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17. THE PASTOR AND HIS PARISHIONER (continued)
Without a word more spoken--neither he nor she assuming the guidance, but with an unexpressed consent--they glided back into the shadow of the woods whence Hester had emerged, and sat down on the heap of moss where she and Pearl had before been sitting. When they found voice to speak, it was at first only to utter remarks and inquiries such as any two acquaintances might have made, about the gloomy sky, the threatening storm, and, next, the health of each. Thus they went onward, not boldly, but step by step, into the themes that were brooding deepest in their hearts. So long estranged by fate and circumstances, they needed something slight and casual to run before and throw open the doors of intercourse, so that their real thoughts might be led across the threshold.
After awhile, the minister fixed his eyes on Hester Prynne's.
"Hester," said he, "hast thou found peace?"
She smiled drearily, looking down upon her bosom.
"Hast thou?" she asked.
"None--nothing but despair!" he answered. "What else could I look for, being what I am, and leading such a life as mine? Were I an atheist--a man devoid of conscience--a wretch with coarse and brutal instincts--I might have found peace long ere now. Nay, I never should have lost it. But, as matters stand with my soul, whatever of good capacity there originally was in me, all of God's gifts that were the choicest have become the ministers of spiritual torment. Hester, I am most miserable!"
"The people reverence thee," said Hester. "And surely thou workest good among them! Doth this bring thee no comfort?"
"More misery, Hester!--Only the more misery!" answered the clergyman with a bitter smile. "As concerns the good which I may appear to do, I have no faith in it. It must needs be a delusion. What can a ruined soul like mine effect towards the redemption of other souls?--or a polluted soul towards their purification? And as for the people's reverence, would that it were turned to scorn and hatred! Canst thou deem it, Hester, a consolation that I must stand up in my pulpit, and meet so many eyes turned upward to my face, as if the light of heaven were beaming from it!--must see my flock hungry for the truth, and listening to my words as if a tongue of Pentecost were speaking!--and then look inward, and discern the black reality of what they idolise? I have laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart, at the contrast between what I seem and what I am! And Satan laughs at it!"
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