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 thousand 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.