By the next morning, news of the stranger’s sack of gold has traveled far and wide, making it into national newspapers. “Hadleyburg village woke up world-celebrated—astonished—happy—vain,” writes the narrator. “Vain beyond imagination.” Exceedingly proud of their newly reinforced reputation, the Nineteeners walk about shaking hands and congratulating each other, talking unceasingly about how “incorruptible” their town is. Even Jack Halliday—who enjoys making fun of the Nineteeners—is pleased by the news. After a week passes, though, the excitement dies town and turns into something else, as the Nineteeners begin to think longingly about the sack of gold. Halliday notices this and wonders what has come over the town’s most well-respected citizens.
Jack Halliday acts as a gauge of the town’s attitude. As people walk through Hadleyburg congratulating each other—letting their egos swell—he marks his fellow citizens’ exceedingly good moods. Indeed, it’s clear that the stranger was right when he assumed that Hadleyburg would let this event go to its head. The stranger has, in effect, reinforced the town’s vanity, ultimately setting the townspeople up for embarrassment and proof of corruption.
In private, the Nineteeners begin to say things like, “Ah, what could have been the remark that Goodson made?” Each night, their wives scold them for even considering the idea of trying to guess. But as time passes, their protests grow weaker, until finally they find themselves replying with: “Oh, if we could only guess!” Within three weeks, Edward and Mary Richards have stopped reading or chatting before bed. Instead, they both try to guess the remark.
It’s interesting that, although the citizens of Hadleyburg all think of themselves as morally upstanding people, the only person they can think of who would actually impart real kindness to a stranger is Goodson—an indication that they don’t even see themselves (or each other) as very kind at all, despite their proud ideas about their moral integrity. Furthermore, as they begin to flirt with the idea of trying to guess the remark, Twain shows readers how susceptible they are to temptation.
One night, the Richards receive a letter signed by a man named Howard Stephenson. In the note, Stephenson upholds that he is from out of town, but that he heard the news about Hadleyburg’s sack of gold. “Of course you do not know who made that remark,” he writes, “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.” Afterwards, he claims, he and Goodson retired to the latter’s house, where Goodson spoke about his fellow townspeople, berating most of them. However, he spoke “favorably” about several citizens, including—according to Stephenson—Edward Richards.
Because this mysterious Howard Stephenson fellow is so forthright about telling the Richardses that Goodson is indeed the man who deserves the sack of gold, it seems rather obvious that he (Stephenson) must be the stranger. Indeed, he is most likely trying to trick Edward into claiming the gold for himself, once more playing upon the man’s inability to resist temptation.
Edward and Mary continue studying Stephenson’s letter, which reads: “I remember [Goodson] 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.” Going on, he says that if Edward truly is the person Goodson was referring to, then he is the “legitimate heir” of the dead man’s reward. In other words, Edward is “entitled to the sack of gold.”
Sure enough, Stephenson—the stranger—is intentionally goading Edward into acting as if he’s the “legitimate heir” of Goodson’s reward. He knows that Edward is a man who will fall to temptation, and he also knows that he’s a vain person who will respond well to flattery. This is why he suggests that he Edward once did something quite admirable, knowing that the mere suggestion will be enough to convince the proud man of his own magnanimity.
Stephenson ends his letter with the following words: “I know that I can trust to your honor 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.” The remark that Goodson uttered to the stranger, Stephenson writes, is: “YOU ARE FAR FROM BEING A BAD MAN: GO, AND REFORM.”
Although Stephenson is an outsider, he clearly knows how to appeal to a citizen of Hadleyburg. Indeed, he understands that appealing to Edward’s vanity will ensure the man’s demise, and he does this by referencing Hadleyburg’s reputation for “honor and honesty,” calling these things “virtues” that are “an unfailing inheritance” to anyone from the town. As such, he tells Edward the remark that will win him the sack of gold, thereby tempting him into accepting something that isn’t truly his.
Edward and Mary rejoice at the good news, but Edward suddenly realizes that he can’t remember having ever done Goodson a “service.” Still, he tries to put this out of his mind. When Mary asks what, exactly, he did to deserve Goodson’s goodwill, he says he can’t tell her because he promised Goodson he’d never say anything about it. When Mary presses him on this, he says, “Do you think I would lie?” She concedes that he isn’t a liar, saying, “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—” At this point, she breaks off, managing eventually to mutter: “Lead us not into temptation…I think you made the promise, Edward. Let it rest so.”
Yet again, Twain shows readers that Edward is not an honest person. This time, he even lies to his wife, telling her that he can’t reveal what he did for Goodson to make him worthy of the sack of gold. In this moment, readers get the sense that Mary suspects this is untrue, since she seems to falter for an instant before accepting his story. Instead of challenging her husband, though, she merely repeats a quintessential Hadleyburg phrase: “Lead us not into temptation.” In doing so, she pushes the matter out of her mind, feeling that it’s better to let such things “rest” instead of interrogating the truth. This is, of course, because she stands to benefit from Edward’s lie. Rather than seeking out the truth, she decides to passively accept what he tells her.
That night, Mary happily fantasizes about what she will do with the $40,000. Edward, for his part, lies awake trying to think of a scenario in which he deserves Goodson’s reward. He feels guilty about having lied to Mary. That is, “if it was a lie.” Indeed, perhaps he did do something for Goodson. “Had he rendered that service?” he wonders. “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 his 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 honor!”
In this scene, Twain humorously showcases the process by which Edward Richards tries to convince himself that it’s morally acceptable to take Goodson’s reward. Even though he can’t remember having rendered Goodson a service, he’s desperate to find an interpretation that will allow him to claim the gold without having to feel guilty. As such, he slowly chips away at his reservations, trying to persuade himself that Stephenson’s assertion is proof enough that he (Edward) is a good man. Unfortunately, though, Stephenson also put him “on his honor,” so he feels as if he must diligently discern how, exactly, he deserves the gold.
The idea of being put “on his honor” daunts Edward, but the mere fact that Stephenson remembered his (Edward’s) name stands out to him as a good sign. “Yes, that looked very good,” the narrator notes. “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.”
The more Edward thinks about this matter, the more he’s able to trick himself into believing that he deserves the sack of gold. In this way, Twain shows readers the power of temptation, suggesting that people who lack moral integrity are capable of deluding themselves if doing so will ultimately benefit them.
Having comforted himself with the idea that “a proof once established is better left so,” Edward turns his mind toward identifying what, exactly, he did to earn Goodson’s gratitude. He goes through a number of scenarios in which he rendered Goodson a “service,” but none of them seem “worth the money.” “And besides,” Twain writes, “he couldn’t remember having done them, anyway.” Edward wonders what kind of service would warrant such a lavish reward. “Ah—the saving of [Goodson’s] soul!” Twain notes. “That must be it. Yes, he could remember, now, how he once set himself the task of converting Goodson, and labored 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.”
Once again, Twain spotlights Edward’s process of self-delusion. By showcasing and satirizing how desperate and willing this man is to trick himself, Twain suggests that a lack of moral integrity can lead to a completely distorted sense of reality. Despite the fact that it’s clear he didn’t ever help Goodson in any significant way, Edward keeps trying to think of something that will allow him to accept the gold in good conscience.
Finally, Edward remembers that Goodson—who died a bachelor—was once set to marry a woman named Nancy Hewitt. Unfortunately, Nancy died before their union. “Soon after the girl’s death the village found out […] that she carried a spoonful of negro blood in her veins.” Thinking about this, Edward determines that he was the one who discovered Nancy was African-American. He told the town—he now thinks—and the town told Goodson, which means (according to Edward in this moment) that he “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’s rather obvious that this is an incredibly feeble story, one that doesn’t even hold up logistically regarding why Edward would deserve a reward from Goodson. After all, even if he did discover that Nancy Hewitt was of African American descent, this wouldn’t have changed the course of Goodson’s love life, since the reason the couple didn’t end up getting married had nothing to do with race—they didn’t get married because Nancy died. Nonetheless, Edward is so eager to convince himself that he is an upstanding man who deserves a reward that he overlooks this blatant discrepancy. In turn, Twain once again shows how Edward’s vanity blinds him to reality.
What Edward and Mary don’t know is that the postman delivered the same letter to all of the Nineteeners. Like the Richardses, these “principal citizens” also managed to convince themselves that they did—as Stephenson suggests—do Goodson a service worthy of a $40,000 reward. Because of this, Jack Halliday is surprised the next day to see all of the Nineteeners—who had previously looked so distracted and upset—acting cheerily once more. In fact, many of them even visit the local architect, informing him that they plan to add to their properties. One couple even sends out invitations to a “fancy-dress ball.” In this way, the Nineteeners recklessly begin to spend money they don’t yet have. When Friday finally comes around, Reverend Burgess is astonished to receive nineteen envelopes, all from people trying to claim ownership of the sack.
The fact that every other “principal citizen” in Hadleyburg falls prey to the same self-delusion and vanity that ensnares Edward ultimately supports Mary’s earlier assertion about the town’s weak moral character; “It is my belief that this town’s honesty is as rotten as mine is; as rotten as yours is,” Mary says—a phrase readers now can recognize as a foreshadowing of the Nineteeners’ weak-willed behavior when facing actual temptation.