CHAPTER 16: THE MINISTER IN A MAZE
As the minister departed, he looked back, half-expecting to see the woods empty.
But there were Hester and Pearl, with Pearl by her mother’s side. So it had not been a dream!
Delighted by this discovery, the minister continued down his path towards the town, recalling his and Hester’s plans for departure.
It had been determined that they would travel to the Old World, for its concealment and its congeniality to the clergyman’s health and profession. It just so happened that a ship lay in the harbour that would soon sail for Bristol. As her town’s Sister of Charity, Hester Prynne could easily secure their passage, with a secrecy altogether desirable.
The minister had inquired of Hester, with no little interest, the precise time at which the vessel might depart. It would be four days from the present. “This is most fortunate!” he had then said.
Why? It was because in three days, he was to preach the Election Sermon–an honorable occasion in the life of a clergyman. He could not have chanced upon a more suitable mode of terminating his professional career.
“At least, they shall say of me that I leave no public duty unperformed!”
It is sad that the minister was so miserably deceived! We have had worse things to tell of him; but none were as good evidence as this to the subtle disease that had long begun to eat at his character. No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally becoming bewildered as to which is true.
His excitement lent him unaccustomed energy, and he hurried townward quickly, surprised at his vigor.
As he drew near the town, he looked around it. It seemed many years since he had last been here. Immediately, there was an obtrusive sense of change. Yet it was not the town that had changed, but the minister. And this change soon began to manifest itself. Before Mr. Dimmesdale returned home, at every step, he was incited to do some wicked, wild thing.
For instance, when he met a deacon, who addressed him with paternal affection, it was only by the most careful self-control that the minister could refrain from uttering blasphemous suggestions that rose into his mind. He turned pale with fear lest these words leave his mouth. Yet even with this fear, he could hardly avoid laughing to imagine the deacon’s petrified response!
Again, another incident. The reverend encountered the eldest female member of his church; pious, exemplary; poor, widowed, lonely. Since Mr. Dimmesdale had taken her in charge, her earthly comfort was to meet her pastor, and be refreshed with a word of Gospel truth. But, on this occasion, Mr. Dimmesdale could recall no text of Scripture; only a statement against the immortality of the human soul. That conversation would probably have caused her to drop dead.
What he really did whisper, the minister could never afterwards recollect. He hurried onwards.
Again, a third instance. He met the youngest sister, fair and pure. As she drew near, the devil whispered to the minister to drop into her bosom a germ of evil. So–with a mightier struggle than he had ever sustained–he hid his face behind his cloak, and hurried past her, leaving the young sister to analyze his rudeness as she might.
And then, soon after, the minister was conscious of another horrible impulse – to teach wicked words to the Puritan children playing nearby.
Denying himself this folly, he came across a drunken seaman. And, here, poor Mr. Dimmesdale longed, at least, to participate in a few improper jests. It was not so much a better principle, but his habit of clerical decorum, that carried him safely through this crisis.
“What haunts and tempts me thus?” cried the minister, pausing in the street, and striking his hand against his forehead. “Am I mad? Have I given myself to the devil?”
At the moment, old Mistress Hibbins, the reputed witch-lady, was passing by. She came to a stop, looked shrewdly into the minister’s face, and–though she rarely conversed with clergymen–began a conversation with him.
“So, reverend Sir, you have made a visit into the forest,” she observed. “The next time, I shall be proud to bear you company.”
The old witch-lady cackled. “Ha! We must talk hidden like this in the daytime! But at midnight, and in the forest, we shall have another talk together!”
She passed on but often turned back her head and smiled at him mysteriously.
“Have I then sold myself,” thought the minister, “to the fiend whom this old hag has chosen for her prince and master!”
The wretched minister! He had made a bargain very like it! Seduced by a dream of happiness, he had deliberately chosen what he knew was deadly sin. Now, vices of all sorts awoke in his soul to tempt him.