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The Scarlet Letter

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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 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. Those who saw him felt that Mr. Dimmesdale had never walked with such energy as he did on that day. There was no feebleness in his step, as there had been at other times. His body was not stooped, nor did his hand rest ominously upon his heart. And yet, when properly observed, the minister’s strength did not seem physical. Perhaps it was spiritual, a gift of the angels. Perhaps he was fortified by the liquor of the mind, distilled over a slow fire of serious thought. Or maybe his sensitive temperament was enlivened by the loud, piercing music that lifted him toward Heaven on its rising wave. Yet he wore a look so distant and removed that it was not clear that Mr. Dimmesdale even heard the music. His body was there, moving forward with an uncharacteristic force. But where was his mind? Deep within itself. His mind busied itself with otherworldly activity as it directed a procession of grand thoughts that would soon be marching out. He saw nothing, heard nothing, and was aware of nothing around him. But his spirit carried his feeble body along, unaware of the burden as it converted the body to spirit like itself. On occasion, men of great intellect who have grown sick can muster up a mighty effort. They throw several days’ energies into that effort and then are left lifeless for several days after.
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 forgive him,—least of all now, when the heavy foot-step of their approaching Fate might be heard, 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. Hester Prynne felt an unsettling influence come over her as she gazed steadily at the minister. She didn’t know where this feeling came from, though it may have been that the minister seemed distant from her, so completely beyond her reach. She had imagined that a fleeting glance of recognition would pass between them. She thought of the dim forest, with its little place of solitude and love and pain. She thought of the mossy tree trunk where, sitting hand in hand, their sad and passionate conversation mixed in with the sad babble of the brook. They had known each other so deeply then! Was this the same man? She hardly recognized him! He was moving proudly past her, surrounded by rich music and majestic old men. He seemed unattainable in his worldly position, but even more so in his self-contained thoughts! Hester’s spirit sank at the feeling that it all must have been a delusion. Though she had dreamed it so vividly, perhaps there could be no real connection between the minister and herself. Hester was enough of a woman that she could barely forgive him for being able to withdraw himself so completely from their mutual world—and now of all times, when fate was approaching with a heavy footstep. Hester groped in that dark world with her hands outstretched, but she did not find him.
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 face. Pearl either sensed her mother’s feeling and responded to them or felt herself how distant the minister had become. The child was restless as the procession went by. She fluttered up and down like a bird about to take flight. When it had passed, she looked up into Hester’s face.
“Mother,” said she, “was that the same minister that kissed me by the brook?” “Mother,” she said, “was that the same minister who kissed me by the brook?”
“Hold thy peace, dear little Pearl!” whispered her mother. “We must not always talk in the market-place of what happens to us in the forest.” “Hush, my dear little Pearl,” her mother whispered. “We cannot always talk in public about what happens to us in the privacy of the woods.”
“I could not be sure that 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 and bid me begone?” “He looked so different that I couldn’t be sure it was him,” the child went on. “I would have run to him and asked him to kiss me now, in front of all these people, just as did among those dark old trees. What would the minister have said, mother? Would he have put his hand over his heart, scowled at me, and told me to go away?”
“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!” “What would you expect him to say, Pearl,” answered Hester, “except that it wasn’t the proper time or place to kiss? Foolish child, it’s a good thing you didn’t speak to him!”
Another shade of the same sentiment, in reference to Mr. Dimmesdale, was expressed by a person whose 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. Mistress Hibbins felt the same way about Mr. Dimmesdale. Her eccentricities, which we would have called insanity, led her to do what few of the townspeople would have dared: She began a conversation with Hester in public. She had dressed magnificently, to the point of extravagance, to come see the procession. Since this old woman had the reputation for being a witch—a reputation that would later cost her life—the crowd parted before her. People seemed afraid of the touch of her clothes, as though they carried an infectious disease within their gorgeous folds. Though by this point many people felt warmly toward Hester Prynne, by standing next to Mistress Hibbins she had doubled the dread the old woman usually inspired. The crowd moved away from the area of the marketplace where the two women stood.

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