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.'"
A ghastly silence followed. First an angry cloud began to settle darkly upon the faces of the citizenship; after a pause the cloud began to rise, and a tickled expression tried to take its place; tried so hard that it was only kept under with great and painful difficulty; the reporters, the Brixtonites, and other strangers bent their heads down and shielded their faces with their hands, and managed to hold in by main strength and heroic courtesy. At this most inopportune time burst upon the stillness the roar of a solitary voice--Jack Halliday's:
"THAT'S got the hall-mark on it!"
Then the house let go, strangers and all. Even Mr. Burgess's gravity broke down presently, then the audience considered itself officially absolved from all restraint, and it made the most of its privilege. It was a good long laugh, and a tempestuously wholehearted one, but it ceased at last--long enough for Mr. Burgess to try to resume, and for the people to get their eyes partially wiped; then it broke out again, and afterward yet again; then at last Burgess was able to get out these serious words:
"It is useless to try to disguise the fact--we find ourselves in the presence of a matter of grave import. It involves the honour of your town--it strikes at the town's good name. The difference of a single word between the test-remarks offered by Mr. Wilson and Mr. Billson was itself a serious thing, since it indicated that one or the other of these gentlemen had committed a theft--"
The two men were sitting limp, nerveless, crushed; but at these words both were electrified into movement, and started to get up.
"Sit down!" said the Chair, sharply, and they obeyed. "That, as I have said, was a serious thing. And it was--but for only one of them. But the matter has become graver; for the honour of BOTH is now in formidable peril. Shall I go even further, and say in inextricable peril? BOTH left out the crucial fifteen words." He paused. During several moments he allowed the pervading stillness to gather and deepen its impressive effects, then added: "There would seem to be but one way whereby this could happen. I ask these gentlemen--Was there COLLUSION?--AGREEMENT?"
A low murmur sifted through the house; its import was, "He's got them both."
Billson was not used to emergencies; he sat in a helpless collapse. But Wilson was a lawyer. He struggled to his feet, pale and worried, and said:
"I ask the indulgence of the house while I explain this most painful matter. I am sorry to say what I am about to say, since it must inflict irreparable injury upon Mr. Billson, whom I have always esteemed and respected until now, and in whose invulnerability to temptation I entirely believed--as did you all. But for the preservation of my own honour I must speak--and with frankness. I confess with shame--and I now beseech your pardon for it--that I said to the ruined stranger all of the words contained in the test-remark, including the disparaging fifteen. [Sensation.] When the late publication was made I recalled them, and I resolved to claim the sack of coin, for by every right I was entitled to it. Now I will ask you to consider this point, and weigh it well; that stranger's gratitude to me that night knew no bounds; he said himself that he could find no words for it that were adequate, and that if he should ever be able he would repay me a thousandfold. Now, then, I ask you this; could I expect--could I believe--could I even remotely imagine --that, feeling as he did, he would do so ungrateful a thing as to add those quite unnecessary fifteen words to his test?--set a trap for me?--expose me as a slanderer of my own town before my own people assembled in a public hall? It was preposterous; it was impossible. His test would contain only the kindly opening clause of my remark. Of that I had no shadow of doubt. You would have thought as I did. You would not have expected a base betrayal from one whom you had befriended and against whom you had committed no offence. And so with perfect confidence, perfect trust, I wrote on a piece of paper the opening words--ending with "Go, and reform,"--and signed it. When I was about to put it in an envelope I was called into my back office, and without thinking I left the paper lying open on my desk." He stopped, turned his head slowly toward Billson, waited a moment, then added: "I ask you to note this; when I returned, a little latter, Mr. Billson was retiring by my street door." [Sensation.]
In a moment Billson was on his feet and shouting:
"It's a lie! It's an infamous lie!"
The Chair. "Be seated, sir! Mr. Wilson has the floor."
Billson's friends pulled him into his seat and quieted him, and Wilson went on:
"Those are the simple facts. My note was now lying in a different place on the table from where I had left it. I noticed that, but attached no importance to it, thinking a draught had blown it there. That Mr. Billson would read a private paper was a thing which could not occur to me; he was an honourable man, and he would be above that. If you will allow me to say it, I think his extra word 'VERY' stands explained: it is attributable to a defect of memory. I was the only man in the world who could furnish here any detail of the test-mark--by HONOURABLE means. I have finished."
There is nothing in the world like a persuasive speech to fuddle the mental apparatus and upset the convictions and debauch the emotions of an audience not practised in the tricks and delusions of oratory. Wilson sat down victorious. The house submerged him in tides of approving applause; friends swarmed to him and shook him by the hand and congratulated him, and Billson was shouted down and not allowed to say a word. The Chair hammered and hammered with its gavel, and kept shouting:
"But let us proceed, gentlemen, let us proceed!"
At last there was a measurable degree of quiet, and the hatter said:
"But what is there to proceed with, sir, but to deliver the money?"
Voices. "That's it! That's it! Come forward, Wilson!"
The Hatter. "I move three cheers for Mr. Wilson, Symbol of the special virtue which--"
The cheers burst forth before he could finish; and in the midst of them--and in the midst of the clamour of the gavel also--some enthusiasts mounted Wilson on a big friend's shoulder and were going to fetch him in triumph to the platform. The Chair's voice now rose above the noise:
"Order! To your places! You forget that there is still a document to be read." When quiet had been restored he took up the document, and was going to read it, but laid it down again saying "I forgot; this is not to be read until all written communications received by me have first been read." He took an envelope out of his pocket, removed its enclosure, glanced at it--seemed astonished--held it out and gazed at it--stared at it.
Twenty or thirty voices cried out:
"What is it? Read it! read it!"
And he did--slowly, and wondering:
"'The remark which I made to the stranger--[Voices. "Hello! how's this?"]--was this: "You are far from being a bad man. [Voices. "Great Scott!"] Go, and reform."' [Voice. "Oh, saw my leg off!"] Signed by Mr. Pinkerton the banker."
The pandemonium of delight which turned itself loose now was of a sort to make the judicious weep. Those whose withers were unwrung laughed till the tears ran down; the reporters, in throes of laughter, set down disordered pot-hooks which would never in the world be decipherable; and a sleeping dog jumped up scared out of its wits, and barked itself crazy at the turmoil. All manner of cries were scattered through the din: "We're getting rich--TWO Symbols of Incorruptibility!--without counting Billson!" "THREE!--count Shadbelly in--we can't have too many!" "All right--Billson's elected!" "Alas, poor Wilson! victim of TWO thieves!"
A Powerful Voice. "Silence! The Chair's fished up something more out of its pocket."
Voices. "Hurrah! Is it something fresh? Read it! read! read!"
The Chair [reading]. "'The remark which I made,' etc. 'You are far from being a bad man. Go,' etc. Signed, 'Gregory Yates.'"
Tornado of Voices. "Four Symbols!" "'Rah for Yates!" "Fish again!"
The house was in a roaring humour now, and ready to get all the fun out of the occasion that might be in it. Several Nineteeners, looking pale and distressed, got up and began to work their way towards the aisles, but a score of shouts went up:
"The doors, the doors--close the doors; no Incorruptible shall leave this place! Sit down, everybody!" The mandate was obeyed.
"Fish again! Read! read!"
The Chair fished again, and once more the familiar words began to fall from its lips--"'You are far from being a bad man--'"
"Name! name! What's his name?"
"'L. Ingoldsby Sargent.'"
"Five elected! Pile up the Symbols! Go on, go on!"
"'You are far from being a bad--'"
"Hooray! hooray! it's a symbolical day!"
Somebody wailed in, and began to sing this rhyme (leaving out "it's") to the lovely "Mikado" tune of "When a man's afraid of a beautiful maid;" the audience joined in, with joy; then, just in time, somebody contributed another line--
"And don't you this forget--"
The house roared it out. A third line was at once furnished--
"Corruptibles far from Hadleyburg are--"
The house roared that one too. As the last note died, Jack Halliday's voice rose high and clear, freighted with a final line--
"But the Symbols are here, you bet!"
That was sung, with booming enthusiasm. Then the happy house started in at the beginning and sang the four lines through twice, with immense swing and dash, and finished up with a crashing three-times-three and a tiger for "Hadleyburg the Incorruptible and all Symbols of it which we shall find worthy to receive the hall-mark to-night."
Then the shoutings at the Chair began again, all over the place:
"Go on! go on! Read! read some more! Read all you've got!"
"That's it--go on! We are winning eternal celebrity!"
A dozen men got up now and began to protest. They said that this farce was the work of some abandoned joker, and was an insult to the whole community. Without a doubt these signatures were all forgeries--
"Sit down! sit down! Shut up! You are confessing. We'll find your names in the lot."
"Mr. Chairman, how many of those envelopes have you got?"
The Chair counted.
"Together with those that have been already examined, there are nineteen."
A storm of derisive applause broke out.
"Perhaps they all contain the secret. I move that you open them all and read every signature that is attached to a note of that sort--and read also the first eight words of the note."
"Second the motion!"
It was put and carried--uproariously. Then poor old Richards got up, and his wife rose and stood at his side. Her head was bent down, so that none might see that she was crying. Her husband gave her his arm, and so supporting her, he began to speak in a quavering voice:
"My friends, you have known us two--Mary and me--all our lives, and I think you have liked us and respected us--"
The Chair interrupted him:
"Allow me. It is quite true--that which you are saying, Mr. Richards; this town DOES know you two; it DOES like you; it DOES respect you; more--it honours you and LOVES you--"
Halliday's voice rang out:
"That's the hall-marked truth, too! If the Chair is right, let the house speak up and say it. Rise! Now, then--hip! hip! hip!--all together!"
The house rose in mass, faced toward the old couple eagerly, filled the air with a snow-storm of waving handkerchiefs, and delivered the cheers with all its affectionate heart.
The Chair then continued:
"What I was going to say is this: We know your good heart, Mr. Richards, but this is not a time for the exercise of charity toward offenders. [Shouts of "Right! right!"] I see your generous purpose in your face, but I cannot allow you to plead for these men--"
"But I was going to--"
"Please take your seat, Mr. Richards. We must examine the rest of these notes--simple fairness to the men who have already been exposed requires this. As soon as that has been done--I give you my word for this--you shall be heard."
Many voices. "Right!--the Chair is right--no interruption can be permitted at this stage! Go on!--the names! the names!--according to the terms of the motion!"
The old couple sat reluctantly down, and the husband whispered to the wife, "It is pitifully hard to have to wait; the shame will be greater than ever when they find we were only going to plead for OURSELVES."
Straightway the jollity broke loose again with the reading of the names.
"'You are far from being a bad man--' Signature, 'Robert J. Titmarsh.'"
'"You are far from being a bad man--' Signature, 'Eliphalet Weeks.'"
"'You are far from being a bad man--' Signature, 'Oscar B. Wilder.'"
At this point the house lit upon the idea of taking the eight words out of the Chairman's hands. He was not unthankful for that. Thenceforward he held up each note in its turn and waited. The house droned out the eight words in a massed and measured and musical deep volume of sound (with a daringly close resemblance to a well-known church chant)--"You are f-a-r from being a b-a-a-a-d man." Then the Chair said, "Signature, 'Archibald Wilcox.'" And so on, and so on, name after name, and everybody had an increasingly and gloriously good time except the wretched Nineteen. Now and then, when a particularly shining name was called, the house made the Chair wait while it chanted the whole of the test-remark from the beginning to the closing words, "And go to hell or Hadleyburg--try and make it the for-or-m-e-r!" and in these special cases they added a grand and agonised and imposing "A-a-a-a-MEN!"
The list dwindled, dwindled, dwindled, poor old Richards keeping tally of the count, wincing when a name resembling his own was pronounced, and waiting in miserable suspense for the time to come when it would be his humiliating privilege to rise with Mary and finish his plea, which he was intending to word thus: ". . . for until now we have never done any wrong thing, but have gone our humble way unreproached. We are very poor, we are old, and, have no chick nor child to help us; we were sorely tempted, and we fell. It was my purpose when I got up before to make confession and beg that my name might not be read out in this public place, for it seemed to us that we could not bear it; but I was prevented. It was just; it was our place to suffer with the rest. It has been hard for us. It is the first time we have ever heard our name fall from any one's lips--sullied. Be merciful--for the sake or the better days; make our shame as light to bear as in your charity you can." At this point in his reverie Mary nudged him, perceiving that his mind was absent. The house was chanting, "You are f-a-r," etc.
"Be ready," Mary whispered. "Your name comes now; he has read eighteen."
The chant ended.
"Next! next! next!" came volleying from all over the house.
Burgess put his hand into his pocket. The old couple, trembling, began to rise. Burgess fumbled a moment, then said:
"I find I have read them all."
Faint with joy and surprise, the couple sank into their seats, and Mary whispered:
"Oh, bless God, we are saved!--he has lost ours--I wouldn't give this for a hundred of those sacks!"
The house burst out with its "Mikado" travesty, and sang it three times with ever-increasing enthusiasm, rising to its feet when it reached for the third time the closing line--
"But the Symbols are here, you bet!"
and finishing up with cheers and a tiger for "Hadleyburg purity and our eighteen immortal representatives of it."
Then Wingate, the saddler, got up and proposed cheers "for the cleanest man in town, the one solitary important citizen in it who didn't try to steal that money--Edward Richards."
They were given with great and moving heartiness; then somebody proposed that "Richards be elected sole Guardian and Symbol of the now Sacred Hadleyburg Tradition, with power and right to stand up and look the whole sarcastic world in the face."
Passed, by acclamation; then they sang the "Mikado" again, and ended it with--
"And there's ONE Symbol left, you bet!"
There was a pause; then--
A Voice. "Now, then, who's to get the sack?"
The Tanner (with bitter sarcasm). "That's easy. The money has to be divided among the eighteen Incorruptibles. They gave the suffering stranger twenty dollars apiece--and that remark--each in his turn--it took twenty-two minutes for the procession to move past. Staked the stranger--total contribution, $360. All they want is just the loan back--and interest--forty thousand dollars altogether."
Many Voices [derisively.] "That's it! Divvy! divvy! Be kind to the poor--don't keep them waiting!"
The Chair. "Order! I now offer the stranger's remaining document. It says: 'If no claimant shall appear [grand chorus of groans], I desire that you open the sack and count out the money to the principal citizens of your town, they to take it in trust [Cries of "Oh! Oh! Oh!"], and use it in such ways as to them shall seem best for the propagation and preservation of your community's noble reputation for incorruptible honesty [more cries]--a reputation to which their names and their efforts will add a new and far-reaching lustre." [Enthusiastic outburst of sarcastic applause.] That seems to be all. No--here is a postscript:
"'P.S.--CITIZENS OF HADLEYBURG: There IS no test-remark--nobody made one. [Great sensation.] There wasn't any pauper stranger, nor any twenty-dollar contribution, nor any accompanying benediction and compliment--these are all inventions. [General buzz and hum of astonishment and delight.] Allow me to tell my story--it will take but a word or two. I passed through your town at a certain time, and received a deep offence which I had not earned. Any other man would have been content to kill one or two of you and call it square, but to me that would have been a trivial revenge, and inadequate; for the dead do not SUFFER. Besides I could not kill you all--and, anyway, made as I am, even that would not have satisfied me. I wanted to damage every man in the place, and every woman--and not in their bodies or in their estate, but in their vanity--the place where feeble and foolish people are most vulnerable. So I disguised myself and came back and studied you. You were easy game. You had an old and lofty reputation for honesty, and naturally you were proud of it--it was your treasure of treasures, the very apple of your eye. As soon as I found out that you carefully and vigilantly kept yourselves and your children OUT OF TEMPTATION, I knew how to proceed. Why, you simple creatures, the weakest of all weak things is a virtue which has not been tested in the fire. I laid a plan, and gathered a list of names. My project was to corrupt Hadleyburg the Incorruptible. My idea was to make liars and thieves of nearly half a hundred smirchless men and women who had never in their lives uttered a lie or stolen a penny. I was afraid of Goodson. He was neither born nor reared in Hadleyburg. I was afraid that if I started to operate my scheme by getting my letter laid before you, you would say to yourselves, 'Goodson is the only man among us who would give away twenty dollars to a poor devil'--and then you might not bite at my bait. But heaven took Goodson; then I knew I was safe, and I set my trap and baited it. It may be that I shall not catch all the men to whom I mailed the pretended test-secret, but I shall catch the most of them, if I know Hadleyburg nature. [Voices. "Right--he got every last one of them."] I believe they will even steal ostensible GAMBLE-money, rather than miss, poor, tempted, and mistrained fellows. I am hoping to eternally and everlastingly squelch your vanity and give Hadleyburg a new renown--one that will STICK--and spread far. If I have succeeded, open the sack and summon the Committee on Propagation and Preservation of the Hadleyburg Reputation.'"
A Cyclone of Voices. "Open it! Open it! The Eighteen to the front! Committee on Propagation of the Tradition! Forward--the Incorruptibles!"
The Chair ripped the sack wide, and gathered up a handful of bright, broad, yellow coins, shook them together, then examined them.
"Friends, they are only gilded disks of lead!"
There was a crashing outbreak of delight over this news, and when the noise had subsided, the tanner called out:
"By right of apparent seniority in this business, Mr. Wilson is Chairman of the Committee on Propagation of the Tradition. I suggest that he step forward on behalf of his pals, and receive in trust the money."
A Hundred Voices. "Wilson! Wilson! Wilson! Speech! Speech!"
Wilson [in a voice trembling with anger]. "You will allow me to say, and without apologies for my language, DAMN the money!"
A Voice. "Oh, and him a Baptist!"
A Voice. "Seventeen Symbols left! Step up, gentlemen, and assume your trust!"
There was a pause--no response.
The Saddler. "Mr. Chairman, we've got ONE clean man left, anyway, out of the late aristocracy; and he needs money, and deserves it. I move that you appoint Jack Halliday to get up there and auction off that sack of gilt twenty-dollar pieces, and give the result to the right man--the man whom Hadleyburg delights to honour--Edward Richards."
This was received with great enthusiasm, the dog taking a hand again; the saddler started the bids at a dollar, the Brixton folk and Barnum's representative fought hard for it, the people cheered every jump that the bids made, the excitement climbed moment by moment higher and higher, the bidders got on their mettle and grew steadily more and more daring, more and more determined, the jumps went from a dollar up to five, then to ten, then to twenty, then fifty, then to a hundred, then--
At the beginning of the auction Richards whispered in distress to his wife: "Oh, Mary, can we allow it? It--it--you see, it is an honour--reward, a testimonial to purity of character, and--and--can we allow it? Hadn't I better get up and--Oh, Mary, what ought we to do?--what do you think we--" [Halliday's voice. "Fifteen I'm bid! --fifteen for the sack!--twenty!--ah, thanks!--thirty--thanks again! Thirty, thirty, thirty!--do I hear forty?--forty it is! Keep the ball rolling, gentlemen, keep it rolling!--fifty!--thanks, noble Roman!--going at fifty, fifty, fifty!--seventy!--ninety!--splendid!--a hundred!--pile it up, pile it up!--hundred and twenty--forty!--just in time!--hundred and fifty!--Two hundred!--superb! Do I hear two h--thanks!--two hundred and fifty!--"]
"It is another temptation, Edward--I'm all in a tremble--but, oh, we've escaped one temptation, and that ought to warn us, to--["Six did I hear?--thanks!--six fifty, six f--SEVEN hundred!"] And yet, Edward, when you think--nobody susp--["Eight hundred dollars!--hurrah!--make it nine!--Mr. Parsons, did I hear you say--thanks!--nine!--this noble sack of virgin lead going at only nine hundred dollars, gilding and all--come! do I hear--a thousand!--gratefully yours!--did some one say eleven?--a sack which is going to be the most celebrated in the whole Uni--"] Oh, Edward (beginning to sob), we are so poor!--but--but--do as you think best--do as you think best."
Edward fell--that is, he sat still; sat with a conscience which was not satisfied, but which was overpowered by circumstances.
Meantime a stranger, who looked like an amateur detective gotten up as an impossible English earl, had been watching the evening's proceedings with manifest interest, and with a contented expression in his face; and he had been privately commenting to himself. He was now soliloquising somewhat like this: 'None of the Eighteen are bidding; that is not satisfactory; I must change that--the dramatic unities require it; they must buy the sack they tried to steal; they must pay a heavy price, too--some of them are rich. And another thing, when I make a mistake in Hadleyburg nature the man that puts that error upon me is entitled to a high honorarium, and some one must pay. This poor old Richards has brought my judgment to shame; he is an honest man:--I don't understand it, but I acknowledge it. Yes, he saw my deuces--AND with a straight flush, and by rights the pot is his. And it shall be a jack-pot, too, if I can manage it. He disappointed me, but let that pass.'
He was watching the bidding. At a thousand, the market broke: the prices tumbled swiftly. He waited--and still watched. One competitor dropped out; then another, and another. He put in a bid or two now. When the bids had sunk to ten dollars, he added a five; some one raised him a three; he waited a moment, then flung in a fifty-dollar jump, and the sack was his--at $1,282. The house broke out in cheers--then stopped; for he was on his feet, and had lifted his hand. He began to speak.
"I desire to say a word, and ask a favour. I am a speculator in rarities, and I have dealings with persons interested in numismatics all over the world. I can make a profit on this purchase, just as it stands; but there is a way, if I can get your approval, whereby I can make every one of these leaden twenty-dollar pieces worth its face in gold, and perhaps more. Grant me that approval, and I will give part of my gains to your Mr. Richards, whose invulnerable probity you have so justly and so cordially recognised tonight; his share shall be ten thousand dollars, and I will hand him the money to-morrow. [Great applause from the house. But the "invulnerable probity" made the Richardses blush prettily; however, it went for modesty, and did no harm.] If you will pass my proposition by a good majority--I would like a two-thirds vote--I will regard that as the town's consent, and that is all I ask. Rarities are always helped by any device which will rouse curiosity and compel remark. Now if I may have your permission to stamp upon the faces of each of these ostensible coins the names of the eighteen gentlemen who--"
Nine-tenths of the audience were on their feet in a moment--dog and all--and the proposition was carried with a whirlwind of approving applause and laughter.
They sat down, and all the Symbols except "Dr." Clay Harkness got up, violently protesting against the proposed outrage, and threatening to--
"I beg you not to threaten me," said the stranger calmly. "I know my legal rights, and am not accustomed to being frightened at bluster." [Applause.] He sat down. "Dr." Harkness saw an opportunity here. He was one of the two very rich men of the place, and Pinkerton was the other. Harkness was proprietor of a mint; that is to say, a popular patent medicine. He was running for the Legislature on one ticket, and Pinkerton on the other. It was a close race and a hot one, and getting hotter every day. Both had strong appetites for money; each had bought a great tract of land, with a purpose; there was going to be a new railway, and each wanted to be in the Legislature and help locate the route to his own advantage; a single vote might make the decision, and with it two or three fortunes. The stake was large, and Harkness was a daring speculator. He was sitting close to the stranger. He leaned over while one or another of the other Symbols was entertaining the house with protests and appeals, and asked, in a whisper,
"What is your price for the sack?"
"Forty thousand dollars."
"I'll give you twenty."
"The price is forty thousand dollars; not a penny less."
"All right, I'll give it. I will come to the hotel at ten in the morning. I don't want it known; will see you privately."
"Very good." Then the stranger got up and said to the house:
"I find it late. The speeches of these gentlemen are not without merit, not without interest, not without grace; yet if I may be excused I will take my leave. I thank you for the great favour which you have shown me in granting my petition. I ask the Chair to keep the sack for me until to-morrow, and to hand these three five-hundred-dollar notes to Mr. Richards." They were passed up to the Chair.
"At nine I will call for the sack, and at eleven will deliver the rest of the ten thousand to Mr. Richards in person at his home. Good-night."
Then he slipped out, and left the audience making a vast noise, which was composed of a mixture of cheers, the "Mikado" song, dog-disapproval, and the chant, "You are f-a-r from being a b-a-a-d man--a-a-a a-men!"