with testified to the great value placed on military character at that time. Some of them had served in European wars and could rightly claim the title and stature of a soldier. The entire company, dressed in polished steel with feathers topping their shining helmets, had a brilliant effect that no modern display can hope 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 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. Still, it is the eminent statesmen following immediately after the military escort who deserve a more thoughtful observation. Even outwardly, they showed the mark of majesty that made the soldier’s proud stride look cheap, if not absurd. This was an age when talent carried less weight than it does today. The burdensome materials that produce stability and dignity of character were much more important to the people. Our ancestors were more inclined to revere their superiors than we are in this day and age. Reverence is neither earned nor given today as it was then, and therefore it plays a much smaller role in political life. The change may be for good or ill—perhaps a bit of both. But in those bygone days the English settler on those uncultured shores, having left behind the king, noblemen, and all sorts of social hierarchy, still felt the urge to employ his sense of reverence. So he bestowed that reverence upon those whose white hair and wrinkled brow signified age, whose integrity had been tested and passed, who possess solid wisdom and sober experience, whose grave and stately attitude gives the impression of permanence, and generally passes for respectability. The early leaders elected to power by their people were rarely brilliant. They distinguished themselves by a thoughtful seriousness rather than an active intellect. They were strong and self-reliant. In difficult or dangerous times, they stood up for the good of the state like a line of cliffs against a stormy tide. These qualities were well represented in the square faces and large forms of the colonial magistrates taking office on that day. As far as the appearance of natural authority was concerned, these democratically elected leaders would have fit in perfectly at England’s House of Lords or the king’s Privy Council.
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. Following the magistrates came the young, distinguished minister expected to give a sermon that day. In that era, clergymen displayed more intellectual ability than politicians. Putting spiritual motivations aside, the ministry offered to an ambitious man many attractive incentives, notably the almost worshipping respect of the community. Even political power was within the grasp of a successful minister.

More Help

Previous Next