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-- longingly:
"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 that remark.
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 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 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.'