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The Scarlet Letter

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The eloquent voice, on which the souls of the listening audience had been borne aloft, as on the swelling waves of the sea, at length came to a pause. There was a momentary silence, profound as what should follow the utterance of oracles. Then ensued a murmur and half-hushed tumult; as if the auditors, released from the high spell that had transported them into the region of another’s mind, were returning into themselves, with all their awe and wonder still heavy on them. In a moment more, the crowd began to gush forth from the doors of the church. Now that there was an end, they needed other breath, more fit to support the gross and earthly life into which they relapsed, than that atmosphere which the preacher had converted into words of flame, and had burdened with the rich fragrance of his thought. The eloquent voice, which had moved the souls of the audience like waves on the sea, finally grew quiet. For a moment all was silent, as though prophecy had just been spoken. And then there was a murmur, a half-stifled clamor. The listeners, as if waking from a spell, returned to themselves with a mix of awe and wonder still weighing heavily upon them. After another moment, the crowd began to pour out of the church. Now that the sermon was over they needed fresh air, something to support the physical life they were reentering. They needed relief from the atmosphere of flame and deep perfume that the minister’s words had created.
In the open air their rapture broke into speech. The street and the market-place absolutely babbled, from side to side, with applauses of the minister. His hearers could not rest until they had told one another of what each knew better than he could tell or hear. According to their united testimony, never had man spoken in so wise, so high, and so holy a spirit, as he that spake this day; nor had inspiration ever breathed through mortal lips more evidently than it did through his. Its influence could be seen, as it were, descending upon him, and possessing him, and continually lifting him out of the written discourse that lay before him, and filling him with ideas that must have been as marvellous to himself as to his audience. His subject, it appeared, had been the relation between the Deity and the communities of mankind, with a special reference to the New England which they were here planting in the wilderness. And, as he drew towards the close, a spirit as of prophecy had come upon him, constraining him to its purpose as mightily as the old prophets of Israel were constrained; only with this difference, that, whereas the Jewish seers had denounced judgments and ruin on their country, it was his mission to foretell a high and glorious destiny for the newly gathered people of the Lord. But, throughout it all, and through the whole discourse, there had been a certain deep, sad undertone of pathos, which could not be interpreted otherwise than as the natural regret of one soon to pass away. Yes; their minister whom they so loved—and who so loved them all, that he could not depart heavenward without a sigh—had the foreboding of untimely death upon him, and would soon leave them in their tears! This idea of his transitory stay on earth gave the last emphasis to the effect which the preacher had produced; it was as if an angel, in his passage to the skies, had shaken his bright wings over the people for an instant,—at once a shadow and a splendor,—and had shed down a shower of golden truths upon them. Once in the open air, the crowd burst into speech, filling the street and the marketplace with their praise of the minister. They could not rest until they had told each other about what had happened, which everyone already knew better than anyone could say. They all agreed that no one had ever spoken with such wisdom and great holiness as their minister had that day. Inspiration, they felt, had never filled human speech as much as it had filled his. It was as though the Holy Spirit had descended upon him, possessed him, and lifted him above the words written on the page. It filled him with ideas that must have been as marvelous to him as they were to his audience. His subject had been the relationship between God and human communities, with especial attention paid to the communities of New England founded in the wilderness. As he drew toward his conclusion, something like a prophetic spirit had come to him, bending him to its purpose just as it had used the old prophets of Israel. Only the Jewish prophets had predicted judgment and ruin for their country, but their minister spoke of the glorious destiny awaiting the newly gathered community of God. Yet throughout the whole sermon, there had been an undertone of deep sadness. It could only be interpreted as the natural regret of a man about to die. Yes, their minister, whom they loved so dearly—and who loved them so much that he could not depart for Heaven without a sigh—sensed that his death was approaching and that he would soon leave them in tears. The idea that the minister’s time on earth would be short made the sermon’s effect even stronger. It was as though an angel on his way to Heaven had shaken his bright wings over the people for a moment, sending a shower of golden truths down upon them.
Thus, there had come to the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale—as to most men, in their various spheres, though seldom recognized until they see it far behind them—an epoch of life more brilliant and full of triumph than any previous one, or than any which could hereafter be. He stood, at this moment, on the very proudest eminence of superiority, to which the gifts of intellect, rich lore, prevailing eloquence, and a reputation of whitest sanctity, could exalt a clergyman in New England’s earliest days, when the professional character was of itself a lofty pedestal. Such was the position which the minister occupied, as he bowed his head forward on the cushions of the pulpit, at the close of his Election Sermon. Meanwhile, Hester Prynne was standing beside the scaffold of the pillory, with the scarlet letter still burning on her breast! And so there had come to the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale—as there comes to most men, though they seldom recognize it until too late—a period of life more brilliant and full of triumph than any that had come before or would come after. At this moment he stood at the highest peak to which intellect, eloquence, and purity could elevate a clergyman in the early days of New England, when the profession of minister was already a lofty pedestal. This was the minister’s position, as he bowed his head forward on the pulpit at the end of his Election Sermon. And meanwhile Hester Prynne was standing beside the scaffold of the pillory with the scarlet letter still burning on her breast!
Now was heard again the clangor of the music, and the measured tramp of the military escort, issuing from the church-door. The procession was to be marshalled thence to the town-hall, where a solemn banquet would complete the ceremonies of the day. The sound of the band was heard again, as were the rhythmic steps of the militia members as they walked out from the church door. The procession was to march from there to the town hall, where a great banquet would complete the day’s ceremonies.
Once more, therefore, the train of venerable and majestic fathers was seen moving through a broad pathway of the people, who drew back reverently, on either side, as the Governor and magistrates, the old and wise men, the holy ministers, and all that were eminent and renowned, advanced into the midst of them. When they were fairly in the market-place, their presence was greeted by a shout. This—though doubtless it might acquire additional force and volume from the childlike loyalty which the age awarded to its rulers—was felt to be an irrepressible outburst of the enthusiasm kindled in the auditors by that high strain of eloquence which was yet reverberating in their ears. Each felt the impulse in himself, and, in the same breath, caught it from his neighbour. Within the church, it had hardly been kept down; beneath the sky, it pealed upward to the zenith. There were human beings enough, and enough of highly wrought and symphonious feeling, to produce that more impressive sound than the organ-tones of the blast, or the thunder, or the roar of the sea; even that mighty swell of many voices, blended into one great voice by the universal impulse which makes likewise one vast heart out of the many. Never, from the soil of New England, had gone up such a shout! Never, on New England soil, had stood the man so honored by his mortal brethren as the preacher! And so the parade of community elders moved along a broad path as the people cleared the way for them, drawing back with reverence as the Governor, magistrates, old and wise men, holy ministers, and all other powerful and well-regarded townsmen walked into the middle of the crowd. The procession was greeted by a shout as it reached the center of the marketplace. Those who had listened to the minister’s eloquence speech, still ringing in their ears, felt an irrepressible outburst of enthusiasm, strengthened by their childlike loyalty to their leaders, which each person passed along to his neighbor. The feeling had barely been contained inside the church. Now, underneath the sky, it rang upward to the heights. There were enough people and enough great, harmonious feeling to produce a sound more impressive than the blast of the organ, the thunder, or the roar of the sea. Never before had a shout like this gone up from the soil of New England! Never had there been a New England man so honored by his fellow man as this preacher!

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