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"The Liar" from Sunset Magazine

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Sunset Magazine
The Liar
by Ellis Parker Butler

For the first time in many years Mr. Barborn felt really free and joyous. Of course, Henrietta was still with him, but she had complained that the wind was too strong on the deck and she had gone inside, making Mr. Barborn carry both the suitcases. He called them "dress suit cases," which fixes his age at about fifty, and he had placed them at her feet.

"You don't mind if I go outside a while, Henrietta, do you?" he had said.

"Go, if you want to, by all means," she had said. "You might stay and keep me company, but don't let me keep you."

Mr. Hetterbury drew his chair nearer.

"I just thought I might as well be looking at the scenery," he ventured. He always merely ventured when he spoke to Henrietta. She was his wife and she was almost more wife than Mr. Barborn deserved. He had been very lucky in getting so much wife and such excellent wife. He always felt that. Sometimes she reminded him of the fact, not however mentioning her size, merely her excellence.

"And a lucky thing for you, Henry Barborn," she would say, "that you got a wife like me. Goodness knows what a shiftless creature like you would ever have done."

"I'm sure I appreciate you, Henrietta," he would reply.

Mr. Barborn was not, however, shiftless. He was, to describe him in the shortest possible manner, a worm with sidewhiskers. The only inaccuracy in the description is that he did not, in fact, have sidewhiskers. No matter; he might have had. He was that variety of worm.

Now and then Mr. Barborn, in an amazed sort of way, wondered what in the dickens the world meant and what he had been born for, but for the most part he was so busy hurrying to dress for breakfast, and hurrying breakfast to catch the subway, and hurrying to the office to get to work, and hurrying through his work to get home, and hurrying at being pleasant so that Henrietta would not start something that began "Now, Henry!" that he had no time to think.

It is doubtful if thinking would have done him much good. Thinking of Betelguese and psycho-something and Debussy and transcendentalism is of little service to a man who holds his job through being able to run up a column and get the answer 103 instead of 104. Mr. Barborn confined himself to criticisms of the motion pictures, of which Mrs. Barborn was fond. He had seen, perhaps, more motion pictures than any man of his age in America and he had formed absolutely definite opinions. They were

1 -- "Mary Pickford is better in some of her pictures than she is in some of her others."

2 -- "Maybe it ain't art, but a good picture helps to pass the evening."

For the rest, Mr. Barborn wore homemade sleeve protectors, chewed pepsin gum, was still paying installments on a phonograph that was as large as a small mausoleum. It was an oak mausoleum. He had, also, once bought a set of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, since which time he had bought no more books. More were unnecessary; he had not finished the first volume of that splendidly educational work. In fact, he never tried to. Mrs. Barborn made much greater use of the set of Gibbons. It was a text on which she frequently hung sermons regarding the innate extravagance of males, the wastefulness of husbands, and the lack of consideration of the married man for his mate, when he might just as well have asked her about it in the first place, but he knew well enough what she would have said about it, and look at all that good money wasted!

Mr. Barborn was a turnless worm; he never had turned and he never dreamed of turning, but at the slightest wiggle Henrietta whipped him with the set of Gibbons. It cowed him immediately, for he knew the purchase had been an insane folly. He did not need a set of Gibbons; he did not want a set of Gibbons; nobody does need or want a set of Gibbons.

Free from Henrietta for a period and sitting on one of the not uncomfortable folding chairs of the day boat on the Hudson River, Mr. Barborn felt a strange uplift of mind and soul. This was his first real vacation in many years; always he had argued that his services were too valuable to be spared from the office (Oh, ye valuable seven and six is thirteen, and eight is twenty-one!) and had refused to go. Henrietta had vacationed for them both.

This year Mr. Calthorpe had insisted. Whether he wished it or not Barborn and every other employee must vacate for two weeks. Doubtless it was some microbe of efficiency that had worked into Mr. Calthorpe's brain, but here was Mr. Barborn with three weeks pay in his pocket (a mere metaphor: Henrietta had it in her purse) and three free weeks (also a metaphor: Henrietta was accompanying him). Mr. Barborn drew a deep breath, removed his derby hat and put it under his chair, and looked at the river and the shore. The wind was strong, but it was warm.

"When we get to the Catskills," thought Mr. Barborn, "I'll be able to get away from Henrietta quite a little. For hours at a time I'll say, 'Henrietta, wouldn't you like to climb a few hills this morning?' and she will say, 'Henry, you know my feet do not permit me to climb hills,' and then I will say, 'You don't mind if I go for a little climb, do you, Henrietta?' and she will say, 'I do think you might give your wife a little more attention, Henry; you might be a little less eager to get away from me at every chance.' But I'll go! I'll climb hills. I'll go off alone, with a staff in my hand. For hours. Hours without Henrietta."

Mr. Barborn had never been in the Catskills and he had the vaguest possible idea of what they might be like. He hoped there might be trees and a brook or lake. He hoped there might not be rattlesnakes and wildcats everywhere. He had a somewhat vague belief that he would see mighty snow-clad peaks. The mountains he knew were the mountains in the moving pictures and they were usually the most mountainous mountains that could be had, regardless of cost. Heroines, to be properly rescued, needed mountains with some "punch" to them. Heroines --

Mr. Barborn did not so much as think of it -- he did not dare with Henrietta so near; possibly he did not dare anyway -- but a faint sixteenth-thought flashed across his mind that he might even meet, while tramping the woods -- if there were woods -- a young and beautiful -- she might have sprained her ankle and -- or a milkmaid --

"Do you know whose castle that is over there?" asked a man sitting in a folding chair close to Mr. Barborn.

This was indeed glorious. Here was a man, and a quite distinguished looking man, asking questions of Mr. Barborn, of whom no one ever asked questions. It was evident that this stranger thought Mr. Barborn amounted to something.

"That castle," said Mr. Barborn fearlessly, "is Vanderbilt's."

It was not Vanderbilt's castle. It was, as a matter of fact, a very excellent school for girls, but Mr. Barborn did not know and he did not care. He was flooded with a strange elation of newly-loosed egotism and daring. He was, for the moment, drunk with importance. The man had appealed to him and it was his duty to give a splendid answer. Mr. Barborn would have liked to trim his answer to this admirable man with gold and purple, set it with stars. That could not be done, but he had given a noble answer, an answer to satisfy anyone, however exacting.

"Say, you don't mean it!" exclaimed the stranger. "Some house, that is. Which Vanderbilt?"

"The old boy," said Mr. Barborn, as if Vanderbilts were the merest trifles in his crowded life.

"First time I've ever been up this river," said the stranger. He felt in his vest pocket and brought out a card. "That's my name there -- Hetterbury. I'm the 'Co.' in that Brown, Blythe & Co. I have charge of the Chicago office. Used to be with the St. Louis office but they shoved me up last year. First time I've been east, and I'll say Brown is one king -- that's all he is, a king! Got a card?"

From his pocket Mr. Barborn took one of Calthorpe, Cush & Company's cards. He happened to have it because he had used it to jot down the time the boat left 42nd Street, the time it reached Kingston, the time the train reached Arkville.

"The only one I've got with me," he said. "Sorry my name is not on it. My name's Barborn."

The stranger nodded gravely.

"Member of the firm?" he asked.

Mr. Barborn's heart leaped joyously. Romance rushed upon him like a hurricane of rosy clouds. He tore off all shackles. He threw truth and all such silly things far from him. For a while he could be a giant, an emperor, what he chose.

"Certainly," he said, and then added, "since the first of the year. They had to take me in; could not keep me out, after what I did for them in South Africa."

"Hey? South Africa?" Mr. Hetterbury asked with surprise. "You been there?"

"Eight years," lied Mr. Barborn nobly. "All through the war. I saved their business, going there when all the young fellows left. You know how it was in South Africa; one day every man on the job and the next day every man in the army. Luckily Calthorpe got a cable through to me at Papeete. Tahiti, you know."

"Gosh, no! Where's that?" asked Mr. Hetterbury.

Mr. Barborn's idea of Papeete and Tahiti were most vague. He vaguely remembered that one was a town and the other an island, but he was not sure which was which. He was not quite sure that the town (whichever it was) was on the island and not on some other island. He had been half asleep when that particular film of the Empire Pictorial Semi-weekly News had been shown two days before at the Gold and Green Picture Theatre.

"South Sea," he said, waving his hand. "Beyond Australia. Tropics. I was handling copra there. Dried cocoanut meat."

"By cripes!" exclaimed Mr. Hetterbury admiringly. "What do you know about that! How'd you like it down there?"

"Fine!" said Mr. Barborn. "Fine! A free life; an unconventional life. Just a --" he drew his hand across his lap; "just a rag round you and a couple of flowers behind your ear. A happy land; nobody thinking evil; kindly people."

Mr. Hetterbury drew his chair an inch nearer. He pointed with his thumb to a stout lady who was looking at the river and conversing with a still stouter lady in the chair beyond.

"Listen!" he said. "Not too loud, that's my wife there; you know how the dames are; but -- say, listen! isn't that the place where -- you know -- those hulahula dancers?"

"The place," said Mr. Barborn. "I've seen them a thousand times."

"By jings!" exclaimed Mr. Hetterbury. "What do you know! And, say, I just saw some pictures of those folks in the movies, less'n a week ago. Do you go to the movies?"

"No," said Mr. Barborn. "I don't. Not since I got the island fever; it hurt my eyes, and I can't stand the flashing on the screen. A little grand opera now and then, and a good theatre once in awhile. That's my limit. Poker, at my club; that's how I spend my evenings."

"Yes," said Mr. Hetterbury. He was not interested in the club. "Sure! But, what I was going to ask you -- listen! is it so that those South Sea Island girls are swell? Good lookers?"

"They are beautiful -- beautiful!" said Mr. Barborn. "Innocent and kindly and beautiful."

"I bet! Look like their pictures in the films, I guess. And I'll say they are some lookers! Say, listen!" he continued, lowering his voice: "Is there any truth in this stuff about their being willing to marry any white man? You know what I mean -- break a crust of bread and set up housekeeping in a palm hut or something? And no questions asked, as you might say."

Mr. Barborn cleared his throat. He was joyous. He was soaring in happiness. "I know what you mean," he said. "Only, they don't look at it that way out in the islands. They don't whisper about it. Now, I had five wives out there, for instance."

"Get out!" said Mr. Hetterbury eagerly. "Five? All at once?"

"Certainly. Some had a dozen," said Mr. Barborn. "I had only five."

"Beauties?" asked Mr. Hetterbury. "I bet they were, though!"

"I tried not to make the worst of my opportunities," said Mr. Barborn with a smile. "I don't like to talk about it. I did hate to leave; even for the South African position. It was -- well! even I wept, and I have knocked about the world a bit -- it was sad when I went off to the ship in the hongo-pongo, with eight big natives swinging their paddles, and my five wives standing on the beach, tearing their hair, cutting their tender skin with shells and singing the aloha-hongo -- the 'farewell forever' song, you know. Nango Mogo -- I did hate to leave her. She was fonder of me than the others were. I always knew it. I was shocked but not surprised when Gondolf, the agent there, wrote me she had killed herself."

"Get out!"

"They often do," said Mr. Barborn.

"Sure! That's the worst of it," agreed Mr. Hetterbury. "Somebody always has to suffer. They get too fond of us, even when we don't want them to. That's what makes women so bossy. Now, you take my wife there -- Oh, say! I meant to ask you; did you have another wife all the time? A real one, I mean? A regular one?"

"In New York. Yes," said Mr. Barborn.

"I bet you never told her all you've told me," grinned Mr. Hetterbury. "What they don't know don't hurt them, hey? Now, you take my wife there. She's all right; I'll tell the world she is; but you bet I don't tell her everything. She's -- I don't mean she's any worse than any other woman, but she has never got over the idea that I ought to bring home my pay envelope every week and put it right spang in her hand. Huh? And do I? Not so anybody would notice it. Take my job since I was let into the firm. I get a drawing account; draw so much a week. If I let her have her way I would carry it straight home to her and she would give me five cents for carfare, say, and fifty cents for lunch, and five cents for carfare home again. You know! But do I do it? Ask me!"

"No more do I," lied Mr. Barborn gloriously.

"You bet I don't," bragged Mr. Hetterbury. "She thinks I do, but I don't. I draw twelve hundred a month, see? And when I fixed it that way with the firm I just forgot two hundred of it; I told the wife I was to draw ten hundred. So she gets the ten hundred right along and I slip my two hundred into my inside pocket. What she don't know don't hurt her. I blow some of it, but I've got a nice little two thousand salted away in a bank -- she doesn't know anything about."

Mr. Barborn smiled.

"I can do a little better than that," he said. "I have five thousand put away in a snug place."

"Sure!" said Mr. Hetterbury. "It's the only way a man can do and get any freedom out of life. Whose palace is that?"

"That's Rockefeller's," said Mr. Barborn.

It was not Rockefeller's. It was a Catholic school for boys.

"Sure! I thought I recognized it," said Mr. Hetterbury. "How do you like South Africa?"

"Not much," said Mr. Barborn. "It was too much like Hong Kong. Cape Town was. Up country was not so bad. Good hunting. I got one elephant, a couple of giraffes and plenty of antelope. You take it all in all, after Tahiti, I like Japan best. The Orinoko country is good, but too much fever. I could go back to Ceylon and feel fairly well satisfied."

"Rains a good deal there, don't it? Any fever?"

"It's where I got my fever first," said Mr. Barborn. "Never have got rid of it. That's why I have got to get into the mountains every summer. I try one place and then another. Adirondacks usually. Now and then the Rockies. The Andes do me the most good, but I can't take the time this year. I'm going to put in a little time in the Catskills."

"Why, that's fine!" said Mr. Hetterbury eagerly. "We may run across each other there. Not sure what we'll do yet. Blythe, of our firm is touring up that way with his wife, and she's had a cough. He said they might get as far as Albany and come back to New York by rail, if her cough don't get better, and Brown wires him to let me and the wife have the car and the chauffeur for a week or two if he did that. I don't know. We'll find out when we get to Albany."

"I don't take my car to the mountains," said Mr. Barborn. "My wife don't like driving on mountain roads."

"What's this we're coming to?" asked Mr. Hetterbury.

It was West Point. Mr. Barborn looked at the castellated buildings that rose from the water's edge. He had not the slightest idea what the place was.

"Why that --" he said, and the great siren of the steamer protected him as it made the deck tremble with its ear-racking blast. "That," said Mr. Barborn,

"Henry," said Mrs. Barborn's voice. "This is West Point. It is time we went down and ate."

"Yes, my dear," said Mr. Barborn meekly, and then, to Mr. Hetterbury; "That is West Point, where the military academy is."

He had had a noble, an imperial time. He had lied whole-souledly and he had been believed. He had reached out a hand and grasped the gaudy colors of Romance from the sky and robed himself in them, and Mr. Hetterbury had thought they were his proper garments.

The hotel, when Mr. Barborn and Henrietta reached it, was not quite as splendid as Mrs. Grossmeyer had led them to believe, but it was not bad. One could prove the bed had a mattress and springs by raising one corner of the sheet and seeing them, and there is no evidence equal to that of the eyes. The food was plentiful and expensive, as anyone could believe who cared to believe the landlady. She said so often enough. The sauce for the meats did seem somewhat monotonous, so that beef and pork and veal and lamb came to the table indistinguishable under the batter that was the color of the cook's yellow hair. One might have believed that there was a ten thousand ton reservoir of the sauce up on the mountain somewhere, from which the sauce flowed endlessly, and that the cook held plate after plate of meat under the sauce pipe as day followed day. On Sunday and on Wednesday there was chicken -- seemingly the same chicken, exactly as resilient; exactly as impervious.

But wooded mountainsides there were, and a brook that was as beautiful as any in the world, and mossy rocks, some as huge as houses, and innumerable ferns and hill flowers and field flowers, and Mrs. Barborn's fallen arches blessedly functioned as usual and kept her rocking on the hotel veranda.

Adventure came to Mr. Barborn, too. Climbing the mountain back of the hotel he came upon, the second day of his rambling, a charming lady. She had with her, it is true, two little daughters and a son, and they were hand in hand, hunting ferns and flowers and fungi, and finding them in books with colored pictures, in a most cheerful, unromantic, nature-loving way, but it was an adventure. The boy led to it by asking if Mr. Barborn had a knife or a pin or something that would get a thorn out of his palm. Mr. Barborn was rewarded with a sandwich, and he learned the mysteries of grape ferns, hay ferns, eagle ferns; of fungi and flowers.

He said nothing to Henrietta about it. Henrietta was peculiar and it was none of her business. He did ask Henrietta, the second day after he discovered the remarkable fact that there is more than one variety of buttercup and that ferns are not merely ferns, if he might have two dollars to send to New York for a flower book and a fern book. She thought he was going crazy.

"Stuff! Nonsense!" she said.

It was the next day that Mr. Barborn walked to the postoffice for the mail, and found awaiting him the long envelope from the Brooklyn lawyer.

"Yip!" he cried with great lack of dignity, when he had read the letter and started for the hotel in hot haste, eager to tell Henrietta. Half way he slackened his pace and frowned. He stopped short and seated himself on a rock by the side of the road. He reread the letter and looked at the check again.

"Hetterbury did it," he said to himself. "Every man does it, Hetterbury said. Look at the ferns I have not found yet. There's the royal, and the maidenhair, and the maidenhair-spleen-wort, and the -- why, I'm just beginning! And I know Henrietta! Henrietta will never Yip! cred Mr. Barborn when he read the letter from the lawyer. let me come here again. If I can put this in a bank, and Henrietta does not know about it, and if she wants to go to the sea shore and I want to come to the mountains -- I can -- I can tell her to go-"

He wanted, mightily, to say "go to H---," but he did not dare, not even with Henrietta so distant. He said, instead, "I can tell her to go to -- the sea shore if she wants to, but that I am going to the mountains. Five thousand dollars! Why, I can do as I please every vacation as long as I live! I -- I could go to Tahiti, if I wanted to!"

He put the letter back in his pocket, tucking it in snugly.

"There was no mail for us," he lied, when he reached the hotel.

What had happened was the unexpected, because he had always understood that his Aunt Emma had nothing; that what she had would barely see her to the grave and neatly and tidily into it; but instead of that this check, for five good thousand dollars had come to Mr. Barborn. Possibly Aunt Emma had not lived as long as the Table of Expectations promised; some of us do not.

For Aunt Emma and her untimely demise at the age of ninety-seven Mr. Barborn felt not the least regret; he felt, when he had decided to conceal this wonderful windfall from Henrietta, nothing but wild, untrammeled joy. Henrietta knew that nothing was to be expected from Aunt Emma. The money was his. After the ferns there were the flowers to "do," and then the fungi, and then the mosses and lichens; and birds, and moths, and butterflies. Mrs. Arkstone had said there was a magnifying glass even better than the one she used, and a bird glass better than the one little Isaac carried. For the first time Mr. Barborn thought of life, and he thought life was not so bad.

In the writing room -- chosen as a writing room because it was the darkest room in the hotel -- Mr. Barborn wrote to the Steelbound Savings Bank and begged that an account be opened in his name. He gave his name, and his date of birth, and the color of his eyes, and all that he thought a bank might want to know, and sent the check, properly endorsed.

"Please send bank book to me here. Mark envelope 'Private'," he wrote.

He walked to the postoffice and mailed the letter. When he returned Henrietta was waiting for him, on the veranda.

"I do think, Henry," she said, "that with all the gadding about you do by day you might at least give me a little time in the evenings. I have nobody to hold my worsted."

"Henrietta," said Mr. Barborn, and he was surprised at himself, even as he said it, "sometimes I think you talk too much."

"Henry!" said Mrs. Barborn severely.

"There's no need to boss me as if I were a child," said Mr. Barborn. "I'm not!"

"Do you know what you are saying?" asked Henrietta.

"I certainly do!" said Mr. Barborn. "And I want you to understand it."

Three times Mrs. Barborn jerked angrily at the worsted. It had tangled in the skein Mr. Barborn was holding. "For pity's sake!" she exclaimed. "Can't you --" Then she paused. She leaned forward and slipped the ball of worsted through and under. Before she leaned back again she patted Mr. Barborn on the cheek. "Cross man!" she said. Mr. Barborn's heart sang; it sang "Hooray! Hooray! I have five thousand dollars in the bank, and she don't know about it!"

On the third day Mr. Barborn, walking to the postoffice again, found the letter he had been expecting. The bankbook was in it. He opened the book and looked at the figures time had not yet turned from blue to black. $5000! $5000! Five thousand -- thousand, you understand! -- dollars! He walked back to the hotel slowly. He stopped to climb a fence and pick a fern. He stopped to throw stones in the brook. He stopped to watch a bird in a tree.

"I'll write Calthorpe I must have an extra week," he said. "What is one extra week a year when the ferns and flowers are having the whole summer?"

He stopped to "tst -- tst" at a chipmunk.

"And if Henrietta wants to go home, she can go!" he said. "I'm my own boss!"

An hour later he was wiping the cold drops from his forehead.

He walked slowly up the path to the hotel. With his elbow pressed close against his side he could feel the bank book. Henrietta was knitting, of course -- knitting and talking. At the side of the hotel a chauffeur was brushing the dust from the sides of a car. The woman with whom Henrietta was talking had just arrived, it seemed, for she had not removed her hat with its heavy dust veil, but already she and Henrietta were deep in things -- trust Henrietta.

"-- overheard," the woman was saying. "He didn't think I heard him, but, believe me, I did. When we reached the hotel at Albany I talked to him -- indeed I did! I did so! 'What we don't know don't hurt us, hey?' I said. I'll see about that!' I said. 'Now you hand over that two thousand dollar bank book, and do it mighty quick!' I said. And you should have seen him! I have to laugh!"

"Men!" said Mrs. Barborn, and then she added, "Husbands!"

"I should think so!" said the woman in the veil. "All alike; all trying to make fools of us one way or another. But that other man; think of his having kept back five whole thousand dollars from his wife."

"You say he was on the Washington Irving?" asked Mrs. Barborn grimly.


"What was his name?"

"Let me think! Cadbury? Barberry?"

"It wasn't Barborn?"

"Yes, Barborn! A little shrimp of a man. Thin and -- why, that's the very man, now!"

Mr. Barborn, whistling lightly, climbed the veranda steps. He raised his hat politely because Henrietta was a lady. Henrietta gathered her knitting into a ball and arose.

"I want to see you in our room, Henry," she said sternly. "At once, if you please."

An hour later Mr. Barborn was wiping the cold drops from his forehead. For the hundredth time he was saving:

"But I tell you it was a lie, Henrietta. They were all lies. Ask him; ask Mr. Hetterbury. You know I have never been in Tahiti or Papeete or South Africa or Hong Kong or Japan. You know I never had five hula hula wives. I was lying. I was showing off. Ask him."

"That is all very well, Henry, and you may have been lying, but I want that five thousand dollars! That was not a lie!"

"It was a lie. I never saved a dollar out of my salary. I gave you every cent I earned. Or spent it on the living."

"I want that five thousand dollars!"

"I tell you I was lying!"

"Henry, give me that money!"

"I was lying --"

"You don't go out of this room until --"

"Oh, drat!" cried Henry Barborn, and he dragged the bank book from his pocket and threw it at her. Henrietta opened the book and looked at the figures in it.

"I thought so!" she said triumphantly. "I knew it was no lie!"

For, if there is anything in the world a wife can not understand, it is what her husband does with all the money he earns.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:19:44am USA Central
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