The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, and Other Stories eBook: Page2

Mark Twain (2006)


  II

  Hadleyburg village woke up world-celebrated--astonished--happy--vain.Vain beyond imagination. Its nineteen principal citizens and their wiveswent about shaking hands with each other, and beaming, and smiling,and congratulating, and saying THIS thing adds a new word to thedictionary--HADLEYBURG, synonym for INCORRUPTIBLE--destined to live indictionaries for ever! And the minor and unimportant citizens and theirwives went around acting in much the same way. Everybody ran to the bankto see the gold-sack; and before noon grieved and envious crowds beganto flock in from Brixton and all neighbouring towns; and that afternoonand next day reporters began to arrive from everywhere to verify thesack and its history and write the whole thing up anew, and make dashingfree-hand pictures of the sack, and of Richards's house, and the bank,and the Presbyterian church, and the Baptist church, and the publicsquare, and the town-hall where the test would be applied and the moneydelivered; and damnable portraits of the Richardses, and Pinkertonthe banker, and Cox, and the foreman, and Reverend Burgess, andthe 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 hissleek palms together pleasantly, and enlarged upon the town's fine oldreputation for honesty and upon this wonderful endorsement of it, andhoped and believed that the example would now spread far and wideover the American world, and be epoch-making in the matter of moralregeneration. And so on, and so on.

  By the end of a week things had quieted down again; the wildintoxication of pride and joy had sobered to a soft, sweet, silentdelight--a sort of deep, nameless, unutterable content. All faces bore alook of peaceful, holy happiness.

  Then a change came. It was a gradual change; so gradual that itsbeginnings were hardly noticed; maybe were not noticed at all, except byJack Halliday, who always noticed everything; and always made fun of it,too, no matter what it was. He began to throw out chaffing remarks aboutpeople not looking quite so happy as they did a day or two ago; and nexthe claimed that the new aspect was deepening to positive sadness; next,that it was taking on a sick look; and finally he said that everybodywas become so moody, thoughtful, and absent-minded that he could rob themeanest man in town of a cent out of the bottom of his breeches pocketand not disturb his reverie.

  At this stage--or at about this stage--a saying like this was droppedat bedtime--with a sigh, usually--by the head of each of the nineteenprincipal 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 itaway from you, for God's sake!"

  But that question was wrung from those men again the next night--and gotthe same retort. But weaker.

  And the third night the men uttered the question yet again--withanguish, and absently. This time--and the following night--the wivesfidgeted feebly, and tried to say something. But didn't.

  And the night after that they found their tongues andresponded--longingly:

  "Oh, if we COULD only guess!"

  Halliday's comments grew daily more and more sparklingly disagreeableand disparaging. He went diligently about, laughing at the town,individually and in mass. But his laugh was the only one left in thevillage: it fell upon a hollow and mournful vacancy and emptiness. Noteven a smile was findable anywhere. Halliday carried a cigar-box aroundon a tripod, playing that it was a camera, and halted all passers andaimed the thing and said "Ready!--now look pleasant, please," butnot even this capital joke could surprise the dreary faces into anysoftening.

  So three weeks passed--one week was left. It was Saturday evening aftersupper. Instead of the aforetime Saturday-evening flutter and bustle andshopping and larking, the streets were empty and desolate. Richards andhis old wife sat apart in their little parlour--miserable and thinking.This was become their evening habit now: the life-long habit which hadpreceded it, of reading, knitting, and contented chat, or receiving orpaying neighbourly calls, was dead and gone and forgotten, ages ago--twoor three weeks ago; nobody talked now, nobody read, nobody visited--thewhole village sat at home, sighing, worrying, silent. Trying to guessout that remark.

  The postman left a letter. Richards glanced listlessly at thesuperscription and the post-mark--unfamiliar, both--and tossed theletter on the table and resumed his might-have-beens and his hopelessdull miseries where he had left them off. Two or three hours laterhis wife got wearily up and was going away to bed without agood-night--custom now--but she stopped near the letter and eyed itawhile with a dead interest, then broke it open, and began to skim itover. Richards, sitting there with his chair tilted back against thewall and his chin between his knees, heard something fall. It was hiswife. 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 distantState, and it said:

  "I am a stranger to you, but no matter: I have something to tell. Ihave just arrived home from Mexico, and learned about that episode. Ofcourse you do not know who made that remark, but I know, and I am theonly person living who does know. It was GOODSON. I knew him well, manyyears ago. I passed through your village that very night, and was hisguest till the midnight train came along. I overheard him make thatremark to the stranger in the dark--it was in Hale Alley. He and Italked 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 ofthem in a very uncomplimentary way, but two or three favourably: amongthese latter yourself. I say 'favourably'--nothing stronger. I rememberhis saying he did not actually LIKE any person in the town--not one; butthat you--I THINK he said you--am almost sure--had done him a very greatservice once, possibly without knowing the full value of it, and hewished he had a fortune, he would leave it to you when he died, and acurse apiece for the rest of the citizens. Now, then, if it was you thatdid him that service, you are his legitimate heir, and entitled to thesack of gold. I know that I can trust to your honour and honesty, for ina citizen of Hadleyburg these virtues are an unfailing inheritance, andso I am going to reveal to you the remark, well satisfied that if youare not the right man you will seek and find the right one and see thatpoor 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, sograteful,--kiss me, dear, it's for ever since we kissed--and we neededit so--the money--and now you are free of Pinkerton and his bank, andnobody'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 setteecaressing each other; it was the old days come again--days that hadbegun with their courtship and lasted without a break till the strangerbrought the deadly money. By-and-by the wife said:

  "Oh, Edward, how lucky it was you did him that grand service, poorGoodson! I never liked him, but I love him now. And it was fine andbeautiful of you never to mention it or brag about it." Then, with atouch of reproach, "But you ought to have told ME, Edward, you ought tohave told your wife, you know."

  "Well, I--er--well, Mary, you see--"

  "Now stop hemming and hawing, and tell me about it, Edward. I alwaysloved you, and now I'm proud of you. Everybody believes there wasonly one good generous soul in this village, and now it turns out thatyou--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 h
er hand withinhis and said:

  "No... no. We have wandered far enough from our bearings--God spare usthat! In all your life you have never uttered a lie. But now--now thatthe 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 intotemptation... I think you made the promise, Edward. Let it rest so. Letus keep away from that ground. Now--that is all gone by; let us be happyagain; it is no time for clouds."

  Edward found it something of an effort to comply, for his mind keptwandering--trying to remember what the service was that he had doneGoodson.

  The couple lay awake the most of the night, Mary happy and busy, Edwardbusy, but not so happy. Mary was planning what she would do with themoney. Edward was trying to recall that service. At first his consciencewas sore on account of the lie he had told Mary--if it was a lie. Aftermuch reflection--suppose it WAS a lie? What then? Was it such a greatmatter? Aren't we always ACTING lies? Then why not tell them? Look atMary--look what she had done. While he was hurrying off on his honesterrand, what was she doing? Lamenting because the papers hadn't beendestroyed and the money kept. Is theft better than lying?

  THAT point lost its sting--the lie dropped into the background and leftcomfort behind it. The next point came to the front: HAD he renderedthat service? Well, here was Goodson's own evidence as reported inStephenson's letter; there could be no better evidence than that--itwas even PROOF that he had rendered it. Of course. So that point wassettled... No, not quite. He recalled with a wince that this unknown Mr.Stephenson was just a trifle unsure as to whether the performer of itwas Richards or some other--and, oh dear, he had put Richards on hishonour! He must himself decide whither that money must go--and Mr.Stephenson was not doubting that if he was the wrong man he would gohonourably and find the right one. Oh, it was odious to put a man insuch 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 inStephenson's mind as indicating the right man, and not some other man'sname? That looked good. Yes, that looked very good. In fact it went onlooking better and better, straight along--until by-and-by it grew intopositive PROOF. And then Richards put the matter at once out of hismind, for he had a private instinct that a proof once established isbetter left so.

  He was feeling reasonably comfortable now, but there was still one otherdetail that kept pushing itself on his notice: of course he had donethat service--that was settled; but what WAS that service? He mustrecall it--he would not go to sleep till he had recalled it; it wouldmake his peace of mind perfect. And so he thought and thought.He thought of a dozen things--possible services, even probableservices--but none of them seemed adequate, none of them seemed largeenough, none of them seemed worth the money--worth the fortune Goodsonhad wished he could leave in his will. And besides, he couldn't rememberhaving done them, anyway. Now, then--now, then--what KIND of a servicewould it be that would make a man so inordinately grateful? Ah--thesaving of his soul! That must be it. Yes, he could remember, now, how heonce set himself the task of converting Goodson, and laboured at it asmuch as--he was going to say three months; but upon closer examinationit 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 hadtold him to go to thunder and mind his own business--HE wasn't hankeringto follow Hadleyburg to heaven!

  So that solution was a failure--he hadn't saved Goodson's soul. Richardswas discouraged. Then after a little came another idea: had he savedGoodson's property? No, that wouldn't do--he hadn't any. His life? Thatis it! Of course. Why, he might have thought of it before. This time hewas on the right track, sure. His imagination-mill was hard at work in aminute, now.

  Thereafter, during a stretch of two exhausting hours, he was busy savingGoodson'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 reallyhappened, a troublesome detail would turn up which made the whole thingimpossible. As in the matter of drowning, for instance. In that case hehad swum out and tugged Goodson ashore in an unconscious state witha great crowd looking on and applauding, but when he had got it allthought out and was just beginning to remember all about it, a wholeswarm of disqualifying details arrived on the ground: the town wouldhave known of the circumstance, Mary would have known of it, itwould glare like a limelight in his own memory instead of being aninconspicuous service which he had possibly rendered "without knowingits full value." And at this point he remembered that he couldn't swimanyway.

  Ah--THERE was a point which he had been overlooking from the start: ithad to be a service which he had rendered "possibly without knowingthe full value of it." Why, really, that ought to be an easy hunt--mucheasier than those others. And sure enough, by-and-by he found it.Goodson, years and years ago, came near marrying a very sweet and prettygirl, named Nancy Hewitt, but in some way or other the match had beenbroken off; the girl died, Goodson remained a bachelor, and by-and-bybecame a soured one and a frank despiser of the human species. Soonafter the girl's death the village found out, or thought it had foundout, that she carried a spoonful of negro blood in her veins. Richardsworked at these details a good while, and in the end he thought heremembered things concerning them which must have gotten mislaid in hismemory through long neglect. He seemed to dimly remember that it wasHE that found out about the negro blood; that it was he that told thevillage; that the village told Goodson where they got it; that he thussaved Goodson from marrying the tainted girl; that he had done him thisgreat service "without knowing the full value of it," in fact withoutknowing that he WAS doing it; but that Goodson knew the value of it, andwhat a narrow escape he had had, and so went to his grave grateful tohis benefactor and wishing he had a fortune to leave him. It was allclear and simple, now, and the more he went over it the more luminousand certain it grew; and at last, when he nestled to sleep, satisfiedand happy, he remembered the whole thing just as if it had beenyesterday. In fact, he dimly remembered Goodson's TELLING him hisgratitude once. Meantime Mary had spent six thousand dollars on a newhouse for herself and a pair of slippers for her pastor, and then hadfallen peacefully to rest.

  That same Saturday evening the postman had delivered a letter to eachof the other principal citizens--nineteen letters in all. No two of theenvelopes were alike, and no two of the superscriptions were in the samehand, but the letters inside were just like each other in everydetail but one. They were exact copies of the letter received byRichards--handwriting and all--and were all signed by Stephenson, but inplace of Richards's name each receiver's own name appeared.

  All night long eighteen principal citizens did what their caste-brotherRichards was doing at the same time--they put in their energies tryingto remember what notable service it was that they had unconsciously doneBarclay Goodson. In no case was it a holiday job; still they succeeded.

  And while they were at this work, which was difficult, their wives putin the night spending the money, which was easy. During that one nightthe nineteen wives spent an average of seven thousand dollars each outof the forty thousand in the sack--a hundred and thirty-three thousandaltogether.

  Next day there was a surprise for Jack Halliday. He noticed thatthe faces of the nineteen chief citizens and their wives bore thatexpression of peaceful and holy happiness again. He could not understandit, neither was he able to invent any remarks about it that could damageit 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 allinstances, upon examination. When he met Mrs. Wilcox and noticedthe placid ecstasy in her face, he said to himself, "Her cat has hadkittens"--and went and asked the cook; it was not so, the cook haddetected the happiness, but did not know the cause. When Hallidayfound the duplicate ecstasy in the face of "Shadbelly" Billson (villagenickname), he was sure some neighbour of Billson's had broken his leg,
but inquiry showed that this had not happened. The subdued ecstasy inGregory Yates's face could mean but one thing--he was a mother-in-lawshort; it was another mistake. "And Pinkerton--Pinkerton--he hascollected 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 theothers they proved distinct errors. In the end Halliday said tohimself, "Anyway it roots up that there's nineteen Hadleyburg familiestemporarily in heaven: I don't know how it happened; I only knowProvidence is off duty to-day."

  An architect and builder from the next State had lately ventured to setup a small business in this unpromising village, and his sign had nowbeen 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 oneand 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 daughterand broke off her match with her student. He said she could marry a milehigher than that.

  Pinkerton the banker and two or three other well-to-do men plannedcountry-seats--but waited. That kind don't count their chickens untilthey are hatched.

  The Wilsons devised a grand new thing--a fancy-dress ball. They made noactual promises, but told all their acquaintanceship in confidence thatthey were thinking the matter over and thought they should give it--"andif we do, you will be invited, of course." People were surprised, andsaid, one to another, "Why, they are crazy, those poor Wilsons, theycan't afford it." Several among the nineteen said privately to theirhusbands, "It is a good idea, we will keep still till their cheap thingis over, then WE will give one that will make it sick."

  The days drifted along, and the bill of future squanderings rose higherand higher, wilder and wilder, more and more foolish and reckless. Itbegan to look as if every member of the nineteen would not only spendhis whole forty thousand dollars before receiving-day, but be actuallyin debt by the time he got the money. In some cases light-headed peopledid not stop with planning to spend, they really spent--on credit. Theybought land, mortgages, farms, speculative stocks, fine clothes, horses,and various other things, paid down the bonus, and made themselvesliable for the rest--at ten days. Presently the sober second thoughtcame, and Halliday noticed that a ghastly anxiety was beginning to showup in a good many faces. Again he was puzzled, and didn't know whatto 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; NOTHINGhas 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 forhim; and if he ever found himself in a retired spot, a member of thenineteen would be sure to appear, thrust an envelope privately intohis hand, whisper "To be opened at the town-hall Friday evening," thenvanish away like a guilty thing. He was expecting that there might beone claimant for the sack--doubtful, however, Goodson being dead--but itnever occurred to him that all this crowd might be claimants. When thegreat Friday came at last, he found that he had nineteen envelopes.