After the town hall meeting, Edward and Mary Richards have to “endure congratulations and compliments until midnight.” When they’re finally alone, they contemplate their guilt. “We—we couldn’t help it, Mary,” Edward says. “It—well, it was ordered. All things are.” Together, they realize that “congratulations and praises” don’t always feel so good, though they used to think such respect and appreciation always “tasted good.” Edward also tells his wife that he will resign from the bank, now that they are going to be rich. Plus, he can no longer imagine letting other people’s money “pour through [his] hands.”
When Edward says that he and Mary “couldn’t help it,” he frames their failure to come forward with the truth as natural, as if their decision to remain quiet was less of a choice than it was a forced circumstance (or even God’s will). In turn, Twain underlines the extent to which guilty people rationalize their moral failures, trying to trick even themselves into thinking that their actions aren’t as bad as they truly are—and Edward certainly does know, on some level, that he’s a dishonest man, since he doesn’t even trust himself anymore to handle other people’s money.
The next morning, Harkness meets the stranger and gives him $40,000. The stranger then goes to Edward and Mary’s house to deliver the money (they already have the $1,500 he gave them yesterday, so he writes them a check for $38,500). He quickly hands over the envelope before leaving. Mary is convinced she recognizes him as the man who brought the sack to Hadleyburg in the first place. “Then he is the ostensible Stephenson, too,” Edward says, “and sold every important citizen in this town with his bogus secret.” If the envelope contains a check, Edward upholds, they won’t be able to cash it, for there’s no way that it would be safe to cash a check bearing such a “disastrous name.” “It would be a trap,” he says. “That man tried to catch me; we escaped somehow or other; and now he is trying a new way.”
In this moment, Twain confirms that Stephenson is indeed the stranger who plotted revenge against the town of Hadleyburg. Still unsure how he and his wife escaped public humiliation, Edward decides to exercise caution, resolving to refrain from cashing the check if it bears Stephenson’s name. In this way, readers see that he is still concerned about his reputation—at this point, he would still rather live in guilt than have his fellow citizens find out the truth of his dishonesty.
Edward and Mary open the envelope, expecting to find $8,500 worth of checks signed by Stephenson. Feeling uneasy about these checks, they decide to burn them, but just as Edward is about to throw them into the fire, he looks at them more closely, realizing that they actually add up to $38,500. More alarmingly, they’re not signed by Stephenson, but by Harkness. They also find a note, written in Stephenson’s handwriting (but unsigned). This letter begins: “I am a disappointed man. Your honesty is beyond the reach of temptation.” Continuing, Stephenson upholds that Hadleyburg doesn’t deserve to “kiss the hem of [Edward’s] garment.” He explains that he made a bet with himself that there were “nineteen debauchable men” in Hadleyburg. Since he was wrong, though, he wants Edward to “take the whole pot.”
The fact that the checks bear Harkness’s signature instead of Stephenson’s renders them safe to cash, for no one in town knows that Harkness has cut a deal with Stephenson. As such, the Richardses are free to do whatever they want with the money. Once again, then, they are rewarded and praised even though they are just as dishonest and immoral as the other couples who took Stephenson’s bait, ultimately exacerbating their guilt.
Edward tells Mary that he feels as if Stephenson’s final letter is “written with fire,” its very presence an accusation of sorts. Indeed, he badly wishes he “deserved” those words of kindness, but he knows he doesn’t, so he throws the letter into the flames. Just then, a new letter arrives, this one from Reverend Burgess, who writes: “You saved me, in a difficult time. I saved you last night. It was at cost of a lie, but I made the sacrifice freely, and out of a grateful heart. None in this village knows so well as I know how brave and good and noble you are.” This, too, Edward throws in the fire, saying, “I wish I were dead, Mary, I wish I were out of it all.” During this period, Harkness wins the election and circulates the lead coins with Pinkerton’s face stamped upon them.
Finally, Twain reveals how Edward and Mary escaped public humiliation: Reverend Burgess purposely withheld his submitted note as a way of repaying Edward for telling him to flee town when the citizens of Hadleyburg wanted to do him harm. Of course, Burgess doesn’t know that the only reason Edward helped him is because he felt guilty, since what he should have done was help Burgess prove his innocence. This is why Edward feels even worse once he understands that Burgess has now lied in order to save him—it further exacerbates his feelings of guilt. “I wish I were dead, Mary,” he says, suggesting that letting guilt and shame fester is worse than death itself.
The next day, the Richardses begin to feel a bit more relaxed, allowing their “consciences” to settle as they learn to “reconcile themselves to the sin which they [have] committed.” However, they soon learn that “a sin takes on new and real terrors when there seems a chance that it is going to be found out.” When they go to church, for example, they feel that the sermon “bristle[s] with accusations” pointed directly at them. Then, on their way home, they pass Reverend Burgess, who walks by without acknowledging their nod—an event that throws them into worry. “Was it possible that [Burgess] knew that Richards could have cleared him of his guilt in that bygone time, and had been silently waiting for a chance to even up accounts?” they fret. Upon returning home, they begin to fear that their servant has been listening in on their conversations.
Slowly but surely, Mary and Edward Richards unravel as a result of their enormous guilt. As they make their way through their lives with a new and massive burden on their consciences, their perceptions of everyday life begin to warp. Suddenly, all they can think about is the idea of someone discovering their guilt. As such, Twain demonstrates just how toxic guilt can be, once more intimating that coming clean is—though difficult—a much better way to address shame and regret.
Eventually, Edward convinces himself that Burgess’s letter to him was accusatory, quoting it with new emphasis: “‘At bottom you cannot respect me, knowing, as you do, of that matter of which I am accused’—oh, it is perfectly plain, now, God help me! He knows that I know!” he exclaims. He and Mary then wonder if Burgess kept Edward’s “test-remark” (his submission to win the sack) in order to “destroy” them. That night, the couple falls ill, and the town’s doctor is summoned to their house. Examining them, he determines that they are “prostrated by the exhausting excitement growing out of their great windfall, the congratulations, and the late hours.” Within two days, the couple appear to be acting deliriously, speaking about checks totaling $38,500. When the nurses try to hide these checks for safekeeping, Edward tells them not to bother: he has already destroyed them.
Rather unsurprisingly, Edward’s guilt leads to paranoia, and this paranoia causes him to destroy Stephenson’s checks. This makes sense, considering that the $40,000 he and Mary earned was sorely undeserved—after all, they had no more claim to that sum than any of the other Nineteeners, all of whom were publicly humiliated for doing the exact same thing Edward did. In turn, Twain shows readers that guilt and shame is often simply too strong to live with, and must be alleviated at any cost. Ironically, the Richardses end up having to burn the very thing that caused them to act dishonestly in the first place: money.
Edward tells his nurses that they will never again see the checks, which “came from Satan.” The nurses then spread news of the Richardses’ strange ramblings, for both Edward and Mary speak from their sick-beds about their terrible fortune. As it becomes clear that the couple is dying, people start coming to the house. On the verge of death, Edward addresses Reverend Burgess in front of a group of spectators, saying he wants people to witness his confession so that he can “die a man, and not a dog.” “I was clean—artificially—like the rest,” he says, “and like the rest I fell when temptation came. I signed a lie, and claimed the miserable sack. Mr. Burgess remembered that I had done him a service, and in gratitude (and ignorance) he suppressed my claim and saved me.” He then explains why, exactly, Burgess wanted to save him from humiliation.
In this moment, Edward Richards tries to unburden himself so that he can die a somewhat honorable death. To do so, though, he has to finally reveal to his fellow citizens his own moral failing, thereby permanently tarnishing his reputation. Not only does he have to tell them that—like the rest of the Nineteeners—he “signed a lie,” but he also has to tell his witnesses about his failure to help Reverend Burgess in the man’s time of need. In doing so, he completely undoes the legacy he has built as an honest man, and Hadleyburg thereby loses its final symbol of moral integrity.
At this point, Burgess interjects, trying to get Edward to stop speaking. Nonetheless, Edward forges on, saying, “My servant betrayed my secret to [Burgess…] and then he did a natural and justifiable thing, he repented of the saving kindness which he had done me, and he exposed me—as I deserved.” As Edward says this, Burgess vehemently refutes his claims, but the sickly man then dies “without knowing that once more he ha[s] done poor Burgess a wrong.” That night, Mary follows Edward to the grave.
Needless to say, there’s no reason for Edward to think that Burgess “exposed” him to the community—no reason other than his own paranoia, that is. Unfortunately, as he unburdens himself of his own guilt, he only does more damage, since he reveals to the townspeople that Reverend Burgess lied in order to protect him, thus making Burgess yet another Hadleyburg liar. As such, Edward remains selfish and ignorant right up until his death, thinking only of himself even when he’s trying to do the right thing. Having lived an entire lifetime thinking of himself as an honest man without ever having to prove his integrity, he’s so vain that he can’t even see how his confession will negatively influence the very man who tried to help him.
In the aftermath of Mary and Edward’s deaths, the town of Hadleyburg petitions to change its name. It also decides to leave a single word out of its motto, which appears on its official seal. Whereas the motto used to read, “LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION,” now it says, “LEAD US INTO TEMPTATION.” In his concluding remark, Twain writes: “It is an honest town once more, and the man will have to rise early that catches it napping again.”
Twain’s last remark suggests that Howard Stephenson’s revenge plot has done more than simply humiliate the town. Indeed, the entire ordeal has inspired genuine change and reformation, giving the town a chance to redeem itself and recreate its image, this time as a community that knows what it’s like to meet with adversity. This is why the town changes its motto to “LEAD US INTO TEMPTATION,” since the citizens now know that they stand to benefit from having their morals “tested in the fire.” This, they finally understand, is the only way to cultivate a true sense of integrity.