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The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, and Other Stories

Mark Twain

  Produced by Gill Jaysmith and David Widger


  By Mark Twain

  Note: (The title story may also be found as Etext file #1213)




  It was many years ago. Hadleyburg was the most honest and upright townin all the region round about. It had kept that reputation unsmirchedduring three generations, and was prouder of it than of any other ofits possessions. It was so proud of it, and so anxious to insure itsperpetuation, that it began to teach the principles of honest dealingto its babies in the cradle, and made the like teachings the stapleof their culture thenceforward through all the years devoted to theireducation. Also, throughout the formative years temptations were keptout of the way of the young people, so that their honesty could haveevery chance to harden and solidify, and become a part of their verybone. 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 wasin reality an incorruptible town; and if pressed they would alsoacknowledge that the mere fact that a young man hailed from Hadleyburgwas all the recommendation he needed when he went forth from his nataltown to seek for responsible employment.

  But at last, in the drift of time, Hadleyburg had the ill luck to offenda passing stranger--possibly without knowing it, certainly withoutcaring, for Hadleyburg was sufficient unto itself, and cared not a rapfor strangers or their opinions. Still, it would have been well tomake an exception in this one's case, for he was a bitter man, andrevengeful. All through his wanderings during a whole year he kept hisinjury in mind, and gave all his leisure moments to trying to invent acompensating satisfaction for it. He contrived many plans, and all ofthem were good, but none of them was quite sweeping enough: the poorestof them would hurt a great many individuals, but what he wanted was aplan which would comprehend the entire town, and not let so much as oneperson escape unhurt. At last he had a fortunate idea, and when it fellinto his brain it lit up his whole head with an evil joy. He began toform a plan at once, saying to himself "That is the thing to do--I willcorrupt the town."

  Six months later he went to Hadleyburg, and arrived in a buggy at thehouse of the old cashier of the bank about ten at night. He got a sackout of the buggy, shouldered it, and staggered with it through thecottage 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, sayingpolitely to the old lady who sat reading the "Missionary Herald" by thelamp:

  "Pray keep your seat, madam, I will not disturb you. There--now it ispretty well concealed; one would hardly know it was there. Can I seeyour 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 sackin his care, to be delivered to the rightful owner when he shall befound. I am a stranger; he does not know me; I am merely passing throughthe 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, andyou will never see me again. There is a paper attached to the sack whichwill explain everything. Good-night, madam."

  The old lady was afraid of the mysterious big stranger, and was glad tosee him go. But her curiosity was roused, and she went straight to thesack 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 pulleddown the window-shades and stood frightened, worried, and wondering ifthere was anything else she could do toward making herself and themoney more safe. She listened awhile for burglars, then surrendered tocuriosity, and went back to the lamp and finished reading the paper:

  "I am a foreigner, and am presently going back to my own country, toremain there permanently. I am grateful to America for what I havereceived at her hands during my long stay under her flag; and to one ofher citizens--a citizen of Hadleyburg--I am especially grateful for agreat 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 askedfor help--in the dark; I was ashamed to beg in the light. I begged ofthe right man. He gave me twenty dollars--that is to say, he gave melife, as I considered it. He also gave me fortune; for out of that moneyI have made myself rich at the gaming-table. And finally, a remarkwhich he made to me has remained with me to this day, and has at lastconquered me; and in conquering has saved the remnant of my morals: Ishall gamble no more. Now I have no idea who that man was, but I wanthim 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 gratitudeto him. If I could stay, I would find him myself; but no matter, he willbe found. This is an honest town, an incorruptible town, and I knowI can trust it without fear. This man can be identified by the remarkwhich he made to me; I feel persuaded that he will remember it.

  "And now my plan is this: If you prefer to conduct the inquiryprivately, do so. Tell the contents of this present writing to any onewho 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 theremark 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 presentwriting in the local paper--with these instructions added, to wit:Thirty days from now, let the candidate appear at the town-hall at eightin the evening (Friday), and hand his remark, in a sealed envelope, tothe 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 seeif the remark is correct: if correct, let the money be delivered, withmy sincere gratitude, to my benefactor thus identified."

  Mrs. Richards sat down, gently quivering with excitement, and was soonlost 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 thewaters!... If it had only been my husband that did it!--for we are sopoor, 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! thewages of sin; we couldn't take it; we couldn't touch it. I don't like tobe near it; it seems a defilement." She moved to a farther chair... "Iwish Edward would come, and take it to the bank; a burglar might come atany moment; it is dreadful to be here all alone with it."

  At eleven Mr. Richards arrived, and while his wife was saying "I am SOglad you've come!" he was saying, "I am so tired--tired clear out; it isdreadful to be poor, and have to make these dismal journeys at my timeof
life. Always at the grind, grind, grind, on a salary--another man'sslave, 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 haveour livelihood; we have our good name--"

  "Yes, Mary, and that is everything. Don't mind my talk--it's just amoment's irritation and doesn't mean anything. Kiss me--there, it's allgone 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; thenhe said:

  "It weighs a hundred and sixty pounds? Why, Mary, it's for-ty thousanddollars--think of it--a whole fortune! Not ten men in this village areworth 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 impossiblethings one reads about in books, and never sees in life." He was wellstirred up now; cheerful, even gleeful. He tapped his old wife on thecheek, and said humorously, "Why, we're rich, Mary, rich; all we'vegot to do is to bury the money and burn the papers. If the gambler evercomes to inquire, we'll merely look coldly upon him and say: 'What isthis nonsense you are talking? We have never heard of you and your sackof gold before;' and then he would look foolish, and--"

  "And in the meantime, while you are running on with your jokes, themoney is still here, and it is fast getting along toward burglar-time."

  "True. Very well, what shall we do--make the inquiry private? No, notthat; it would spoil the romance. The public method is better. Thinkwhat 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 theprinting-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 hisown house he met the editor--proprietor of the paper, and gave him thedocument, 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 mysteryover; they were in no condition for sleep. The first question was, Whocould the citizen have been who gave the stranger the twenty dollars? Itseemed a simple one; both answered it in the same breath--

  "Barclay Goodson."

  "Yes," said Richards, "he could have done it, and it would have beenlike him, but there's not another in the town."

  "Everybody will grant that, Edward--grant it privately, anyway. For sixmonths, 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 rightout publicly, too."

  "Yes, and he was hated for it."

  "Oh, of course; but he didn't care. I reckon he was the best-hated manamong 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 itseem 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 eyeupon him, and waited. Finally Richards said, with the hesitancy of onewho 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 itsfoundation in that one thing--the thing that made so much noise."

  "That 'one thing,' indeed! As if that 'one thing' wasn't enough, all byitself."

  "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 onlyman 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. Itwould have turned everybody against me. I felt mean, ever so mean; but Ididn't dare; I hadn't the manliness to face that."

  Mary looked troubled, and for a while was silent. Then she saidstammeringly:

  "I--I don't think it would have done for you to--to--Onemustn't--er--public opinion--one has to be so careful--so--" It was adifficult road, and she got mired; but after a little she got startedagain. "It was a great pity, but--Why, we couldn't afford it, Edward--wecouldn'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; andthen--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. Aslong as he doesn't know that you could have saved him, he--he--well thatmakes it a great deal better. Why, I might have known he didn'tknow, because he is always trying to be friendly with us, as littleencouragement as we give him. More than once people have twitted me withit. There's the Wilsons, and the Wilcoxes, and the Harknesses, they takea mean pleasure in saying 'YOUR FRIEND Burgess,' because they know itpesters me. I wish he wouldn't persist in liking us so; I can't thinkwhy he keeps it up."

  "I can explain it. It's another confession. When the thing was new andhot, and the town made a plan to ride him on a rail, my consciencehurt me so that I couldn't stand it, and I went privately and gave himnotice, and he got out of the town and stayed out till it was safe tocome 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 itwas done; and I was even afraid to tell you lest your face might betrayit to somebody. I didn't sleep any that night, for worrying. But after afew days I saw that no one was going to suspect me, and after that I gotto feeling glad I did it. And I feel glad yet, Mary--glad through andthrough."

  "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!"

  "It won't."


  "Because everybody thinks it was Goodson."

  "Of course they would!"

  "Certainly. And of course HE didn't care. They persuaded poor oldSawlsberry to go and charge it on him, and he went blustering over thereand did it. Goodson looked him over, like as if he was hunting for aplace on him that he could despise the most; then he says, 'So you arethe Committee of Inquiry, are you?' Sawlsberry said that was about whathe was. 'H'm. Do they require particulars, or do you reckon a kind of aGENERAL 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 giveyou 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; hethought 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 byabsorbed thinkings. The breaks grew more and more frequent. At lastRichards lost himself wholly in thought. He sat long, gazing vacantly atthe floor, and by-and-by he began to punctuate his thoughts withlittle nervous movements of his hands that seemed to indicate vexation.Meantime his wife too had relapse
d into a thoughtful silence, and hermovements were beginning to show a troubled discomfort. Finally Richardsgot up and strode aimlessly about the room, ploughing his hands throughhis 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 wordhe put on his hat and passed quickly out of the house. His wife satbrooding, with a drawn face, and did not seem to be aware that she wasalone. Now and then she murmured, "Lead us not into t... but--but--weare so poor, so poor!... Lead us not into... Ah, who would be hurt byit?--and no one would ever know... Lead us...." The voice died outin mumblings. After a little she glanced up and muttered in ahalf-frightened, half-glad way--

  "He is gone! But, oh dear, he may be too late--too late... Maybenot--maybe there is still time." She rose and stood thinking, nervouslyclasping and unclasping her hands. A slight shudder shook her frame, andshe said, out of a dry throat, "God forgive me--it's awful to think suchthings--but... Lord, how we are made--how strangely we are made!"

  She turned the light low, and slipped stealthily over and knelt down bythe sack and felt of its ridgy sides with her hands, and fondled themlovingly; and there was a gloating light in her poor old eyes. She fellinto fits of absence; and came half out of them at times to mutter "Ifwe had only waited!--oh, if we had only waited a little, and not been insuch a hurry!"

  Meantime Cox had gone home from his office and told his wife allabout the strange thing that had happened, and they had talked it overeagerly, and guessed that the late Goodson was the only man in the townwho could have helped a suffering stranger with so noble a sum as twentydollars. Then there was a pause, and the two became thoughtful andsilent. And by-and-by nervous and fidgety. At last the wife said, as ifto herself,

  "Nobody knows this secret but the Richardses... and us... nobody."

  The husband came out of his thinkings with a slight start, and gazedwistfully at his wife, whose face was become very pale; then hehesitatingly rose, and glanced furtively at his hat, then at his wife--asort of mute inquiry. Mrs. Cox swallowed once or twice, with her hand ather throat, then in place of speech she nodded her head. In a moment shewas 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 theprinting-office stairs; by the night-light there they read each other'sface. 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 aboy, and Cox asked,

  "Is that you, Johnny?"

  "Yes, sir."

  "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 changedto-day, sir--had to get the papers in twenty minutes earlier thancommon. 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 vexedtone,

  "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 toolate. 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 themselveshome with the gait of mortally stricken men. At their homes their wivessprang up with an eager "Well?"--then saw the answer with their eyes andsank down sorrowing, without waiting for it to come in words. In bothhouses a discussion followed of a heated sort--a new thing; there hadbeen discussions before, but not heated ones, not ungentle ones. Thediscussions 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; butno, you must run straight to the printing-office and spread it all overthe 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 wouldmake, and what a compliment it was to Hadleyburg that a stranger shouldtrust 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 isin 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, andnobody would be hurt by it, and--and--"

  She broke down, crying. Her husband tried to think of some comfortingthing 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 wayout when he has been stupid. Just the same, it was ORDERED that themoney should come to us in this special way, and it was you that musttake it on yourself to go meddling with the designs of Providence--andwho gave you the right? It was wicked, that is what it was--justblasphemous presumption, and no more becoming to a meek and humbleprofessor of--"

  "But, Mary, you know how we have been trained all our lives long, likethe whole village, till it is absolutely second nature to us to stop nota 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 andtraining and training in honesty--honesty shielded, from the verycradle, against every possible temptation, and so it's ARTIFICIALhonesty, and weak as water when temptation comes, as we have seen thisnight. God knows I never had shade nor shadow of a doubt of my petrifiedand indestructible honesty until now--and now, under the very first bigand real temptation, I--Edward, it is my belief that this town's honestyis 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 socelebrated for and so conceited about; and so help me, I do believe thatif ever the day comes that its honesty falls under great temptation, itsgrand reputation will go to ruin like a house of cards. There, now, I'vemade confession, and I feel better; I am a humbug, and I've been one allmy life, without knowing it. Let no man call me honest again--I will nothave it."

  "I--Well, Mary, I feel a good deal as you do: I certainly do. It seemsstrange, too, so strange. I never could have believed it--never."

  A long silence followed; both were sunk in thought. At last the wifelooked 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 WASthat 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 tillthe bank vault opens in the morning and admits the sack... Oh dear, ohdear--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 remarkcould have been. But come; we will get to bed now."

  "And sleep?"

  "No; think."

  "Yes; think."

  By this time the Coxes too had completed their spat and theirreconciliation, and were turning in--to think, to think, and toss, andfret, and worry over what the remark could possibly have been whichGoodson made to the stranded derelict; that golden remark; that remarkworth forty thousand dollars, cash.

  The reason that the village telegraph-office was open later thanusual that night
was this: The foreman of Cox's paper was the localrepresentative of the Associated Press. One might say its honoraryrepresentative, for it wasn't four times a year that he could furnishthirty words that would be accepted. But this time it was different. Hisdespatch 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 proudestman in the State. By breakfast-time the next morning the name ofHadleyburg the Incorruptible was on every lip in America, from Montrealto the Gulf, from the glaciers of Alaska to the orange-groves ofFlorida; and millions and millions of people were discussing thestranger and his money-sack, and wondering if the right man would befound, and hoping some more news about the matter would come soon--rightaway.