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Curl up with a collection of stories from the pen of one of the masters of American fiction and humor writing. This carefully curated volume of Twain's short stories represents a cross-section of some the author's finest work, including the title piece, which follows a stranger's plot to corrupt a purportedly honest community.
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The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories
THE MAN THAT CORRUPTED HADLEYBURG
It was many years ago. Hadleyburg was the most honest and upright town in all the region round about. It had kept that reputation unsmirched during three generations, and was prouder of it than of any other of its possessions. It was so proud of it, and so anxious to insure its perpetuation, that it began to teach the principles of honest dealing to its babies in the cradle, and made the like teachings the staple of their culture thenceforward through all the years devoted to their education. Also, throughout the formative years temptations were kept out of the way of the young people, so that their honesty could have every chance to harden and solidify, and become a part of their very bone. The neighbouring towns were jealous of this honourable supremacy, and affected to sneer at Hadleyburg's pride in it and call it vanity; but all the same they were obliged to acknowledge that Hadleyburg was in reality an incorruptible town; and if pressed they would also acknowledge that the mere fact that a young man hailed from Hadleyburg was all the recommendation he needed when he went forth from his natal town to seek for responsible employment.
But at last, in the drift of time, Hadleyburg had the ill luck to offend a passing stranger--possibly without knowing it, certainly without caring, for Hadleyburg was sufficient unto itself, and cared not a rap for strangers or their opinions. Still, it would have been well to make an exception in this one's case, for he was a bitter man, and revengeful. All through his wanderings during a whole year he kept his injury in mind, and gave all his leisure moments to trying to invent a compensating satisfaction for it. He contrived many plans, and all of them were good, but none of them was quite sweeping enough: the poorest of them would hurt a great many individuals, but what he wanted was a plan which would comprehend the entire town, and not let so much as one person escape unhurt. At last he had a fortunate idea, and when it fell into his brain it lit up his whole head with an evil joy. He began to form a plan at once, saying to himself "That is the thing to do--I will corrupt the town."
Six months later he went to Hadleyburg, and arrived in a buggy at the house of the old cashier of the bank about ten at night. He got a sack out of the buggy, shouldered it, and staggered with it through the cottage yard, and knocked at the door. A woman's voice said "Come in," and he entered, and set his sack behind the stove in the parlour, saying politely to the old lady who sat reading the "Missionary Herald" by the lamp:
"Pray keep your seat, madam, I will not disturb you. There--now it is pretty well concealed; one would hardly know it was there. Can I see your husband a moment, madam?"
No, he was gone to Brixton, and might not return before morning.
"Very well, madam, it is no matter. I merely wanted to leave that sack in his care, to be delivered to the rightful owner when he shall be found. I am a stranger; he does not know me; I am merely passing through the town to-night to discharge a matter which has been long in my mind. My errand is now completed, and I go pleased and a little proud, and you will never see me again. There is a paper attached to the sack which will explain everything. Good- night, madam."
The old lady was afraid of the mysterious big stranger, and was glad to see him go. But her curiosity was roused, and she went straight to the sack and brought away the paper. It began as follows:
"TO BE PUBLISHED, or, the right man sought out by private inquiry-- either will answer. This sack contains gold coin weighing a hundred and sixty pounds four ounces--"
"Mercy on us, and the door not locked!"
Mrs. Richards flew to it all in a tremble and locked it, then pulled down the window-shades and stood frightened, worried, and wondering if there was anything else she could do toward making herself and the money more safe. She listened awhile for burglars, then surrendered to curiosity, and went back to the lamp and finished reading the paper:
"I am a foreigner, and am presently going back to my own country, to remain there permanently. I am grateful to America for what I have received at her hands during my long stay under her flag; and to one of her citizens--a citizen of Hadleyburg--I am especially grateful for a great kindness done me a year or two ago. Two great kindnesses in fact. I will explain. I was a gambler. I say I WAS. I was a ruined gambler. I arrived in this village at night, hungry and without a penny. I asked for help--in the dark; I was ashamed to beg in the light. I begged of the right man. He gave me twenty dollars--that is to say, he gave me life, as I considered it. He also gave me fortune; for out of that money I have made myself rich at the gaming-table. And finally, a remark which he made to me has remained with me to this day, and has at last conquered me; and in conquering has saved the remnant of my morals: I shall gamble no more. Now I have no idea who that man was, but I want him found, and I want him to have this money, to give away, throw away, or keep, as he pleases. It is merely my way of testifying my gratitude to him. If I could stay, I would find him myself; but no matter, he will be found. This is an honest town, an incorruptible town, and I know I can trust it without fear. This man can be identified by the remark which he made to me; I feel persuaded that he will remember it.
"And now my plan is this: If you prefer to conduct the inquiry privately, do so. Tell the contents of this present writing to any one who is likely to be the right man. If he shall answer, 'I am the man; the remark I made was so-and-so,' apply the test--to wit: open the sack, and in it you will find a sealed envelope containing that remark. If the remark mentioned by the candidate tallies with it, give him the money, and ask no further questions, for he is certainly the right man.
"But if you shall prefer a public inquiry, then publish this present writing in the local paper--with these instructions added, to wit: Thirty days from now, let the candidate appear at the town-hall at eight in the evening (Friday), and hand his remark, in a sealed envelope, to the Rev. Mr. Burgess (if he will be kind enough to act); and let Mr. Burgess there and then destroy the seals of the sack, open it, and see if the remark is correct: if correct, let the money be delivered, with my sincere gratitude, to my benefactor thus identified."
Mrs. Richards sat down, gently quivering with excitement, and was soon lost in thinkings--after this pattern: "What a strange thing it is! . . . And what a fortune for that kind man who set his bread afloat upon the waters! . . . If it had only been my husband that did it!--for we are so poor, so old and poor! . . ." Then, with a sigh--"But it was not my Edward; no, it was not he that gave a stranger twenty dollars. It is a pity too; I see it now. . . " Then, with a shudder--"But it is GAMBLERS' money! the wages of sin; we couldn't take it; we couldn't touch it. I don't like to be near it; it seems a defilement." She moved to a farther chair. . . "I wish Edward would come, and take it to the bank; a burglar might come at any moment; it is dreadful to be here all alone with it."
At eleven Mr. Richards arrived, and while his wife was saying "I am SO glad you've come!" he was saying, "I am so tired--tired clear out; it is dreadful to be poor, and have to make these dismal journeys at my time of life. Always at the grind, grind, grind, on a salary--another man's slave, and he sitting at home in his slippers, rich and comfortable."
"I am so sorry for you, Edward, you know that; but be comforted; we have our livelihood; we have our good name--"
"Yes, Mary, and that is everything. Don't mind my talk--it's just a moment's irritation and doesn't mean anything. Kiss me--there, it's all gone now, and I am not complaining any more. What have you been getting? What's in the sack?"
Then his wife told him the great secret. It dazed him for a moment; then he said:
"It weighs a hundred and sixty pounds? Why, Mary, it's for-ty thou- sand dollars--think of it--a whole fortune! Not ten men in this village are worth that much. Give me the paper."
He skimmed through it and said:
"Isn't it an adventure! Why, it's a romance; it's like the impossible things one reads about in books, and never sees in life." He was well stirred up now; cheerful, even gleeful. He tapped his old wife on the cheek, and said humorously, "Why, we're rich, Mary, rich; all we've got to do is to bury the money and burn the papers. If the gambler ever comes to inquire, we'll merely look coldly upon him and say: 'What is this nonsense you are talking? We have never heard of you and your sack of gold before;' and then he would look foolish, and--"
"And in the meantime, while you are running on with your jokes, the money is still here, and it is fast getting along toward burglar- time."
"True. Very well, what shall we do--make the inquiry private? No, not that; it would spoil the romance. The public method is better. Think what a noise it will make! And it will make all the other towns jealous; for no stranger would trust such a thing to any town but Hadleyburg, and they know it. It's a great card for us. I must get to the printing-office now, or I shall be too late."
"But stop--stop--don't leave me here alone with it, Edward!"
But he was gone. For only a little while, however. Not far from his own house he met the editor--proprietor of the paper, and gave him the document, and said "Here is a good thing for you, Cox--put it in."
"It may be too late, Mr. Richards, but I'll see."
At home again, he and his wife sat down to talk the charming mystery over; they were in no condition for sleep. The first question was, Who could the citizen have been who gave the stranger the twenty dollars? It seemed a simple one; both answered it in the same breath--
"Yes," said Richards, "he could have done it, and it would have been like him, but there's not another in the town."
"Everybody will grant that, Edward--grant it privately, anyway. For six months, now, the village has been its own proper self once more- -honest, narrow, self-righteous, and stingy."
"It is what he always called it, to the day of his death--said it right out publicly, too."
"Yes, and he was hated for it."
"Oh, of course; but he didn't care. I reckon he was the best-hated man among us, except the Reverend Burgess."
"Well, Burgess deserves it--he will never get another congregation here. Mean as the town is, it knows how to estimate HIM. Edward, doesn't it seem odd that the stranger should appoint Burgess to deliver the money?"
"Well, yes--it does. That is--that is--"
"Why so much that-IS-ing? Would YOU select him?"
"Mary, maybe the stranger knows him better than this village does."
"Much THAT would help Burgess!"
The husband seemed perplexed for an answer; the wife kept a steady eye upon him, and waited. Finally Richards said, with the hesitancy of one who is making a statement which is likely to encounter doubt,
"Mary, Burgess is not a bad man."
His wife was certainly surprised.
"Nonsense!" she exclaimed.
"He is not a bad man. I know. The whole of his unpopularity had its foundation in that one thing--the thing that made so much noise."
"That 'one thing,' indeed! As if that 'one thing' wasn't enough, all by itself."
"Plenty. Plenty. Only he wasn't guilty of it."
"How you talk! Not guilty of it! Everybody knows he WAS guilty."
"Mary, I give you my word--he was innocent."
"I can't believe it and I don't. How do you know?"
"It is a confession. I am ashamed, but I will make it. I was the only man who knew he was innocent. I could have saved him, and-- and--well, you know how the town was wrought up--I hadn't the pluck to do it. It would have turned everybody against me. I felt mean, ever so mean; ut I didn't dare; I hadn't the manliness to face that."
Mary looked troubled, and for a while was silent. Then she said stammeringly:
"I--I don't think it would have done for you to--to--One mustn't-- er--public opinion--one has to be so careful--so--" It was a difficult road, and she got mired; but after a little she got started again. "It was a great pity, but--Why, we couldn't afford it, Edward--we couldn't indeed. Oh, I wouldn't have had you do it for anything!"
"It would have lost us the good-will of so many people, Mary; and then--and then--"
"What troubles me now is, what HE thinks of us, Edward."
"He? HE doesn't suspect that I could have saved him."
"Oh," exclaimed the wife, in a tone of relief, "I am glad of that. As long as he doesn't know that you could have saved him, he--he-- well that makes it a great deal better. Why, I might have known he didn't know, because he is always trying to be friendly with us, as little encouragement as we give him. More than once people have twitted me with it. There's the Wilsons, and the Wilcoxes, and the Harknesses, they take a mean pleasure in saying 'YOUR FRIEND Burgess,' because they know it pesters me. I wish he wouldn't persist in liking us so; I can't think why he keeps it up."
"I can explain it. It's another confession. When the thing was new and hot, and the town made a plan to ride him on a rail, my conscience hurt me so that I couldn't stand it, and I went privately and gave him notice, and he got out of the town and stayed out till it was safe to come back."
"Edward! If the town had found it out--"
"DON'T! It scares me yet, to think of it. I repented of it the minute it was done; and I was even afraid to tell you lest your face might betray it to somebody. I didn't sleep any that night, for worrying. But after a few days I saw that no one was going to suspect me, and after that I got to feeling glad I did it. And I feel glad yet, Mary--glad through and through."
"So do I, now, for it would have been a dreadful way to treat him. Yes, I'm glad; for really you did owe him that, you know. But, Edward, suppose it should come out yet, some day!"
"Because everybody thinks it was Goodson."
"Of course they would!"
"Certainly. And of course HE didn't care. They persuaded poor old Sawlsberry to go and charge it on him, and he went blustering over there and did it. Goodson looked him over, like as if he was hunting for a place on him that he could despise the most; then he says, 'So you are the Committee of Inquiry, are you?' Sawlsberry said that was about what he was. 'H'm. Do they require particulars, or do you reckon a kind of a GENERAL answer will do?' 'If they require particulars, I will come back, Mr. Goodson; I will take the general answer first.' 'Very well, then, tell them to go to hell--I reckon that's general enough. And I'll give you some advice, Sawlsberry; when you come back for the particulars, fetch a basket to carry what is left of yourself home in.'"
"Just like Goodson; it's got all the marks. He had only one vanity; he thought he could give advice better than any other person."
"It settled the business, and saved us, Mary. The subject was dropped."
"Bless you, I'm not doubting THAT."
Then they took up the gold-sack mystery again, with strong interest. Soon the conversation began to suffer breaks--interruptions caused by absorbed thinkings. The breaks grew more and more frequent. At last Richards lost himself wholly in thought. He sat long, gazing vacantly at the floor, and by-and-by he began to punctuate his thoughts with little nervous movements of his hands that seemed to indicate vexation. Meantime his wife too had relapsed into a thoughtful silence, and her movements were beginning to show a troubled discomfort. Finally Richards got up and strode aimlessly about the room, ploughing his hands through his hair, much as a somnambulist might do who was having a bad dream. Then he seemed to arrive at a definite purpose; and without a word he put on his hat and passed quickly out of the house. His wife sat brooding, with a drawn face, and did not seem to be aware that she was alone. Now and then she murmured, "Lead us not into t . . . but--but--we are so poor, so poor! . . . Lead us not into . . . Ah, who would be hurt by it?--and no one would ever know . . . Lead us . . . " The voice died out in mumblings. After a little she glanced up and muttered in a half-frightened, half-glad way--
"He is gone! But, oh dear, he may be too late--too late . . . Maybe not--maybe there is still time." She rose and stood thinking, nervously clasping and unclasping her hands. A slight shudder shook her frame, and she said, out of a dry throat, "God forgive me--it's awful to think such things--but . . . Lord, how we are made--how strangely we are made!"
She turned the light low, and slipped stealthily over and knelt down by the sack and felt of its ridgy sides with her hands, and fondled them lovingly; and there was a gloating light in her poor old eyes. She fell into fits of absence; and came half out of them at times to mutter "If we had only waited!--oh, if we had only waited a little, and not been in such a hurry!"
Meantime Cox had gone home from his office and told his wife all about the strange thing that had happened, and they had talked it over eagerly, and guessed that the late Goodson was the only man in the town who could have helped a suffering stranger with so noble a sum as twenty dollars. Then there was a pause, and the two became thoughtful and silent. And by-and-by nervous and fidgety. At last the wife said, as if to herself,
"Nobody knows this secret but the Richardses . . . and us . . . nobody."
The husband came out of his thinkings with a slight start, and gazed wistfully at his wife, whose face was become very pale; then he hesitatingly rose, and glanced furtively at his hat, then at his wife--a sort of mute inquiry. Mrs. Cox swallowed once or twice, with her hand at her throat, then in place of speech she nodded her head. In a moment she was alone, and mumbling to herself.
And now Richards and Cox were hurrying through the deserted streets, from opposite directions. They met, panting, at the foot of the printing-office stairs; by the night-light there they read each other's face. Cox whispered:
"Nobody knows about this but us?"
The whispered answer was:
"Not a soul--on honour, not a soul!"
"If it isn't too late to--"
The men were starting up-stairs; at this moment they were overtaken by a boy, and Cox asked,
"Is that you, Johnny?"
"You needn't ship the early mail--nor ANY mail; wait till I tell you."
"It's already gone, sir."
"GONE?" It had the sound of an unspeakable disappointment in it.
"Yes, sir. Time-table for Brixton and all the towns beyond changed to-day, sir--had to get the papers in twenty minutes earlier than common. I had to rush; if I had been two minutes later--"
The men turned and walked slowly away, not waiting to hear the rest. Neither of them spoke during ten minutes; then Cox said, in a vexed tone,
"What possessed you to be in such a hurry, I can't make out."
The answer was humble enough:
"I see it now, but somehow I never thought, you know, until it was too late. But the next time--"
"Next time be hanged! It won't come in a thousand years."
Then the friends separated without a good-night, and dragged themselves home with the gait of mortally stricken men. At their homes their wives sprang up with an eager "Well?"--then saw the answer with their eyes and sank down sorrowing, without waiting for it to come in words. In both houses a discussion followed of a heated sort--a new thing; there had been discussions before, but not heated ones, not ungentle ones. The discussions to-night were a sort of seeming plagiarisms of each other. Mrs. Richards said:
"If you had only waited, Edward--if you had only stopped to think; but no, you must run straight to the printing-office and spread it all over the world."
"It SAID publish it."
"That is nothing; it also said do it privately, if you liked. There, now--is that true, or not?"
"Why, yes--yes, it is true; but when I thought what a stir it would make, and what a compliment it was to Hadleyburg that a stranger should trust it so--"
"Oh, certainly, I know all that; but if you had only stopped to think, you would have seen that you COULDN'T find the right man, because he is in his grave, and hasn't left chick nor child nor relation behind him; and as long as the money went to somebody that awfully needed it, and nobody would be hurt by it, and--and--"
She broke down, crying. Her husband tried to think of some comforting thing to say, and presently came out with this:
"But after all, Mary, it must be for the best--it must be; we know that. And we must remember that it was so ordered--"
"Ordered! Oh, everything's ORDERED, when a person has to find some way out when he has been stupid. Just the same, it was ORDERED that the money should come to us in this special way, and it was you that must take it on yourself to go meddling with the designs of Providence--and who gave you the right? It was wicked, that is what it was--just blasphemous presumption, and no more becoming to a meek and humble professor of--"
"But, Mary, you know how we have been trained all our lives long, like the whole village, till it is absolutely second nature to us to stop not a single moment to think when there's an honest thing to be done--"
"Oh, I know it, I know it--it's been one everlasting training and training and training in honesty--honesty shielded, from the very cradle, against every possible temptation, and so it's ARTIFICIAL honesty, and weak as water when temptation comes, as we have seen this night. God knows I never had shade nor shadow of a doubt of my petrified and indestructible honesty until now--and now, under the very first big and real temptation, I--Edward, it is my belief that this town's honesty is as rotten as mine is; as rotten as yours. It is a mean town, a hard, stingy town, and hasn't a virtue in the world but this honesty it is so celebrated for and so conceited about; and so help me, I do believe that if ever the day comes that its honesty falls under great temptation, its grand reputation will go to ruin like a house of cards. There, now, I've made confession, and I feel better; I am a humbug, and I've been one all my life, without knowing it. Let no man call me honest again--I will not have it."
"I--Well, Mary, I feel a good deal as you do: I certainly do. It seems strange, too, so strange. I never could have believed it-- never."
A long silence followed; both were sunk in thought. At last the wife looked up and said:
"I know what you are thinking, Edward."
Richards had the embarrassed look of a person who is caught.
"I am ashamed to confess it, Mary, but--"
"It's no matter, Edward, I was thinking the same question myself."
"I hope so. State it."
"You were thinking, if a body could only guess out WHAT THE REMARK WAS that Goodson made to the stranger."
"It's perfectly true. I feel guilty and ashamed. And you?"
"I'm past it. Let us make a pallet here; we've got to stand watch till the bank vault opens in the morning and admits the sack. . . Oh dear, oh dear--if we hadn't made the mistake!"
The pallet was made, and Mary said:
"The open sesame--what could it have been? I do wonder what that remark could have been. But come; we will get to bed now."
By this time the Coxes too had completed their spat and their reconciliation, and were turning in--to think, to think, and toss, and fret, and worry over what the remark could possibly have been which Goodson made to the stranded derelict; that golden remark; that remark worth forty thousand dollars, cash.
The reason that the village telegraph-office was open later than usual that night was this: The foreman of Cox's paper was the local representative of the Associated Press. One might say its honorary representative, for it wasn't four times a year that he could furnish thirty words that would be accepted. But this time it was different. His despatch stating what he had caught got an instant answer:
"Send the whole thing--all the details--twelve hundred words."
A colossal order! The foreman filled the bill; and he was the proudest man in the State. By breakfast-time the next morning the name of Hadleyburg the Incorruptible was on every lip in America, from Montreal to the Gulf, from the glaciers of Alaska to the orange-groves of Florida; and millions and millions of people were discussing the stranger and his money-sack, and wondering if the right man would be found, and hoping some more news about the matter would come soon--right away.
Hadleyburg village woke up world-celebrated--astonished--happy-- vain. Vain beyond imagination. Its nineteen principal citizens and their wives went about shaking hands with each other, and beaming, and smiling, and congratulating, and saying THIS thing adds a new word to the dictionary--HADLEYBURG, synonym for INCORRUPTIBLE-- destined to live in dictionaries for ever! And the minor and unimportant citizens and their wives went around acting in much the same way. Everybody ran to the bank to see the gold-sack; and before noon grieved and envious crowds began to flock in from Brixton and all neighbouring towns; and that afternoon and next day reporters began to arrive from everywhere to verify the sack and its history and write the whole thing up anew, and make dashing free- hand pictures of the sack, and of Richards's house, and the bank, and the Presbyterian church, and the Baptist church, and the public square, and the town-hall where the test would be applied and the money delivered; and damnable portraits of the Richardses, and Pinkerton the banker, and Cox, and the foreman, and Reverend Burgess, and the postmaster--and even of Jack Halliday, who was the loafing, good-natured, no-account, irreverent fisherman, hunter, boys' friend, stray-dogs' friend, typical "Sam Lawson" of the town. The little mean, smirking, oily Pinkerton showed the sack to all comers, and rubbed his sleek palms together pleasantly, and enlarged upon the town's fine old reputation for honesty and upon this wonderful endorsement of it, and hoped and believed that the example would now spread far and wide over the American world, and be epoch- making in the matter of moral regeneration. And so on, and so on.
By the end of a week things had quieted down again; the wild intoxication of pride and joy had sobered to a soft, sweet, silent delight--a sort of deep, nameless, unutterable content. All faces bore a look of peaceful, holy happiness.
Then a change came. It was a gradual change; so gradual that its beginnings were hardly noticed; maybe were not noticed at all, except by Jack Halliday, who always noticed everything; and always made fun of it, too, no matter what it was. He began to throw out chaffing remarks about people not looking quite so happy as they did a day or two ago; and next he claimed that the new aspect was deepening to positive sadness; next, that it was taking on a sick look; and finally he said that everybody was become so moody, thoughtful, and absent-minded that he could rob the meanest man in town of a cent out of the bottom of his breeches pocket and not disturb his reverie.
At this stage--or at about this stage--a saying like this was dropped at bedtime--with a sigh, usually--by the head of each of the nineteen principal households:
"Ah, what COULD have been the remark that Goodson made?"
And straightway--with a shudder--came this, from the man's wife:
"Oh, DON'T! What horrible thing are you mulling in your mind? Put it away from you, for God's sake!"
But that question was wrung from those men again the next night--and got the same retort. But weaker.
And the third night the men uttered the question yet again--with anguish, and absently. This time--and the following night--the wives fidgeted feebly, and tried to say something. But didn't.
And the night after that they found their tongues and responded-- longingly:
"Oh, if we COULD only guess!"
Halliday's comments grew daily more and more sparklingly disagreeable and disparaging. He went diligently about, laughing at the town, individually and in mass. But his laugh was the only one left in the village: it fell upon a hollow and mournful vacancy and emptiness. Not even a smile was findable anywhere. Halliday carried a cigar-box around on a tripod, playing that it was a camera, and halted all passers and aimed the thing and said "Ready! --now look pleasant, please," but not even this capital joke could surprise the dreary faces into any softening.
So three weeks passed--one week was left. It was Saturday evening after supper. Instead of the aforetime Saturday-evening flutter and bustle and shopping and larking, the streets were empty and desolate. Richards and his old wife sat apart in their little parlour--miserable and thinking. This was become their evening habit now: the life-long habit which had preceded it, of reading, knitting, and contented chat, or receiving or paying neighbourly calls, was dead and gone and forgotten, ages ago--two or three weeks ago; nobody talked now, nobody read, nobody visited--the whole village sat at home, sighing, worrying, silent. Trying to guess out that remark.
The postman left a letter. Richards glanced listlessly at the superscription and the post-mark--unfamiliar, both--and tossed the letter on the table and resumed his might-have-beens and his hopeless dull miseries where he had left them off. Two or three hours later his wife got wearily up and was going away to bed without a good-night--custom now--but she stopped near the letter and eyed it awhile with a dead interest, then broke it open, and began to skim it over. Richards, sitting there with his chair tilted back against the wall and his chin between his knees, heard something fall. It was his wife. He sprang to her side, but she cried out:
"Leave me alone, I am too happy. Read the letter--read it!"
He did. He devoured it, his brain reeling. The letter was from a distant State, and it said:
"I am a stranger to you, but no matter: I have something to tell. I have just arrived home from Mexico, and learned about that episode. Of course you do not know who made that remark, but I know, and I am the only person living who does know. It was GOODSON. I knew him well, many years ago. I passed through your village that very night, and was his guest till the midnight train came along. I overheard him make that remark to the stranger in the dark--it was in Hale Alley. He and I talked of it the rest of the way home, and while smoking in his house. He mentioned many of your villagers in the course of his talk--most of them in a very uncomplimentary way, but two or three favourably: among these latter yourself. I say 'favourably'--nothing stronger. I remember his saying he did not actually LIKE any person in the town--not one; but that you--I THINK he said you--am almost sure--had done him a very great service once, possibly without knowing the full value of it, and he wished he had a fortune, he would leave it to you when he died, and a curse apiece for the rest of the citizens. Now, then, if it was you that did him that service, you are his legitimate heir, and entitled to the sack of gold. I know that I can trust to your honour and honesty, for in a citizen of Hadleyburg these virtues are an unfailing inheritance, and so I am going to reveal to you the remark, well satisfied that if you are not the right man you will seek and find the right one and see that poor Goodson's debt of gratitude for the service referred to is paid. This is the remark 'YOU ARE FAR FROM BEING A BAD MAN: GO, AND REFORM.'
"HOWARD L. STEPHENSON."
"Oh, Edward, the money is ours, and I am so grateful, OH, so grateful,--kiss me, dear, it's for ever since we kissed--and we needed it so--the money--and now you are free of Pinkerton and his bank, and nobody's slave any more; it seems to me I could fly for joy."
It was a happy half-hour that the couple spent there on the settee caressing each other; it was the old days come again--days that had begun with their courtship and lasted without a break till the stranger brought the deadly money. By-and-by the wife said:
"Oh, Edward, how lucky it was you did him that grand service, poor Goodson! I never liked him, but I love him now. And it was fine and beautiful of you never to mention it or brag about it." Then, with a touch of reproach, "But you ought to have told ME, Edward, you ought to have told your wife, you know."
"Well, I--er--well, Mary, you see--"
"Now stop hemming and hawing, and tell me about it, Edward. I always loved you, and now I'm proud of you. Everybody believes there was only one good generous soul in this village, and now it turns out that you--Edward, why don't you tell me?"
"Well--er--er--Why, Mary, I can't!"
"You CAN'T? WHY can't you?"
"You see, he--well, he--he made me promise I wouldn't."
The wife looked him over, and said, very slowly:
"Made--you--promise? Edward, what do you tell me that for?"
"Mary, do you think I would lie?"
She was troubled and silent for a moment, then she laid her hand within his and said:
"No . . . no. We have wandered far enough from our bearings--God spare us that! In all your life you have never uttered a lie. But now--now that the foundations of things seem to be crumbling from under us, we--we--" She lost her voice for a moment, then said, brokenly, "Lead us not into temptation. . . I think you made the promise, Edward. Let it rest so. Let us keep away from that ground. Now--that is all gone by; let us he happy again; it is no time for clouds."
Edward found it something of an effort to comply, for his mind kept wandering--trying to remember what the service was that he had done Goodson.
The couple lay awake the most of the night, Mary happy and busy, Edward busy, but not so happy. Mary was planning what she would do with the money. Edward was trying to recall that service. At first his conscience was sore on account of the lie he had told Mary--if it was a lie. After much reflection--suppose it WAS a lie? What then? Was it such a great matter? Aren't we always ACTING lies? Then why not tell them? Look at Mary--look what she had done. While he was hurrying off on his honest errand, what was she doing? Lamenting because the papers hadn't been destroyed and the money kept. Is theft better than lying?
THAT point lost its sting--the lie dropped into the background and left comfort behind it. The next point came to the front: HAD he rendered that service? Well, here was Goodson's own evidence as reported in Stephenson's letter; there could be no better evidence than that--it was even PROOF that he had rendered it. Of course. So that point was settled. . . No, not quite. He recalled with a wince that this unknown Mr. Stephenson was just a trifle unsure as to whether the performer of it was Richards or some other--and, oh dear, he had put Richards on his honour! He must himself decide whither that money must go--and Mr. Stephenson was not doubting that if he was the wrong man he would go honourably and find the right one. Oh, it was odious to put a man in such a situation--ah, why couldn't Stephenson have left out that doubt? What did he want to intrude that for?
Further reflection. How did it happen that RICHARDS'S name remained in Stephenson's mind as indicating the right man, and not some other man's name? That looked good. Yes, that looked very good. In fact it went on looking better and better, straight along--until by-and- by it grew into positive PROOF. And then Richards put the matter at once out of his mind, for he had a private instinct that a proof once established is better left so.
He was feeling reasonably comfortable now, but there was still one other detail that kept pushing itself on his notice: of course he had done that service--that was settled; but what WAS that service? He must recall it--he would not go to sleep till he had recalled it; it would make his peace of mind perfect. And so he thought and thought. He thought of a dozen things--possible services, even probable services--but none of them seemed adequate, none of them seemed large enough, none of them seemed worth the money--worth the fortune Goodson had wished he could leave in his will. And besides, he couldn't remember having done them, anyway. Now, then--now, then--what KIND of a service would it be that would make a man so inordinately grateful? Ah--the saving of his soul! That must be it. Yes, he could remember, now, how he once set himself the task of converting Goodson, and laboured at it as much as--he was going to say three months; but upon closer examination it shrunk to a month, then to a week, then to a day, then to nothing. Yes, he remembered now, and with unwelcome vividness, that Goodson had told him to go to thunder and mind his own business--HE wasn't hankering to follow Hadleyburg to heaven!
So that solution was a failure--he hadn't saved Goodson's soul. Richards was discouraged. Then after a little came another idea: had he saved Goodson's property? No, that wouldn't do--he hadn't any. His life? That is it! Of course. Why, he might have thought of it before. This time he was on the right track, sure. His imagination-mill was hard at work in a minute, now.
Thereafter, during a stretch of two exhausting hours, he was busy saving Goodson's life. He saved it in all kinds of difficult and perilous ways. In every case he got it saved satisfactorily up to a certain point; then, just as he was beginning to get well persuaded that it had really happened, a troublesome detail would turn up which made the whole thing impossible. As in the matter of drowning, for instance. In that case he had swum out and tugged Goodson ashore in an unconscious state with a great crowd looking on and applauding, but when he had got it all thought out and was just beginning to remember all about it, a whole swarm of disqualifying details arrived on the ground: the town would have known of the circumstance, Mary would have known of it, it would glare like a limelight in his own memory instead of being an inconspicuous service which he had possibly rendered "without knowing its full value." And at this point he remembered that he couldn't swim anyway.
Ah--THERE was a point which he had been overlooking from the start: it had to be a service which he had rendered "possibly without knowing the full value of it." Why, really, that ought to be an easy hunt--much easier than those others. And sure enough, by-and- by he found it. Goodson, years and years ago, came near marrying a very sweet and pretty girl, named Nancy Hewitt, but in some way or other the match had been broken off; the girl died, Goodson remained a bachelor, and by-and-by became a soured one and a frank despiser of the human species. Soon after the girl's death the village found out, or thought it had found out, that she carried a spoonful of negro blood in her veins. Richards worked at these details a good while, and in the end he thought he remembered things concerning them which must have gotten mislaid in his memory through long neglect. He seemed to dimly remember that it was HE that found out about the negro blood; that it was he that told the village; that the village told Goodson where they got it; that he thus saved Goodson from marrying the tainted girl; that he had done him this great service "without knowing the full value of it," in fact without knowing that he WAS doing it; but that Goodson knew the value of it, and what a narrow escape he had had, and so went to his grave grateful to his benefactor and wishing he had a fortune to leave him. It was all clear and simple, now, and the more he went over it the more luminous and certain it grew; and at last, when he nestled to sleep, satisfied and happy, he remembered the whole thing just as if it had been yesterday. In fact, he dimly remembered Goodson's TELLING him his gratitude once. Meantime Mary had spent six thousand dollars on a new house for herself and a pair of slippers for her pastor, and then had fallen peacefully to rest.
That same Saturday evening the postman had delivered a letter to each of the other principal citizens--nineteen letters in all. No two of the envelopes were alike, and no two of the superscriptions were in the same hand, but the letters inside were just like each other in every detail but one. They were exact copies of the letter received by Richards--handwriting and all--and were all signed by Stephenson, but in place of Richards's name each receiver's own name appeared.
All night long eighteen principal citizens did what their caste- brother Richards was doing at the same time--they put in their energies trying to remember what notable service it was that they had unconsciously done Barclay Goodson. In no case was it a holiday job; still they succeeded.
And while they were at this work, which was difficult, their wives put in the night spending the money, which was easy. During that one night the nineteen wives spent an average of seven thousand dollars each out of the forty thousand in the sack--a hundred and thirty-three thousand altogether.
Next day there was a surprise for Jack Halliday. He noticed that the faces of the nineteen chief citizens and their wives bore that expression of peaceful and holy happiness again. He could not understand it, neither was he able to invent any remarks about it that could damage it or disturb it. And so it was his turn to be dissatisfied with life. His private guesses at the reasons for the happiness failed in all instances, upon examination. When he met Mrs. Wilcox and noticed the placid ecstasy in her face, he said to himself, "Her cat has had kittens"--and went and asked the cook; it was not so, the cook had detected the happiness, but did not know the cause. When Halliday found the duplicate ecstasy in the face of "Shadbelly" Billson (village nickname), he was sure some neighbour of Billson's had broken his leg, but inquiry showed that this had not happened. The subdued ecstasy in Gregory Yates's face could mean but one thing--he was a mother-in-law short; it was another mistake. "And Pinkerton--Pinkerton--he has collected ten cents that he thought he was going to lose." And so on, and so on. In some cases the guesses had to remain in doubt, in the others they proved distinct errors. In the end Halliday said to himself, "Anyway it roots up that there's nineteen Hadleyburg families temporarily in heaven: I don't know how it happened; I only know Providence is off duty to-day."
An architect and builder from the next State had lately ventured to set up a small business in this unpromising village, and his sign had now been hanging out a week. Not a customer yet; he was a discouraged man, and sorry he had come. But his weather changed suddenly now. First one and then another chief citizen's wife said to him privately:
"Come to my house Monday week--but say nothing about it for the present. We think of building."
He got eleven invitations that day. That night he wrote his daughter and broke off her match with her student. He said she could marry a mile higher than that.
Pinkerton the banker and two or three other well-to-do men planned country-seats--but waited. That kind don't count their chickens until they are hatched.
The Wilsons devised a grand new thing--a fancy-dress ball. They made no actual promises, but told all their acquaintanceship in confidence that they were thinking the matter over and thought they should give it--"and if we do, you will be invited, of course." People were surprised, and said, one to another, "Why, they are crazy, those poor Wilsons, they can't afford it." Several among the nineteen said privately to their husbands, "It is a good idea, we will keep still till their cheap thing is over, then WE will give one that will make it sick."
The days drifted along, and the bill of future squanderings rose higher and higher, wilder and wilder, more and more foolish and reckless. It began to look as if every member of the nineteen would not only spend his whole forty thousand dollars before receiving- day, but be actually in debt by the time he got the money. In some cases light-headed people did not stop with planning to spend, they really spent--on credit. They bought land, mortgages, farms, speculative stocks, fine clothes, horses, and various other things, paid down the bonus, and made themselves liable for the rest--at ten days. Presently the sober second thought came, and Halliday noticed that a ghastly anxiety was beginning to show up in a good many faces. Again he was puzzled, and didn't know what to make of it. "The Wilcox kittens aren't dead, for they weren't born; nobody's broken a leg; there's no shrinkage in mother-in-laws; NOTHING has happened--it is an insolvable mystery."
There was another puzzled man, too--the Rev. Mr. Burgess. For days, wherever he went, people seemed to follow him or to be watching out for him; and if he ever found himself in a retired spot, a member of the nineteen would be sure to appear, thrust an envelope privately into his hand, whisper "To be opened at the town-hall Friday evening," then vanish away like a guilty thing. He was expecting that there might be one claimant for the sack--doubtful, however, Goodson being dead--but it never occurred to him that all this crowd might be claimants. When the great Friday came at last, he found that he had nineteen envelopes.
The town-hall had never looked finer. The platform at the end of it was backed by a showy draping of flags; at intervals along the walls were festoons of flags; the gallery fronts were clothed in flags; the supporting columns were swathed in flags; all this was to impress the stranger, for he would be there in considerable force, and in a large degree he would be connected with the press. The house was full. The 412 fixed seats were occupied; also the 68 extra chairs which had been packed into the aisles; the steps of the platform were occupied; some distinguished strangers were given seats on the platform; at the horseshoe of tables which fenced the front and sides of the platform sat a strong force of special correspondents who had come from everywhere. It was the best- dressed house the town had ever produced. There were some tolerably expensive toilets there, and in several cases the ladies who wore them had the look of being unfamiliar with that kind of clothes. At least the town thought they had that look, but the notion could have arisen from the town's knowledge of the fact that these ladies had never inhabited such clothes before.
The gold-sack stood on a little table at the front of the platform where all the house could see it. The bulk of the house gazed at it with a burning interest, a mouth-watering interest, a wistful and pathetic interest; a minority of nineteen couples gazed at it tenderly, lovingly, proprietarily, and the male half of this minority kept saying over to themselves the moving little impromptu speeches of thankfulness for the audience's applause and congratulations which they were presently going to get up and deliver. Every now and then one of these got a piece of paper out of his vest pocket and privately glanced at it to refresh his memory.
Of course there was a buzz of conversation going on--there always is; but at last, when the Rev. Mr. Burgess rose and laid his hand on the sack, he could hear his microbes gnaw, the place was so still. He related the curious history of the sack, then went on to speak in warm terms of Hadleyburg's old and well-earned reputation for spotless honesty, and of the town's just pride in this reputation. He said that this reputation was a treasure of priceless value; that under Providence its value had now become inestimably enhanced, for the recent episode had spread this fame far and wide, and thus had focussed the eyes of the American world upon this village, and made its name for all time, as he hoped and believed, a synonym for commercial incorruptibility. [Applause.] "And who is to be the guardian of this noble fame--the community as a whole? No! The responsibility is individual, not communal. From this day forth each and every one of you is in his own person its special guardian, and individually responsible that no harm shall come to it. Do you --does each of you--accept this great trust? [Tumultuous assent.] Then all is well. Transmit it to your children and to your children's children. To-day your purity is beyond reproach--see to it that it shall remain so. To-day there is not a person in your community who could be beguiled to touch a penny not his own--see to it that you abide in this grace. ["We will! we will!"] This is not the place to make comparisons between ourselves and other communities--some of them ungracious towards us; they have their ways, we have ours; let us be content. [Applause.] I am done. Under my hand, my friends, rests a stranger's eloquent recognition of what we are; through him the world will always henceforth know what we are. We do not know who he is, but in your name I utter your gratitude, and ask you to raise your voices in indorsement."
The house rose in a body and made the walls quake with the thunders of its thankfulness for the space of a long minute. Then it sat down, and Mr. Burgess took an envelope out of his pocket. The house held its breath while he slit the envelope open and took from it a slip of paper. He read its contents--slowly and impressively--the audience listening with tranced attention to this magic document, each of whose words stood for an ingot of gold:
"'The remark which I made to the distressed stranger was this: "You are very far from being a bad man; go, and reform."'" Then he continued:- "We shall know in a moment now whether the remark here quoted corresponds with the one concealed in the sack; and if that shall prove to be so--and it undoubtedly will--this sack of gold belongs to a fellow-citizen who will henceforth stand before the nation as the symbol of the special virtue which has made our town famous throughout the land--Mr. Billson!"
The house had gotten itself all ready to burst into the proper tornado of applause; but instead of doing it, it seemed stricken with a paralysis; there was a deep hush for a moment or two, then a wave of whispered murmurs swept the place--of about this tenor: "BILLSON! oh, come, this is TOO thin! Twenty dollars to a stranger --or ANYBODY--BILLSON! Tell it to the marines!" And now at this point the house caught its breath all of a sudden in a new access of astonishment, for it discovered that whereas in one part of the hall Deacon Billson was standing up with his head weekly bowed, in another part of it Lawyer Wilson was doing the same. There was a wondering silence now for a while. Everybody was puzzled, and nineteen couples were surprised and indignant.
Billson and Wilson turned and stared at each other. Billson asked, bitingly:
"Why do YOU rise, Mr. Wilson?"
"Because I have a right to. Perhaps you will be good enough to explain to the house why YOU rise."
"With great pleasure. Because I wrote that paper."
"It is an impudent falsity! I wrote it myself."
It was Burgess's turn to be paralysed. He stood looking vacantly at first one of the men and then the other, and did not seem to know what to do. The house was stupefied. Lawyer Wilson spoke up now, and said:
"I ask the Chair to read the name signed to that paper."
That brought the Chair to itself, and it read out the name:
"John Wharton BILLSON."
"There!" shouted Billson, "what have you got to say for yourself now? And what kind of apology are you going to make to me and to this insulted house for the imposture which you have attempted to play here?"
"No apologies are due, sir; and as for the rest of it, I publicly charge you with pilfering my note from Mr. Burgess and substituting a copy of it signed with your own name. There is no other way by which you could have gotten hold of the test-remark; I alone, of living men, possessed the secret of its wording."
There was likely to be a scandalous state of things if this went on; everybody noticed with distress that the shorthand scribes were scribbling like mad; many people were crying "Chair, chair! Order! order!" Burgess rapped with his gavel, and said:
"Let us not forget the proprieties due. There has evidently been a mistake somewhere, but surely that is all. If Mr. Wilson gave me an envelope--and I remember now that he did--I still have it."
He took one out of his pocket, opened it, glanced at it, looked surprised and worried, and stood silent a few moments. Then he waved his hand in a wandering and mechanical way, and made an effort or two to say something, then gave it up, despondently. Several voices cried out:
"Read it! read it! What is it?"
So he began, in a dazed and sleep-walker fashion:
"'The remark which I made to the unhappy stranger was this: "You are far from being a bad man. [The house gazed at him marvelling.] Go, and reform."' [Murmurs: "Amazing! what can this mean?"] This one," said the Chair, "is signed Thurlow G. Wilson."
"There!" cried Wilson, "I reckon that settles it! I knew perfectly well my note was purloined."
"Purloined!" retorted Billson. "I'll let you know that neither you nor any man of your kidney must venture to--"
The Chair: "Order, gentlemen, order! Take your seats, both of you, please."
They obeyed, shaking their heads and grumbling angrily. The house was profoundly puzzled; it did not know what to do with this curious emergency. Presently Thompson got up. Thompson was the hatter. He would have liked to be a Nineteener; but such was not for him; his stock of hats was not considerable enough for the position. He said:
"Mr. Chairman, if I may be permitted to make a suggestion, can both of these gentlemen be right? I put it to you, sir, can both have happened to say the very same words to the stranger? It seems to me--"
The tanner got up and interrupted him. The tanner was a disgruntled man; he believed himself entitled to be a Nineteener, but he couldn't get recognition. It made him a little unpleasant in his ways and speech. Said he:
"Sho, THAT'S not the point! THAT could happen--twice in a hundred years--but not the other thing. NEITHER of them gave the twenty dollars!" [A ripple of applause.]
Billson. "I did!"
Wilson. "I did!"
Then each accused the other of pilfering.
The Chair. "Order! Sit down, if you please--both of you. Neither of the notes has been out of my possession at any moment."
A Voice. "Good--that settles THAT!"
The Tanner. "Mr. Chairman, one thing is now plain: one of these men has been eavesdropping under the other one's bed, and filching family secrets. If it is not unparliamentary to suggest it, I will remark that both are equal to it. [The Chair. "Order! order!"] I withdraw the remark, sir, and will confine myself to suggesting that IF one of them has overheard the other reveal the test-remark to his wife, we shall catch him now."
A Voice. "How?"
The Tanner. "Easily. The two have not quoted the remark in exactly the same words. You would have noticed that, if there hadn't been a considerable stretch of time and an exciting quarrel inserted between the two readings."
A Voice. "Name the difference."
The Tanner. "The word VERY is in Billson's note, and not in the other."
Many Voices. "That's so--he's right!"
The Tanner. "And so, if the Chair will examine the test-remark in the sack, we shall know which of these two frauds--[The Chair. "Order!"]--which of these two adventurers--[The Chair. "Order! order!"]--which of these two gentlemen--[laughter and applause]--is entitled to wear the belt as being the first dishonest blatherskite ever bred in this town--which he has dishonoured, and which will be a sultry place for him from now out!" [Vigorous applause.]
Many Voices. "Open it!--open the sack!"
Mr. Burgess made a slit in the sack, slid his hand in, and brought out an envelope. In it were a couple of folded notes. He said:
"One of these is marked, 'Not to be examined until all written communications which have been addressed to the Chair--if any--shall have been read.' The other is marked 'THE TEST.' Allow me. It is worded--to wit:
"'I do not require that the first half of the remark which was made to me by my benefactor shall be quoted with exactness, for it was not striking, and could be forgotten; but its closing fifteen words are quite striking, and I think easily rememberable; unless THESE shall be accurately reproduced, let the applicant be regarded as an impostor. My benefactor began by saying he seldom gave advice to anyone, but that it always bore the hallmark of high value when he did give it. Then he said this--and it has never faded from my memory: 'YOU ARE FAR FROM BEING A BAD MAN--'"
Fifty Voices. "That settles it--the money's Wilson's! Wilson! Wilson! Speech! Speech!"
People jumped up and crowded around Wilson, wringing his hand and congratulating fervently--meantime the Chair was hammering with the gavel and shouting:
"Order, gentlemen! Order! Order! Let me finish reading, please." When quiet was restored, the reading was resumed--as follows:
"'GO, AND REFORM--OR, MARK MY WORDS--SOME DAY, FOR YOUR SINS YOU WILL DIE AND GO TO HELL OR HADLEYBURG--TRY AND MAKE IT THE FORMER.'"
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