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 footstep of their approaching Fate might
be heard, nearer, 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.
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.
"Mother," said she, "was that the same minister that kissed me by the
"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."
"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 me, and bid me begone?"
"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!"
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 had doubled, and caused a
general movement from that part of the market-place in which the two women
"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?"
"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!"
"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 that the minister seeks to hide, with
his hand always over his heart? Ha, Hester Prynne!"
"What is it, good Mistress Hibbins?" eagerly asked little Pearl. "Hast thou
"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!"
Laughing so shrilly that all the market-place could hear her, the weird old
gentlewoman took her departure.