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A Day Among the Liars by Edward Page Mitchell

 

MY DEAR FRIEND: You will no doubt be glad to hear about the newly established infirmary at Lugville. I visited it a few days ago in company with Mr. Merkle, a Boston lawyer, whom I happened to meet upon the train. On the way down he gave me a most interesting account of the endowment of this institution by the late Lorin Jenks, to whose discriminating philanthropy the world owes a charity that is not less novel in its conception than noble and practical in its aim.

Mr. Lorin Jenks, as you know, was president of the Saco Stocking and Sock Mills. He was a bachelor, and a very remarkable man. He made a million dollars one day by observing women as they purchased hose in a cheap store in Tremont Row. Mr. Jenks noticed that females who hesitated a good while about paying fifty cents a pair for plain white stockings eagerly paid seventy-five cents for the same quality ornamented with red clocks at the ankles. It cost twenty-two cents a pair to manufacture the stockings. The red flosselle for the clocks cost a quarter of a cent.

"That observation," said Mr. Merkle, "was the foundation of Jenks's great fortune. The Saco Mills immediately stopped making plain hosiery. From that time forth Jenks manufactured nothing but stockings with red clocks, which he retailed at sixty cents. I am told that there is not a woman under sixty-five in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, or Vermont who does not own at least half a dozen pairs of poor Jenks's sixty-cent red dockers."

"That fact," said I, "would interest Mr. Matthew Arnold. It shows that sweetness and light--"

"Pardon me. It shows that Jenks was a practical man, as well as a philosopher. Busy as he was during his life, he took great interest in politics, like all sensible citizens. He was also a metaphysician. He closely followed contemporary speculative thought, inclining, until shortly before his death, to the Hegelian school. Every midsummer, he left the stocking mill to run itself and repaired joyfully to Concord to listen to the lectures in the apple orchard. It is my private opinion that Messrs. Plato, Kant & Co. bled him pretty heavily for the privilege. But at Concord Jenks acquired new ideas as to his duty to the race."

Mr. Merkle paused to hand his ticket to the conductor.

"During the last years of his life, inasmuch as he was known to be eccentric, philanthropic, and without a family, Jenks was much beset by people who sought to interest him in various schemes for the amelioration of the human race. A week before he died he sent for me.

"'Merkle,' says he, 'I want you to draw me a will so leathery that no shark in Pemberton Square can bite it in two.'

"'Well,' says I, 'what is it now, Jenks?'

"'I wish,' says he, 'to devote my entire fortune to the endowment of an institution, the idea of which occurred to me at Concord.'

"'That's right,' said I, rather sharply. 'Put honest money made in red clock hose into the Concord windmill--that's a fine final act for a summer philosopher.'

"'Wait a minute,' said Jenks, and I fancied I saw a smile around the corners of his mouth. 'It isn't the Concord school I want to endow, although I don't deny there may be certain expectations in and around the orchard. But why spend money in teaching wisdom to the wise?' And then he proceeded to unfold his noble plan for the foundation of an Infirmary for the Mendacious."

The train was hauling up at the platform of the Lugville station.

"A few days later," continued the lawyer, as we arose from our seats, "this far-seeing and public-spirited citizen died. By the terms of his will, the income of $1,500,000 in governments, Massachusetts sixes, Boston and Albany stock, and sound first mortgages on New England property is devoted to the infirmary, under the direction of thirteen trustees. How the trust has been administered, you will see for yourself in a few minutes."

We were met at the door of the infirmary by a pleasant-faced gentleman who spoke with a slight German accent and introduced himself as the assistant superintendent.

"Excuse me," said he, politely, "but which of you is the patient?"

"Oh, neither," replied Merkle, with a laugh. "I am the counsel for the Board, and this gentleman is merely a visitor who is interested in the workings of the institution."

"Ah, I see," said the assistant superintendent. "Will you kindly walk this way?"

We entered the office, and he handed me a book and a pen. "Please inscribe your name," said he, "in the Visitors' Book." I did so, and then turned to speak to Merkle, but the lawyer had disappeared.

"Our system," said the assistant superintendent, "is very simple. The theory of the institution is that the habit of mendacity, which in many cases becomes chronic, is a moral disease, like habitual inebriety, and that it can generally be cured. We take the liar who voluntarily submits himself to our treatment, and for six months we submit him to the forcing process. That is, we encourage him in lying, surround him with liars, his equals and superiors in skill, and cram him with falsehood until he is fairly saturated. By this time the reaction has set in, and the patient is usually starved for the truth. He is prepared to welcome the second course of treatment. For the next half year the opposite method is pursued. The satiated and disgusted liar is surrounded by truthful attendants, encouraged to peruse veracious literature, and by force of lectures, example, and moral influence brought to understand how much more creditable it is to say the thing which is than the thing which is not. Then we send him back into the world; and I must say that cases of relapse are infrequent"

"Do you find no incurables?" I asked.

"Yes," said the assistant superintendent, "once in a while. But an incurable liar is better off here in the infirmary than outside, and it is better for the outside community to have him here."

Somebody came in, bringing a new patient. After sending for the superintendent, the assistant invited me to follow him. "I will show you how our patients live, and how they amuse themselves," he said. "We will go first, if you please, through the left wing, where the saturating process may be observed."

He led the way across a hall into a large room, comfortably furnished, and occupied by two dozen or more gentlemen, some reading, some writing, while others sat or stood in groups engaged in animated talk. Indeed, had it not been for the iron bars at the windows, I might have fancied myself in the lounging room of a respectable club. My guide stopped to speak to an inmate who was listlessly turning the leaves of a well-thumbed copy of Baron Münchausen, and left me standing near enough to one of the groups to overhear parts of the conversation.

"My rod creaked and bent double," a stout, red-faced gentleman was saying, "and the birch spun like a testotum. I tell you if Pierre Chaveau hadn't had the presence of mind to grip the most convenient part of my trousers with the boat hook, I should have been dragged into the lake in two seconds or less. Well, sir, we fought sixty-nine minutes by actual time taking, and when I had him in, and had got him back to the hotel, he tipped the scale, the speckled beauty did, at thirty-seven pounds and eleven-sixteenths, whether you believe it or not."

"Nonsense," said a quiet little gentleman who sat opposite. "That is impossible."

The first speaker looked flattered at this and colored with pleasure. "Nevertheless," he retorted, "it's a fact, on my honor as a sportsman. Why do you say it's impossible?"

"Because," said the other, calmly, "it is an ascertained scientific fact, as every true fisherman in this room knows perfectly well, that there are no trout in Mooselemagunticook weighing under half a hundred."

"Certainly not," put in a third speaker. "The bottom of the lake is a sieve--a sort of schistose sieve formation--and all the fish smaller than the fifty-pounders fall through."

"Why doesn't the water drop through, too?" asked the stout patient, in a triumphant tone.

"It used to," replied the quiet gentleman gravely, "until the Maine legislature passed an act preventing it."

My guide rejoined me and we went on across the room. "These sportsman liars," he said, "are among the mildest and most easily cured cases that come here. We send them away in from six to nine weeks' time with the habit broken up and pledged not to fish or hunt any more. The man who lies about the fish he has caught, or about the intelligence of his red setter dog is often in all other respects a trustworthy citizen. Yet such cases form nearly forty per cent of all our patients."

"What are the most obstinate cases?"

"Undoubtedly those which you will see in the Travelers' and Politicians' wards of the infirmary. The more benign cases, such as the fishermen liars, the society liars, the lady-killer or bonnes fortunes liars, the Rocky Mountain and frontier liars [excepting Texas cases], the railroad prospectus liars, the psychical research liars, and the miscellaneous liars of various classes, we permit during the first stage of treatment to mingle freely with each other. The effect is good. But we keep the Travelers and the Politicians strictly isolated."

He was about to conduct me out of the room by a door opposite that through which we had entered when a detached phrase uttered by a pompous gentleman arrested my attention.

"Scipio Africanus once remarked to me--"

"There couldn't be a better example," said my guide, as we passed out of the room, "of what we call the forcing system in the treatment of mendacity. That patient came to us voluntarily about two months ago. The form of his disease is a common one. Perfectly truthful in all other respects, he cannot resist the temptation to claim personal acquaintance and even intimacy with distinguished individuals. His friends laughed at him so much for this weakness that when he heard of the establishment of the infirmary he came here like a sensible man, and put himself under our care. He is doing splendidly. When he found that his reminiscences of Beaconsfield and Bismarck and Victor Hugo created no sensation here, but were, on the contrary, at once matched and capped by still more remarkable experiences narrated by other inmates, he was at first a little staggered. But the habit is so strong, and the peculiar vanity that craves admiration on this score is so exacting, that he began to extend his acquaintance, gradually and cautiously, back into the past. Soon we had him giving reminiscences of Talleyrand, of Thomas Jefferson, and of Lord Cornwallis. Observe the psychologic effect of our system. The ordinary checks on the performances of such a liar being removed, and, no doubt, suspicion, nor even wonder being expressed at any of his anecdotes, he has gone back through Voltaire and William the Silent to Charlemagne, and so on. There happens to be in the institution another patient with precisely the same trouble. They are, therefore, in active competition, and each serves to force the other back more rapidly. Not long ago I heard our friend in here describing one of Heliogabalus' banquets, which he had attended as an honored guest. Why, I was there, too!' cried the other liar. 'It was the night they gave us the boar's head stuffed with goose giblets and that delicious dry Opimian muscadine.'"

"Well," I asked, "and what is your prognosis in this case?"

"Just now the two personal reminiscence liars are driving each other back through ancient history at the rate of about three centuries a week. The flood isn't likely to stop them. Before long they will be matching reminiscences of the antediluvian patriarchs, and then they'll bring up square on Adam. They can't go any further than Adam. By that time they will be ready for the truth-cure process; and after a few weeks spent in an atmosphere of strict veracity in the other wing of the infirmary, they'll go out into the world again perfectly cured, and much more useful citizens than before they came to us."

We went upstairs and saw the scrupulously neat bedrooms which the patients occupy; through the separate wards where the isolated classes are treated; across to the right wing of the building and into a lecture room where the convalescent liars were gathered to hear a most interesting dissertation on "The Inexpediency of Falsehood from the Legal Point of View." I was not surprised to recognize in the lecturer my railroad acquaintance, the Boston lawyer, Merkle.

On our way back to the reception room, or office, we met a pleasant-looking gentleman about forty years old. "He is a well-known society man," the assistant superintendent whispered as the inmate approached, "and he was formerly the most politely insincere person in America. Nobody could tell when he was uttering the truth, or, indeed, whether he ever did utter the truth. His habit became so exaggerated that his relatives induced him to come to Lugville for treatment. I am glad to have you see him, for he is a good example of a radical cure. We shall be ready to discharge him by the first of next week."

The cured liar was about to pass us, but the assistant superintendent stopped him. "Mr. Van Ransevoort," he said, "let me make you acquainted with this gentleman, who has been inspecting our system."

"I am glad to meet you, Mr. Van Ransevoort," I said.

He raised his hat and made me an unexceptionable bow. "And I," he replied, with a smile of charming courtesy, "am neither glad nor sorry to meet you, sir. I simply don't care a d--n."

The somewhat startling candor of his words was so much at variance with the perfect politeness of his manner that I was taken aback. I stammered something about not desiring to intrude. But as he still stood there as if expecting the conversation to be continued, I added, "I suppose you are looking forward to your release next week?"

"Yes, sir," he replied, "I shall be rather glad to get out again, but my wife will be sorry."

I looked at the assistant superintendent. He returned a glance full of professional pride.

"Well, good-by, Mr. Van Ransevoort," I said. "Perhaps I shall have the pleasure of meeting you again."

"I hope not, sir; it's rather a bore," said he, shaking my hand most cordially, and giving the assistant superintendent a friendly nod as he passed on.

I could fill many more pages than I have time to write with descriptions of what I saw in the infirmary. Intelligence and thoroughness were apparent in all of the arrangements. I encountered and conversed with liars of more variation and degree of mendacity than you would believe had distinct existence. The majority of the cases were commonplace enough. Liars of real genius seem to be as rare inside the establishment as they are outside. I became convinced from my observations during the profitable afternoon which I spent at Lugville that chronic mendacity is a disease, as the assistant superintendent said, and that it is amenable, in a great number of cases, to proper treatment. On the importance of the experiment that is being carried on at Lugville with so much energy and apparent success, it is not necessary to dilate.

I sincerely hope that you will not misconstrue my motives in laying the matter before you; and I cannot too strongly urge you to go down to Lugville yourself at the earliest opportunity. You ought to see with your own eyes how admirably Lorin Jenks's bequest is administered, and what a prospect of reform and regeneration the infirmary's system holds out to unfortunates. The regular visitors' day is Wednesday. No doubt they would admit you at any time.

End.

 
 
 

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