CHAPTER 17: THE PROCESSION
Before Hester could call together her startled thoughts and determine a new course of action, she heard music. The procession was advancing towards the meeting-house, where the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale would deliver the Election Sermon.
The procession soon appeared: at its head, the musicians. They carried a variety of instruments. While they played them with no great skill, they imparted a heroic mien to the marketplace and the entirety of the procession.
In watching them, Pearl lost her restless agitation. Instead, she gazed at them silently, and seemed to be borne upward like a sea-bird on the swells and heaves of sound-waves. But she was soon brought back down by the shimmer of the radiant sunshine on the armour of the military company that followed the musicians.
This company was filled with gentlemen, those who in their youth, had felt the lure of martial impulse. The entire group was clad in polished steel armour, and combined with the plumage that decorated them, they produced a brilliant effect – one that no modern display can aspire to equal.
And yet, the men that followed them – men of civil eminence – made the warriors look vulgar.
In that day and age, the stability and dignity of one’s character mattered a great deal more than one’s talents.
Following these men, at last, was the minister – the young divine to give his highly anticipated sermon. It was noted by all who regarded him that the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale had never exhibited such energy ever before. And yet, his strength seemed spiritual, rather than from his body. His gaze was distant-where was his mind?
Hester, who scrutinized the minister, felt a sudden dread come over. In that moment, he seemed so distant from her that she wondered if their encounter in the wood-their entire bond-had been nothing more than a dream. Pearl, either comprehending her mother’s sentiments, or noticing the intangibility of the minister herself, grew uneasy.
“Mother,” she asked. “Is that the same minister that kissed me by the brook?”
“Hold thy tongue, little Pearl!” Her mother whispered. “We must not talk in the marketplace about what happened to us in the forest.”
The child continued. “I could not be sure it was him. Otherwise, I surely would have run to him and bid him kiss me now, among all these people. What would the minister have said, mother? Would he have scowled and bid me begone?”
“What should he have said, save that it is no time to kiss in the marketplace? It is good that thou, foolish child, didst not speak to him!”
At that moment, the crowd gave way-Mistress Hibbins, the witch-lady, had appeared. She drew close to Hester and little Pearl, to converse on the very subject of the two’s private conversation.
The old lady spoke in a whisper to Hester. “Yonder divine man! Couldst thou be sure, Hester, that he was the same man thou had met in the forest?”
“Madam, I know not of what you speak. I would not dare to talk lightly of such a learned and pious minister.”
“Bah, woman!” The old lady cried, an admonishing tone in her voice. “I have been to the forest so many times-I can judge who else has been there. I know thee truly, Hester, for I behold the Scarlet Letter. But this minister! When the Black Man sees his servant shy of owning to the bond, he has a way of making sure that the mark be disclosed-to all the world!” After a moment, she continued. “What is that the minister seeks to hide, with his hand always over his heart? Ha, Hester Prynne?”
“What is it, good Mistress Hibbins?” little Pearl eagerly asked.
“No matter, darling! Thou will see it, one time or another!”
Laughing shrilly-and loudly too-the weird old gentlewoman took her leave. By that time, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale was beginning his Election Sermon.
Hester, as if drawn to it, stood by the scaffold of the pillory, and listened intently.
This vocal organ was, in itself, rich. Even if a listener could not understand the words that the preacher spoke, he would still be swayed by its tone.
Hester, who sympathized with the cadence so intimately, perceived an entirely different meaning from the sermon, than the listener who listened to the minister’s words-they clogged the spiritual sense.
As majestic and high as the minister’s voice reached, there was nonetheless a continuous undertone to it – one of lament and pain. Yet it gave him his power.
During all this time, Hester stood, as though she were a statue, at the scaffold. Even if she had not been kept there by the minister’s voice, there was a certain magnetism to that spot-the spot where she had first begun her life of ignominy.
Little Pearl, meanwhile, had left her mother’s side to play in the market-place. The Puritans looked on; if they happened to be seen smiling at her, they were none the less inclined to pronounce the child a demon offspring. When Pearl ran to the wild Indian, he grew conscious of a nature wilder than his own. She flew into a group of mariners; they gazed wonderingly at Pearl, as if the sea had taken the shape of a little girl.
The shipmaster addressed little Pearl. “Wilt thou carry a message to thy mother for me?”
“If the message pleases me,” she responded.
“Then tell her, that I spoke with the old doctor, and he plans to bring the gentleman she spoke of aboard with him. So let thy mother worry about nought but herself and thee. Wilt thou tell her this, little witch–baby?”
“Mistress Hibbins says my father is Prince of the Air! If thou callest me that name, I shall tell him of thee, and he will chase thy ship with a tempest!”
With a naughty smile, the child returned to her mother, and communicated what the seaman had said. Hester’s spirit-though strong and enduring-almost sank on hearing the inevitable doom amidst these words.
She was soon subjected to yet another trial. There were many people present from the neighbouring towns who had long heard of the scarlet letter, but had never beheld it. After exhausting all other modes of amusement, they turned to Hester, thronging around her with boorish intrusiveness. Even the town’s inhabitants lounged idly around her, tormenting her with their cool gaze.
Hester would soon fling aside that letter; yet, at that final hour, it had become the center of more remark than at any time since she had first put it on. And thus, it seared her breast painfully.
While Hester stood in that magic circle of shame, the admirable preacher looked down from the sacred pulpit upon an audience. The sainted minister in the church! The woman of the scarlet letter in the market-place! What imagination would have been irreverent enough to deduce that they shared the same scorching stigma!