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-
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
"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
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 thou-
sand 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
"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-
"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 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
"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
"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
Mary looked troubled, and for a while was silent. Then she said
"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
"It would have lost us the good-will of so many people, Mary; and
"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
"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 . . .
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
"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
"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
"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
"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--
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
"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.
Hadleyburg village woke up world-celebrated--astonished--happy--
vain. Vain beyond imagination. Its nineteen principal citizens and
their wives went about shaking hands with each other, and beaming,
and smiling, and congratulating, and saying THIS thing adds a new
word to the dictionary--HADLEYBURG, synonym for INCORRUPTIBLE--
destined to live in dictionaries for ever! And the minor and
unimportant citizens and their wives went around acting in much the
same way. Everybody ran to the bank to see the gold-sack; and
before noon grieved and envious crowds began to flock in from
Brixton and all neighbouring towns; and that afternoon and next day
reporters began to arrive from everywhere to verify the sack and its
history and write the whole thing up anew, and make dashing free-
hand pictures of the sack, and of Richards's house, and the bank,
and the Presbyterian church, and the Baptist church, and the public
square, and the town-hall where the test would be applied and the
money delivered; and damnable portraits of the Richardses, and
Pinkerton the banker, and Cox, and the foreman, and Reverend
Burgess, and the postmaster--and even of Jack Halliday, who was the
loafing, good-natured, no-account, irreverent fisherman, hunter,
boys' friend, stray-dogs' friend, typical "Sam Lawson" of the town.
The little mean, smirking, oily Pinkerton showed the sack to all
comers, and rubbed his sleek palms together pleasantly, and enlarged
upon the town's fine old reputation for honesty and upon this
wonderful endorsement of it, and hoped and believed that the example
would now spread far and wide over the American world, and be epoch-
making in the matter of moral regeneration. And so on, and so on.
By the end of a week things had quieted down again; the wild
intoxication of pride and joy had sobered to a soft, sweet, silent
delight--a sort of deep, nameless, unutterable content. All faces
bore a look of peaceful, holy happiness.
Then a change came. It was a gradual change; so gradual that its
beginnings were hardly noticed; maybe were not noticed at all,
except by Jack Halliday, who always noticed everything; and always
made fun of it, too, no matter what it was. He began to throw out
chaffing remarks about people not looking quite so happy as they did
a day or two ago; and next he claimed that the new aspect was
deepening to positive sadness; next, that it was taking on a sick
look; and finally he said that everybody was become so moody,
thoughtful, and absent-minded that he could rob the meanest man in
town of a cent out of the bottom of his breeches pocket and not
disturb his reverie.
At this stage--or at about this stage--a saying like this was
dropped at bedtime--with a sigh, usually--by the head of each of the
nineteen principal households:
"Ah, what COULD have been the remark that Goodson made?"
And straightway--with a shudder--came this, from the man's wife:
"Oh, DON'T! What horrible thing are you mulling in your mind? Put
it away from you, for God's sake!"
But that question was wrung from those men again the next night--and
got the same retort. But weaker.
And the third night the men uttered the question yet again--with
anguish, and absently. This time--and the following night--the
wives fidgeted feebly, and tried to say something. But didn't.
And the night after that they found their tongues and responded--
"Oh, if we COULD only guess!"
Halliday's comments grew daily more and more sparklingly
disagreeable and disparaging. He went diligently about, laughing at
the town, individually and in mass. But his laugh was the only one
left in the village: it fell upon a hollow and mournful vacancy and
emptiness. Not even a smile was findable anywhere. Halliday
carried a cigar-box around on a tripod, playing that it was a
camera, and halted all passers and aimed the thing and said "Ready!
--now look pleasant, please," but not even this capital joke could
surprise the dreary faces into any softening.
So three weeks passed--one week was left. It was Saturday evening
after supper. Instead of the aforetime Saturday-evening flutter and
bustle and shopping and larking, the streets were empty and
desolate. Richards and his old wife sat apart in their little
parlour--miserable and thinking. This was become their evening
habit now: the life-long habit which had preceded it, of reading,
knitting, and contented chat, or receiving or paying neighbourly
calls, was dead and gone and forgotten, ages ago--two or three weeks
ago; nobody talked now, nobody read, nobody visited--the whole
village sat at home, sighing, worrying, silent. Trying to guess out
The postman left a letter. Richards glanced listlessly at the
superscription and the post-mark--unfamiliar, both--and tossed the
letter on the table and resumed his might-have-beens and his
hopeless dull miseries where he had left them off. Two or three
hours later his wife got wearily up and was going away to bed
without a good-night--custom now--but she stopped near the letter
and eyed it awhile with a dead interest, then broke it open, and
began to skim it over. Richards, sitting there with his chair
tilted back against the wall and his chin between his knees, heard
something fall. It was his wife. He sprang to her side, but she
"Leave me alone, I am too happy. Read the letter--read it!"
He did. He devoured it, his brain reeling. The letter was from a
distant State, and it said:
"I am a stranger to you, but no matter: I have something to tell.
I have just arrived home from Mexico, and learned about that
episode. Of course you do not know who made that remark, but I
know, and I am the only person living who does know. It was
GOODSON. I knew him well, many years ago. I passed through your
village that very night, and was his guest till the midnight train
came along. I overheard him make that remark to the stranger in the
dark--it was in Hale Alley. He and I talked of it the rest of the
way home, and while smoking in his house. He mentioned many of your
villagers in the course of his talk--most of them in a very
uncomplimentary way, but two or three favourably: among these
latter yourself. I say 'favourably'--nothing stronger. I remember
his saying he did not actually LIKE any person in the town--not one;
but that you--I THINK he said you--am almost sure--had done him a
very great service once, possibly without knowing the full value of
it, and he wished he had a fortune, he would leave it to you when he
died, and a curse apiece for the rest of the citizens. Now, then,
if it was you that did him that service, you are his legitimate
heir, and entitled to the sack of gold. I know that I can trust to
your honour and honesty, for in a citizen of Hadleyburg these
virtues are an unfailing inheritance, and so I am going to reveal to
you the remark, well satisfied that if you are not the right man you
will seek and find the right one and see that poor Goodson's debt of
gratitude for the service referred to is paid. This is the remark
'YOU ARE FAR FROM BEING A BAD MAN: GO, AND REFORM.'
"HOWARD L. STEPHENSON."
"Oh, Edward, the money is ours, and I am so grateful, OH, so
grateful,--kiss me, dear, it's for ever since we kissed--and we
needed it so--the money--and now you are free of Pinkerton and his
bank, and nobody's slave any more; it seems to me I could fly for
It was a happy half-hour that the couple spent there on the settee
caressing each other; it was the old days come again--days that had
begun with their courtship and lasted without a break till the
stranger brought the deadly money. By-and-by the wife said:
"Oh, Edward, how lucky it was you did him that grand service, poor
Goodson! I never liked him, but I love him now. And it was fine
and beautiful of you never to mention it or brag about it." Then,
with a touch of reproach, "But you ought to have told ME, Edward,
you ought to have told your wife, you know."
"Well, I--er--well, Mary, you see--"
"Now stop hemming and hawing, and tell me about it, Edward. I
always loved you, and now I'm proud of you. Everybody believes
there was only one good generous soul in this village, and now it
turns out that you--Edward, why don't you tell me?"
"Well--er--er--Why, Mary, I can't!"
"You CAN'T? WHY can't you?"
"You see, he--well, he--he made me promise I wouldn't."
The wife looked him over, and said, very slowly:
"Made--you--promise? Edward, what do you tell me that for?"
"Mary, do you think I would lie?"
She was troubled and silent for a moment, then she laid her hand
within his and said:
"No . . . no. We have wandered far enough from our bearings--God
spare us that! In all your life you have never uttered a lie. But
now--now that the foundations of things seem to be crumbling from
under us, we--we--" She lost her voice for a moment, then said,
brokenly, "Lead us not into temptation. . . I think you made the
promise, Edward. Let it rest so. Let us keep away from that
ground. Now--that is all gone by; let us he happy again; it is no
time for clouds."
Edward found it something of an effort to comply, for his mind kept
wandering--trying to remember what the service was that he had done
The couple lay awake the most of the night, Mary happy and busy,
Edward busy, but not so happy. Mary was planning what she would do
with the money. Edward was trying to recall that service. At first
his conscience was sore on account of the lie he had told Mary--if
it was a lie. After much reflection--suppose it WAS a lie? What
then? Was it such a great matter? Aren't we always ACTING lies?
Then why not tell them? Look at Mary--look what she had done.
While he was hurrying off on his honest errand, what was she doing?
Lamenting because the papers hadn't been destroyed and the money
kept. Is theft better than lying?
THAT point lost its sting--the lie dropped into the background and
left comfort behind it. The next point came to the front: HAD he
rendered that service? Well, here was Goodson's own evidence as
reported in Stephenson's letter; there could be no better evidence
than that--it was even PROOF that he had rendered it. Of course.
So that point was settled. . . No, not quite. He recalled with a
wince that this unknown Mr. Stephenson was just a trifle unsure as
to whether the performer of it was Richards or some other--and, oh
dear, he had put Richards on his honour! He must himself decide
whither that money must go--and Mr. Stephenson was not doubting that
if he was the wrong man he would go honourably and find the right
one. Oh, it was odious to put a man in such a situation--ah, why
couldn't Stephenson have left out that doubt? What did he want to
intrude that for?
Further reflection. How did it happen that RICHARDS'S name remained
in Stephenson's mind as indicating the right man, and not some other
man's name? That looked good. Yes, that looked very good. In fact
it went on looking better and better, straight along--until by-and-
by it grew into positive PROOF. And then Richards put the matter at
once out of his mind, for he had a private instinct that a proof
once established is better left so.
He was feeling reasonably comfortable now, but there was still one
other detail that kept pushing itself on his notice: of course he
had done that service--that was settled; but what WAS that service?
He must recall it--he would not go to sleep till he had recalled it;
it would make his peace of mind perfect. And so he thought and
thought. He thought of a dozen things--possible services, even
probable services--but none of them seemed adequate, none of them
seemed large enough, none of them seemed worth the money--worth the
fortune Goodson had wished he could leave in his will. And besides,
he couldn't remember having done them, anyway. Now, then--now,
then--what KIND of a service would it be that would make a man so
inordinately grateful? Ah--the saving of his soul! That must be
it. Yes, he could remember, now, how he once set himself the task
of converting Goodson, and laboured at it as much as--he was going
to say three months; but upon closer examination it shrunk to a
month, then to a week, then to a day, then to nothing. Yes, he
remembered now, and with unwelcome vividness, that Goodson had told
him to go to thunder and mind his own business--HE wasn't hankering
to follow Hadleyburg to heaven!
So that solution was a failure--he hadn't saved Goodson's soul.
Richards was discouraged. Then after a little came another idea:
had he saved Goodson's property? No, that wouldn't do--he hadn't
any. His life? That is it! Of course. Why, he might have thought
of it before. This time he was on the right track, sure. His
imagination-mill was hard at work in a minute, now.
Thereafter, during a stretch of two exhausting hours, he was busy
saving Goodson's life. He saved it in all kinds of difficult and
perilous ways. In every case he got it saved satisfactorily up to a
certain point; then, just as he was beginning to get well persuaded
that it had really happened, a troublesome detail would turn up
which made the whole thing impossible. As in the matter of
drowning, for instance. In that case he had swum out and tugged
Goodson ashore in an unconscious state with a great crowd looking on
and applauding, but when he had got it all thought out and was just
beginning to remember all about it, a whole swarm of disqualifying
details arrived on the ground: the town would have known of the
circumstance, Mary would have known of it, it would glare like a
limelight in his own memory instead of being an inconspicuous
service which he had possibly rendered "without knowing its full
value." And at this point he remembered that he couldn't swim
Ah--THERE was a point which he had been overlooking from the start:
it had to be a service which he had rendered "possibly without
knowing the full value of it." Why, really, that ought to be an
easy hunt--much easier than those others. And sure enough, by-and-
by he found it. Goodson, years and years ago, came near marrying a
very sweet and pretty girl, named Nancy Hewitt, but in some way or
other the match had been broken off; the girl died, Goodson remained
a bachelor, and by-and-by became a soured one and a frank despiser
of the human species. Soon after the girl's death the village found
out, or thought it had found out, that she carried a spoonful of
negro blood in her veins. Richards worked at these details a good
while, and in the end he thought he remembered things concerning
them which must have gotten mislaid in his memory through long
neglect. He seemed to dimly remember that it was HE that found out
about the negro blood; that it was he that told the village; that
the village told Goodson where they got it; that he thus saved
Goodson from marrying the tainted girl; that he had done him this
great service "without knowing the full value of it," in fact
without knowing that he WAS doing it; but that Goodson knew the
value of it, and what a narrow escape he had had, and so went to his
grave grateful to his benefactor and wishing he had a fortune to
leave him. It was all clear and simple, now, and the more he went
over it the more luminous and certain it grew; and at last, when he
nestled to sleep, satisfied and happy, he remembered the whole thing
just as if it had been yesterday. In fact, he dimly remembered
Goodson's TELLING him his gratitude once. Meantime Mary had spent
six thousand dollars on a new house for herself and a pair of
slippers for her pastor, and then had fallen peacefully to rest.
That same Saturday evening the postman had delivered a letter to
each of the other principal citizens--nineteen letters in all. No
two of the envelopes were alike, and no two of the superscriptions
were in the same hand, but the letters inside were just like each
other in every detail but one. They were exact copies of the letter
received by Richards--handwriting and all--and were all signed by
Stephenson, but in place of Richards's name each receiver's own name
All night long eighteen principal citizens did what their caste-
brother Richards was doing at the same time--they put in their
energies trying to remember what notable service it was that they
had unconsciously done Barclay Goodson. In no case was it a holiday
job; still they succeeded.
And while they were at this work, which was difficult, their wives
put in the night spending the money, which was easy. During that
one night the nineteen wives spent an average of seven thousand
dollars each out of the forty thousand in the sack--a hundred and
thirty-three thousand altogether.
Next day there was a surprise for Jack Halliday. He noticed that
the faces of the nineteen chief citizens and their wives bore that
expression of peaceful and holy happiness again. He could not
understand it, neither was he able to invent any remarks about it
that could damage it or disturb it. And so it was his turn to be
dissatisfied with life. His private guesses at the reasons for the
happiness failed in all instances, upon examination. When he met
Mrs. Wilcox and noticed the placid ecstasy in her face, he said to
himself, "Her cat has had kittens"--and went and asked the cook; it
was not so, the cook had detected the happiness, but did not know
the cause. When Halliday found the duplicate ecstasy in the face of
"Shadbelly" Billson (village nickname), he was sure some neighbour
of Billson's had broken his leg, but inquiry showed that this had
not happened. The subdued ecstasy in Gregory Yates's face could
mean but one thing--he was a mother-in-law short; it was another
mistake. "And Pinkerton--Pinkerton--he has collected ten cents that
he thought he was going to lose." And so on, and so on. In some
cases the guesses had to remain in doubt, in the others they proved
distinct errors. In the end Halliday said to himself, "Anyway it
roots up that there's nineteen Hadleyburg families temporarily in
heaven: I don't know how it happened; I only know Providence is off
An architect and builder from the next State had lately ventured to
set up a small business in this unpromising village, and his sign
had now been hanging out a week. Not a customer yet; he was a
discouraged man, and sorry he had come. But his weather changed
suddenly now. First one and then another chief citizen's wife said
to him privately:
"Come to my house Monday week--but say nothing about it for the
present. We think of building."
He got eleven invitations that day. That night he wrote his
daughter and broke off her match with her student. He said she
could marry a mile higher than that.
Pinkerton the banker and two or three other well-to-do men planned
country-seats--but waited. That kind don't count their chickens
until they are hatched.
The Wilsons devised a grand new thing--a fancy-dress ball. They
made no actual promises, but told all their acquaintanceship in
confidence that they were thinking the matter over and thought they
should give it--"and if we do, you will be invited, of course."
People were surprised, and said, one to another, "Why, they are
crazy, those poor Wilsons, they can't afford it." Several among the
nineteen said privately to their husbands, "It is a good idea, we
will keep still till their cheap thing is over, then WE will give
one that will make it sick."
The days drifted along, and the bill of future squanderings rose
higher and higher, wilder and wilder, more and more foolish and
reckless. It began to look as if every member of the nineteen would
not only spend his whole forty thousand dollars before receiving-
day, but be actually in debt by the time he got the money. In some
cases light-headed people did not stop with planning to spend, they
really spent--on credit. They bought land, mortgages, farms,
speculative stocks, fine clothes, horses, and various other things,
paid down the bonus, and made themselves liable for the rest--at ten
days. Presently the sober second thought came, and Halliday noticed
that a ghastly anxiety was beginning to show up in a good many
faces. Again he was puzzled, and didn't know what to make of it.
"The Wilcox kittens aren't dead, for they weren't born; nobody's
broken a leg; there's no shrinkage in mother-in-laws; NOTHING has
happened--it is an insolvable mystery."
There was another puzzled man, too--the Rev. Mr. Burgess. For days,
wherever he went, people seemed to follow him or to be watching out
for him; and if he ever found himself in a retired spot, a member of
the nineteen would be sure to appear, thrust an envelope privately
into his hand, whisper "To be opened at the town-hall Friday
evening," then vanish away like a guilty thing. He was expecting
that there might be one claimant for the sack--doubtful, however,
Goodson being dead--but it never occurred to him that all this crowd
might be claimants. When the great Friday came at last, he found
that he had nineteen envelopes.
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
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,
"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,
"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
"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,
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
"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
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
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
"'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--'"
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
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 pain