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The Scarlet Letter

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“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, 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!” “Who could have imagined?” the old lady whispered confidentially to Hester. “That holy man! People say that he is a saint on earth, and—I must say—he looks like one! Seeing him in the procession now, who would think that not long ago he left his study to breathe the fresh air of the forest! Well, we know what that means, Hester Prynne! But I find it truly hard to believe that he is the same man. Many church members walking in the procession have joined me in my witchcraft. That means little to a worldly woman. But this minister! Would you have known, Hester, that he was the same man who met you 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!” “Ma’am, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” answered Hester Prynne, sensing that Mistress Hibbins was not in her right mind. Nonetheless, Hester was strangely affected by the bold manner with which she discussed the personal connection between so many people—herself included—and the Devil. “It is not my place to speak lightly of the wise and devout Reverend 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!” “No, woman!” cried the old lady, shaking her finger at Hester. “Do you think that, having been to the forest as often as I have, I cannot tell who else has been there? Even though the flowers they wore in their hair while dancing are gone, I can still tell. I know you, Hester, because I see your symbol. We can all see it in the sunshine, and it glows like a red flame in the dark! You wear it openly, so no one can doubt it. But this minister! Let me whisper in your ear! The Black Man has a way of causing the truth to come to light when he sees one of his own sworn servants acting so shy about the bond they share, as the Reverend Mister Dimmesdale does. His mark will be revealed to the whole world. What is the minister trying 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?” “What is it, Mistress Hibbins?” asked little Pearl eagerly. “Have you seen it?”
“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!” “It doesn’t matter, darling!” answered Mistress Hibbins, bowing deeply to Pearl. “You will see it for yourself eventually. You know, child, they say that you are descended from the Prince of Air! Will you ride with me some lovely night to see your father? Then you will know why 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. The strange woman left, laughing with such a shrill sound that the entire marketplace could hear her.
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. By this point, the introductory prayer had concluded in the meetinghouse and the voice of the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale’s could be heard beginning his sermon. An irresistible urge kept Hester close by. Since the meetinghouse was too crowded to admit another listener, she stood beside the scaffold of the pillory. It was close enough for her to hear the entire sermon, though she could not make out the words. Instead, she heard only the murmur and flow of the minister’s 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 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. His voice was a great gift. The tone and rhythm of his speech could move even a listener who spoke no English. Like all music, it conveyed emotion in a universal language. Although the sound was muffled by its passage through the church walls, Hester Prynne listened so intently and with such great feeling that the sermon held a meaning for her apart from its indistinguishable words. Had she been able to hear the words, their dull meaning might have diminished the sermon’s spiritual significance. Now she heard low sounds, as though the wind was settling down to rest. Then the voice rose again with increasing sweetness and power until it seemed to envelop her in an atmosphere of awe and grandeur. But no matter how majestic the voice became, it always contained a hint of anguish. Shifting between a whisper and a shriek, the audible pain seemed to convey the human suffering felt in every breast. At times, this note of deep pain was all that could be heard—and barely heard at that. An attentive listener could detect this cry of pain even when the minister’s voice grew loud and commanding, assuming all the power it could and nearly causing the church to burst with sound. What was it? The anguish of a human heart, heavy with sorrow and perhaps guilt, revealing its secret to the great heart of mankind and begging, not in vain, for sympathy or forgiveness! This profound and constant undertone gave the minister his great oratorical power.

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