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 be 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.