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CHAPTER 22: THE PROCESSION
We are still in the market-place. There is a lot going on to catch our eye.
We see the magistrates on parade: firm, stalwart men who in times of peril have stood up to protect the colony like rocks against the tide.
We see Pearl in her bright red dress, flitting among the spectators like a great wild bird. She is wilder in her nature, we are reminded, than the pirates and the Indians whom she runs to inspect with her childish curiosity.
But our attention is really fixed on Hester-or rather on Hester watching Dimmesdale as he passes by in the procession. This is not the man she left in the woods. His step is firm and energetic now. And he is as indifferent to her presence as if he were a million miles away. Not a glance, not a nod of recognition does he give her. And this is on the eve of their planned escape! Hester is crushed and desolate as she watches her lover retreat into that private world of his own, where she cannot follow him.
Dimmesdale's preoccupied air is also noticed by Mistress Hibbins, who corners Hester for an intimate little chat. Now who would believe, the old witch asks, that this saintly minister, who looks as if his head has been buried in his books for months on end, has in fact just returned from an airing in the woods?
How does she know, wonders a startled Hester. It is a question we also ask ourselves. And we're about to get an answer. In a moment, Mistress Hibbins will reveal the source of her privileged information.
When Hester protests that she cannot speak lightly of the pious Mr. Dimmesdale, Mistress Hibbins turns on her indignantly. Come on, Hester, she says, don't lie to me. Do you really think I've been to the forest so many times and can't tell who else has been there, even if no tell-tale twigs or leaves still cling to their hair?
What the old witch is saying is that she needs no black magic to see into the minister's heart. Experience itself is an eye- opener. Mistress Hibbins can read guilty thoughts in other people because she has had them herself, and so she recognizes the symptoms: a certain spring to the walk, perhaps, or a certain gleam in the eye. The forest leaves its mark on everyone, witches and ministers alike.
Mistress Hibbins bursts into shrill laughter and walks away. Hester draws near the meeting house to hear Dimmesdale's Election Sermon. As the place is packed, she stands outside by the scaffold of the pillory, listening to the rise and fall of Dimmesdale's voice.
Does Hester understand Dimmesdale's meaning, even though she cannot hear the words? Most likely, for she is in complete sympathy with her lover. She has not withdrawn from him, as he has from her. And what she hears is "...the complaint of a human heart, sorrow-laden, perchance guilty, telling its secret... to the great heart of mankind."