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THE FAILURE OF PROFESSOR PALBECK

By Barry Pain.

Illustrated by Sydney Cowell.


AS a specialist in the cure of imaginative, conversational lying, I have incurred the dislike and distrust of the English medical profession. Because I have no English diploma, and no faith in drugs, I am called a quack. Only the other day a medical paper challenged my right to style myself Professor Palbeck. Well, my name is Palbeck, and I profess to cure conversational lying, and I suppose that a man who professes is a professor. I do not know what more the medical journals want. I do know—and I take this opportunity to remind the medical journals of it—that there is a law of libel and also a limit to my patience.

There are compensations however for the persecutions which I have to endure. The handsome silver salver on my sideboard is a testimonial from a well-known golf club. It is inscribed—


To Professor Palbeck,
in grateful recognition of his skill
in inducing
Algernon Muir McArthur McAnderson
to draw the line
somewhere.


Mr. McAnderson's was, I remember, a very obstinate case, though it yielded to treatment. There was a bad history: his uncle on the mother's side had been a journalist, and his paternal grandfather had been engaged in the manufacture of gas-meters. Naturally, as soon as Algernon McAnderson took to golf, the taint showed itself.

In addition to the testimonial the golf club paid my fees, which in this instance were considerable. There are many conversational liars in the world, and they make other people sick and weary, and then the other people are glad to pay me to intervene. The material prosperity that has rewarded me is some compensation, and to the gratitude of my fellow-men I attach an even greater value. This gratitude comes more often from the friends of patients than from the patients themselves. But there are exceptions, of course. The wife of a country vicar writes that she will never forget how I taught her to keep a spaniel without writing letters about its instinct to the papers in a manner unbecoming to one who had the temperance cause at heart. I still use the pretty beaded penwiper that accompanied her note. Then, in addition to the material prosperity and the gratitude, I have my scientific interest in my work and my happy consciousness that it is a good work. Compared with that, the mere money is nothing.

In one of the cures for dipsomania every article of food and drink supplied to the patient is flavoured slightly with brandy; his clothes, his bed, the air he breathes, are made to smell of brandy. One of my cures for lying is on the same principle; the patient is sent to a little country inn, chiefly frequented by anglers and golfers, the local talent being secretly reinforced by my own assistants, professional liars, acting under my direction. In both cures the aim is the same—by monotony to produce disgust. For hardened cases I have a more severe method, also involving the use of assistants. Here also strict secrecy is observed. The patient does not even know that he is being treated, and regards the assistants as the natural product of the society in which he happens to be moving.

Do I always succeed?

I will be perfectly frank in answering that question. If you know any man of sanguine habitual imaginativeness you may (if your means permit it) send him to me and I will guarantee a cure. The most heroic, illimitable, ebullient liar comes out of my hands as accurate as Bradshaw's time-tables. But I did once fail—though that failure has been the cause of much subsequent success.

I was sitting in my consulting-room one morning engaged in mapping out the work of my assistants—for I had several cases in hand—when my man brought me the card of Mrs. Hubert Spotter. As she had no appointment I kept her in the waiting-room for twenty minutes before I ordered the man to show her in.

Mrs. Hubert Spotter was, as I could see by her dress, a widow. She looked troubled, and wealthy enough to pay my fees. She had a pleasant voice and was rather garrulous.

"Was it about yourself that you wished to see me, Mrs. Spotter?" I asked as she sat down in the chair opposite me.

"Oh no," she began. "I never—well, the usual—nothing more than anybody else does. You can't always say just what you mean, or you wouldn't have a friend left. And——"

"Quite so," I said. "You needn't trouble yourself, Mrs. Spotter (and certainly I shouldn't trouble myself professionally), about trivial and occasional inaccuracies. That would be hypochondriacal. No moral constitution is perfect, and if it were it wouldn't be. An entire absence of abnormalities is in itself abnormal. Now who is the friend that——"

"I am sorry to say it is my son—my only son."

"His name?" I inquired, with pencil and notebook in my hand.

"Harold Bitterwood Spotter, age twenty-one."

"Is there—er—a congenital mendacious diathesis?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"I mean, has he always been imaginative?"

"No, not at all. Even now he speaks the truth about most things. It's only come on since he took to bicycling."

"I must tell you," I said, "that I have found in my professional experience that the bicycling beginner frequently suffers from a profuse extravasation of mendacity. He says that he learned to ride in five minutes, could mount from the step in ten, and so on. Is that not so?"

"What my son says is that he never learned at all; that he thought out the whole theory of the thing before he touched a machine, and rode right away at once without any lesson or any assistance of any kind."

I gave a low whistle. "Yes," I said, "I am afraid that is serious. And may I ask, do you find in his case that the imaginative habit is general or localised?"

"He talks chiefly about bicycling; in fact I have noticed nothing apart from that."

"Localised," I replied; "which is just what I should have expected; a special irritation of the imaginative glands. Well that is generally quite amenable to treatment."

"His conversation is simply one string of the most tremendous—of statements that are very much so indeed. He is losing friends by it. A most satisfactory marriage had been arranged for him, and the lady will now break it off. He is spoiling all his chances in life. It is a terrible case."

"Serious, as I have admitted, but amenable. I prefer—I positively prefer to have the eruption pronounced and well-defined. The liar who lies by implication frequently gives me far more trouble. There is more chance for the wild golfing liar, for instance, than for the careful snob liar. In the latter case the disease tends to become chronic. The man who by some accident to his social apex has met a duke once and only once, and ever afterwards speaks of that duke as only the duke's intimate friends have a right to speak, that man is far more ill than he probably supposes. It may take an acute form, and end in company-promoting; but it may go on for years with little change, rendering the unhappy sufferer an object of contempt to all who meet him. Of your sun now, from what you tell me, I have hopes. But of course I must see him, and he must have no idea of my purpose. Shall I be, for instance, the husband of an old school friend of yours and dine with you to-night?"

"That would be delightful. Strictly speaking I am dining out to-night, but I will write and say that I am ill and in bed—I would do far more than that to make poor Harold truthful. The time is very short, but I could find two or three other guests——"

"Not necessary, thanks. I should prefer to meet you and your son alone."

Mrs. Hubert Spotter had rather a pretty house in South Kensington. As far as I could calculate she would be able to pay for a course of treatment for her son if it were not expensive or prolonged. The son, Harold Bitterwood Spotter, had more natural dignity than one often finds in so young a man. He was tall and handsome, with tired melancholy eyes. There was none of the vulgar liar's attempt to collar the conversation, and no trace of a noisy and boastful manner. He just waited until the occasion arose and then took it. Quietly and unostentatiously he told lie after lie, without hesitation and without hurry, smooth, massive, effortless lies. But his complaint was confined to bicycling; I do not think he would have told lies on any other subject, not though that subject had been his income and he had been filling up the income-tax return. Only one of his lies—and by no means his best—was about himself. I asked him if he had ever had any bad bicycling accident.

"I had rather a curious escape once."

"Do tell me about it."

"Well I don't want to bore you, and it was nothing very much—only rather curious. Last autumn I was bicycling in Morayshire. I was riding a machine without a brake along a precipitous, desolate road—very foolish of me. For three miles I had been bounding down hill with the machine completely beyond my power to stop. Coming suddenly round a corner I saw, a quarter of a mile away, a herd of black cattle on the road below me. There must have been at least fifty of them, and they were drinking at a shallow stream which here ran right across the road. In a fraction of a second I had realised that, what with the cattle and then the stream, I was a dead man, had determined in spite of that to live to the last second, and had rung my bell violently. The brutes started up, but at the pace I was going I was in among them before they could get away. They were mad with fright and dashing in all directions. To this day I can hardly tell how I steered through them. I have a vivid recollection of seeing a great black thing floundering in front of me, and then suddenly finding myself on the other side of the stream—one of the cattle had stumbled and fallen in the bed of the stream and his body had served me for a bridge. I had no sooner got through than the whole herd dashed after me. But of course at the pace I was going I soon left them far behind, and in another mile a sharp rise in the road enabled me to check my machine. I saw that I was safe, and immediately fell prostrate in the road. Nervous strain, I suppose. I was trembling so much that I was quite unable to ride back and had to walk my machine."

It was a fair lie of the robust type, hardly a specimen lie, as it wanted finesse. But even at this period I was struck by the manner of his lying. It was beautiful, quiet, and a little mournful. It was not common. I could see that he had a gift. And here I should like to give a word of warning to anyone who may be called upon to judge of the merits and demerits of a lie. Size is not everything. Suppose a man asserts, for instance, that he has swallowed the Albert Hall. There you have size without quality. It is a mere absurdity, with no claim to be called a lie at all. The best lie—that is to say, the worst lie—is that which combines the greatest amount of plausibility and the nearest approach to impossibility without being actually impossible. Briefly, it must satisfy both the æsthetic and the utilitarian critic.

But I must proceed to describe the methods by which I treated Harold Bitterwood Spotter. I am not in the least afraid of giving my secrets away. Any man may know my methods. For to carry those methods into practice requires a large staff of assistants, of tact, secrecy, marked ability, and any social position required; it requires in their controller an audacity, a talent for organisation, and knowledge of the world and of human nature, that are not possessed together and in the same degree by any man except myself. No, I do not fear competition.

I own that I undervalued Spotter. I thought that he might be cured by a simple exhibition of public disproof in conjunction with ridicule. It was easy enough for me to put up an assistant of my own to meet Spotter at the club and take him out on the subject of times and distances. In the presence of my assistant and several other men, Spotter let himself go and gave rambling details of a circular tour ridden by his cousin, who, Spotter said, was rather over the average. My assistant carefully collected the statistics that Spotter from time to time let fall, stewed them down, so to speak, and extracted the result. The result was that—supposing the statistics were accurate—the distance from London to Maidenhead could not be less than two hundred and sixty-three miles, and Spotter's cousin had ridden this distance in fifteen minutes and an unimportant decimal. Where a poorer liar would have succumbed, Spotter triumphed. Firstly, he joined in the laugh against himself. Then he said, "But of course you've got your figures all wrong. Let me go over them again." In the manipulation of bicycling statistics he seems to have been unparalleled. He managed to preserve all the salient, picturesque features of his lie, making only such adroit alterations in detail as rendered the ridiculous deduction impossible.

The next day I received an urgent letter from Mrs. Hubert Spotter. Harold was much worse. In the presence of his uncle, the archdeacon, he had described bicycle polo. The archdeacon had looked much pained and surprised. When was I going to begin the cure? The archdeacon was Harold's god-father, and was quite expected to do something for him, and, Mrs. Spotter added, she could not bear to see her boy sacrificing all his chances in life for the sake of a little imagination.

1 decided to get him into a home—that is, to get him to stop for a few days at that country inn. A little tact and suggestion were needed. A man at the club—one of my assistants, of course—mentioned that he had a first-class railway pass to the village in question, could not use it, and would gladly give it away. On the following night Harold Bitterwood Spotter was safe in the smoking-room of that inn hearing two of my experts discuss trick bicycling. He little knew that he was undergoing a course of treatment, but he was. He remained there for a week, and when he returned to London he appeared to be perfectly cured. Mrs. Hubert Spotter wrote me a most grateful letter, from which I quote the following passage:—

"And if it is any comfort to you to know it, dear Professor Palbeck, the blessing of a grateful mother is on your head. Harold is a changed man. He rarely mentions the bicycle, though he often rides it; and never does he allow himself to say anything on the subject that is not strictly and prosaically accurate. A reconciliation has taken place between him and the younger Miss Black-Brunswick (the lady to whom he was engaged), and he is trying to cure her of a habit of slight exaggeration. The archdeacon was lunching here the other day and turned the conversation (intentionally, I thought) on bicycling. For a moment I was afraid that Harold would be brilliant and imaginative again. But no. I know absolutely nothing about bicycles, but Harold was so dull and was so plainly trying to be interesting that I could see that he was speaking the truth. The archdeacon saw it too, and was obviously much pleased."

For the whole of one week during his stay at the inn Harold had never once heard the truth spoken about anything. A distaste for mendacity had by this means been created. He could not, his mother told me, even endure the usual formula, "Not at home." I was sorry to hear it; the strongest revulsion is rarely the most enduring. To speak accurately I was not sorry to hear it, for the longer the cure the larger the cheque—provided that in a sufficient number of cases you can cure promptly enough to make and keep your reputation. But I was not surprised when a few weeks afterwards I received the following telegram from Mrs. Hubert Spotter—

"Harold had terrible relapse. Come at once."

I went at once. "Professor Palbeck?" said the butler. "Mrs. Spotter is at home to you." There was a flattering accent on the 'you.'

I found her alone and almost hysterical. Harold Bitterwood Spotter had broken out again. The archdeacon had written to say that there was nothing to be done for a young man whose conversation consisted of one long string of cowardly and offensive lies on the subject of the bicycle. Miss Black-Brunswick (with twelve thousand of her own) had definitely broken off the engagement. The committee of his club had written to him to say that representations had been made to them with reference to his recent remarks on the bicycling mile record; that they desired to cast no imputations on his honesty, but they wished him either to resign or to guarantee all hats, coats and umbrellas that might be in the hall during any period when he was using the house.

"And he is not dishonest," gasped Mrs. Spotter. "It is only that his imagination runs away with him."

"Quite so," I said. "Very well; the imagination that runs away must be treated precisely as a horse that runs away. "When it has finished running away on its own account it must be made to go on running on account of the driver."

"I don't understand you; and Harold is not a horse," said Mrs. Spotter. In her distress some of her normal suavity of manner had vanished.

"I will explain," I said. "I intend to hand over your son to what I call the Outlying Department. I had reason to suppose some time ago that your son was quite an exceptional liar—that he lied for the pure joy of lying and from no base and selfish motive. The braggart liar (one of the commonest varieties) would have been confounded and cured by public exposure. But your son is not a braggart liar. The liar by habit, again, would have been cured by a brief stay in a house where everybody lied, and would have found the habit nauseous. Your son is not merely the habitual liar, for though he was affected temporarily by this manner of treatment he was not cured. It only needed a strong suggestion to cause the relapse. At a guess I should say that your son had been in some thoroughfare where bicycle shops were frequent."

"True. He was in Holborn in the morning. In the evening we were dining out together, and there was nothing to show that there was anything wrong with him until—I hate to repeat it—but I heard him tell the girl whom he had taken down, that that afternoon he had seen a man ride a bicycle backwards through the traffic at Piccadilly Circus. I got him away as soon as I could, and I hope it wasn't noticed much. But, oh, you can imagine my distress! What are we to do?"

"Without the least delay he must meet a finer liar than himself. His spirit must be broken; his pride in his lies humbled; his joy in his best stories turned to bitterness. As I have said I feared a relapse. I also prepared for it. Within the last two months your son has made the acquaintance of a Mr. Watchet. To your son Mr. Watchet is a barrister and a very good fellow, with no practice, and with private means. As a matter of fact Mr. Watchet is in receipt of an annual salary of seven hundred pounds from myself. He is in my employ. He is quite the best man in my Outlying Department, and if any man in the world can outlie your son, it is Mr. Watchet. He has great talent—was at one time an interviewer for an American paper, and afterwards took charge of a financial column. I will put Watchet on, and if he fails then the case is hopeless."

"You couldn't do it yourself?" suggested Mrs. Spotter.

"I cannot lie," I replied.

"Nor I, nor I. Let it be Mr. Watchet, then. Warn him that Harold is exceptional. Tell him to be well prepared beforehand. Don't let him fail."

But he did fail. He met Spotter in the street and took him off to dine at the club—Watchet's club. Spotter had few engagements, and already his friends were dropping off. In the ordinary course Watchet should have called at my office on the following morning at ten o'clock to present his report. At twelve he had not come, and I felt so uneasy that I drove round to the flat where he lived.

"Mr. Watchet is not well this morning," said the servant. "The doctor has been. I don't know——"

"Oh, Mr. Watchet will see me," I replied, and entered his study. The first thing that met my eyes was a large panel portrait of Harold Bitterwood Spotter in the place of honour in the centre of the mantelpiece; the next was Watchet, prostrate on the sofa. He was a man of small physique, with pale yellow hair and childish, truthful blue eyes. He groaned to himself.

"Hallo, Watchet! what's the matter?" I asked.

He raised himself slowly. "Professor Palbeck," he said, "it's all over. We left the club at two o'clock this morning; and I have failed. Look!" He pointed to the portrait. "Look, and take off your hat, for that is a master! I persuaded him to send it me. I reverence it. And accept my resignation."

"Nonsense! You'll do better next time."

"No, my spirit is broken. I shall never do any really fine lying again. I can make a living somehow—write a column of racing chatter or something of that kind—but I am not fit for the Outlying Department." And then he tried to tell me what had happened.

It appeared that Spotter began immediately after dinner with what he called "a curious thunder-storm experience that happened to my friend James Johnson." James Johnson was riding in Devonshire. It was a hot, close, thirsty day, and Johnson (who was a teetotaler) had taken a stone bottle of ginger-beer with him to refresh himself. The roads were lonely, and you might ride for miles without coming across a house or a human being. When Johnson essayed his ginger-beer the cork broke off about half-way down. He found himself unable to force the lower half of the cork into the bottle, and he had no corkscrew with which to draw it out. Johnson was disappointed, but he rode on in search of humanity and the chance to borrow a cork-screw. Just then the storm, which had for a long time been gathering, broke with awful violence. The rain swirled, the thunder roared, the skies were split with lightning. Johnson, who like most teetotalers was a singularly calm man, rode steadily on through the storm. At last there came a blinding flash and Johnson fell to the ground. The lightning had struck, not the man, but the bicycle. Johnson himself was absolutely uninjured. At first sight the bicycle also appeared to be uninjured, but on closer examination Johnson found that the lightning had torn out one spoke and twisted it into a spiral. "This is really very convenient," said Johnson to himself, and without the least hesitation used that spoke as a corkscrew, drank his ginger-beer and rode on.

On hearing this little story Watchet pulled himself together and remarked that a calm man like Johnson ought to have been able to pass the pin-test for straight riding.

"What is that?" Spotter asked,

"It's in use at some of the best cycling schools. They break an ordinary pin in half and fix the two halves lightly in a plank along which the competitor has to ride. The distance between the two halves is exactly the circumference of the front wheel. The first half is fixed with the point uppermost and the second with the head uppermost. Therefore if you ride quite straight the first half punctures the tyre with the point and the second half plugs the hole up again with the head, and you go on as if nothing had happened. A really first-rate man will do the trick twenty times running without missing."

At this juncture Watchet confidently expected that Spotter would give up. On the contrary Spotter smiled and then said—

"You remind me of what once happened to my cousin. On a downward slope of a hard road, with the wind helping him, he once did a mile in a minute with a hole in his front tyre the size of a threepenny bit. At the pace he was going the pressure of the atmosphere prevented the air from escaping and kept the tyre fully expanded, on the same principle as the ordinary railway brake."

"Yes," said Watchet, "that would be so, when the hole faced in the direction in which Spotter was going; but when, as the wheel revolved, it faced the other way, what then?"

"Well then the force of the wind did the same thing. I told you the wind was in my cousin's favour. You can't do a mile in a minute without a wind to help you, you know."

I consider it greatly to Watchet's credit that he struggled on after this, lying as best he could, until two o'clock in the morning. But I accepted his resignation. I cannot afford to pay seven hundred a year to a man who fails.

I drove on to Mrs. Spotter's house. I changed my tone to her. I said that I had been unable to alter her son, and I was glad of it. He had a great gift, and it would be a pity to spoil it. I would make no charge for my services, and I would gladly employ her son in the Outlying Department at an annual salary of eight hundred pounds. The offer was accepted.

Spotter is invaluable to me. I have mentioned the case of McAnderson. Nothing did him any good until I handed him over to Harold Bitterwood Spotter. McAnderson was a fine golf liar, but he could not stand against Spotter. He came out cured after half an hour's interview. "I went in there," he told me afterwards, "with the idea that I knew what lying was, and I saw that the highest pinnacle to which I could attain was fathomless depth below his feet. He is a master! He does not lie, he soars! I need hardly say that I at once abandon any paltry attempts that I have made in that direction. I am but the smallest star; he is the sun!"

Yes, I failed to cure Spotter. But thanks to that failure, I shall never fail again.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1928, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.