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--'"
Fifty Voices. "That settles it--the money's Wilson's! Wilson! Wilson! Speech! Speech!"
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 them both."
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 painful matter. I am sorry to say what I am about to say, since it must inflict irreparable injury upon Mr. Billson, whom I have always esteemed and respected until now, and in whose invulnerability to temptation I entirely believed--as did you all. But for the preservation of my own honour I must speak--and with frankness. I confess with shame--and I now beseech your pardon for it--that I said to the ruined stranger all of the words contained in the test- remark, including the disparaging fifteen. [Sensation.] When the late publication was made I recalled them, and I resolved to claim the sack of coin, for by every right I was entitled to it. Now I will ask you to consider this point, and weigh it well; that stranger's gratitude to me that night knew no bounds; he said himself that he could find no words for it that were adequate, and that if he should ever be able he would repay me a thousandfold. Now, then, I ask you this; could I expect--could I believe--could I even remotely imagine--that, feeling as he did, he would do so ungrateful a thing as to add those quite unnecessary fifteen words to his test?--set a trap for me?--expose me as a slanderer of my own town before my own people assembled in a public hall? It was preposterous; it was impossible.