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Title: The Sixth Thing
Author: Ben Ames Williams
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eBook No.: 1900151h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  January 2019
Most recent update: January 2019

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The Sixth Thing

by

Ben Ames Williams


When you get off the boat at East Harbor in the morning, four or five automobiles with the legend "Public" pasted upon their windshields are on hand to carry you whither you wish to go. Most of the men who drive these cars are young, but one of them is old, and looks older than he is. This man is Newt Bragg; a thick, nervous, jerky man with a quirking mouth and aimless eyes. The drivers of the other cars incline to make a sport of him. Most East Harbor folk have poked fun at Newt Bragg, one time or another. He is the town butt; to some extent, the town fool. A wander-witted man with a grudge against the world, and never a friend to take his part. Jim Swett, the hotel clerk, once said: "Trouble with Newt, his eyes both come out of the same hole." The phrase is a portrait. To most jibes, this man returns a hostile, mirthless, smirking grin; but if you ask him whether he has seen Charlie Dart lately, he is like to fly into a maundering, abusive rage. If there were anyone to take sufficient interest in him, he would be put in an institution for the feeble-minded; but so long as he does no harm, he is left free to walk abroad. There is something contemptuous in this freedom that is accorded him. The Reverend Mr. Walters, of the Baptist church, once preached a sermon on Newt. He took for his text Proverbs 6; 16-19; and he called his sermon: "The Sixth Thing." Whether there was material for a sermon in the man, he who reads may judge.

Newt began life as a liar. Probably his lying was a form of vanity, a desire to attract attention. He was accustomed to boast of his own exploits; exploits which his fancy manufactured. No one believed him, and it is probable that he knew this; but the man bore the reputation of being a liar with complete equanimity.

It was natural that from lying about himself, he should pass to lying about other people. He was accustomed, in the evening, to sit in the writing room of the Master House, where there was always a pitch game in session, and chew tobacco—he was not a smoker—and listen to the talk of the other men, and try to take a part in it. If he had been in the country during the day, he was apt to report having seen a deer, a moose, a wildcat. He was not an inventive man; his repertory was limited. They began to make sport of him, even in those days; and when he came in, after supper, some man might ask, "See any elephants to-day, Newt?"

Newt would grin, in his smirking, mirthless way. "That's all right," he would say. "You c'n laugh. But did you ever see a deer with horns on just one side of his head? A big buck like that crossed the road, not six rods ahead of me, out towards Beaumont this afternoon."

One night he told Joe Drake that Will Townsend was pulling his lobster pots. "I was down the shore road this afternoon, past his cottage," he said. "Happened to see him out in that skiff of his; and I stopped the car and watched. Sure enough, he lugged the pot up, keeping an eye out: and he took three lobsters out of it. One big one too."

Now a lobster pot is property, and when a lobster enters the pot, that lobster becomes property. It is, under the state law, a misdemeanor even to pull up a pot from the bottom. But Joe Drake was a fiery little man, with perhaps a touch of Portuguese somewhere in his ancestry; and it did not occur to him to appeal to the law. Instead, he confronted Will Townsend with his accusation, and Will denied it. Drake tried to thrash Will, and failed, uncomfortably. When the incident was finished, Will took the trouble to prove, by two witnesses, that he was not even at his cottage the afternoon before.

"I might have known Newt Bragg was lying," Joe said, when he was convinced. That night, he called Newt a liar to his face; but Newt grinned and insisted he had told the truth. Joe did not undertake to whip Newt. There were few men in East Harbor equipped for that task.

Old Asa Wells owned a farm on the road south of town, and in his pasture was located one of the best woodcock covers in the county. Asa was a choleric old man; nevertheless he had always permitted the gunners to search this cover, when the season was on. Till one day Newt, driving by, found him fixing his pasture fence, where it had been broken down; and Newt told him gunners from town had broken it. Asa, thereafter, posted his land; and every man in East Harbor who liked to sling a gun through his arm when the leaves were falling cursed Newt, root and branch, for that lie of his. His evil reputation began to be established.

When Annie May went away to college, she and her father chartered Newt's old car and Newt drove them twenty odd miles, to catch a train that simplified the trip to the city. Annie May was going to marry Chet Howes when she came home again; but Newt told Chet that she kissed another man good-by, at the train.

"Dunno who he was," Newt declared circumstantially. "One of them summer folks, down there. Had on white flannel pants and a blue coat. Her paw had gone in to get the ticket, and I was lugging her bag. Come around the corner just in time to see her kiss this young feller, twice. Then he skipped along before her paw come out."

Chet Howes had a sullen streak in him; and he wrote Annie May abusively, without naming his grievance. She answered with some spirit, and when she was through with college the next June, married one of her professors. Chet has not married. He found out, when the thing was done, that Newt had lied; for Annie May was with her father when he bought the ticket, and there was no man in flannel pants at all.

Most people, after a while, began to discount everything Newt said; but Mrs. Rand Smith was naturally suspicious. Rand took the boat for Boston one night on a business trip; and Newt next day told Mrs. Smith that he saw Jennie Hall go into Rand's stateroom.

"Outside stateroom, he had," Newt explained. "I was on the dock; and I see him go in, and shut the door. Little while after I happened to notice Jennie come along the deck and look around. She didn't see me; and she skipped inside, after him. Neither one of 'em come out before the boat sailed, either."

Jennie Hall was a girl who lived across the river; one of those girls who are anathema to middle-aged and fading wives. There may have been nothing wrong with Jennie, but vigorous-minded folk all thought there was. Mrs. Smith did not leave her husband; but his married life was not a happy one, thereafter. Little hidden taunts faced the patient Rand at the breakfast table and bit into the comfort of his day like acid. They were not easy to face, for it happened that Jennie Hall had actually gone to Boston on that boat; and it also happened that Rand Smith had an outside stateroom, while Jennie, the boat being crowded, had no cabin, at all. Rand could never prove the thing was not so.

There were years of this. Every so often, East Harbor expected Newt Bragg to tell some new lie about folks; and every so often he did. No one believed him; he knew no one believed him. He was not a fighting man, and when they called him a liar he merely grinned. Their opinion did not seem to distress him at all. He began to age a little, passed his fortieth year, lost his wife, lived a slovenly, bachelor existence. His decrepit old car was a familiar sight about the streets; and the man himself, big and broad of body, loomed large in it. He thrust himself into every gathering of other men, thrust his lies upon them; and they laughed at him, or ignored him or cursed him for a liar as their mood might be.

Charlie Dart was a young lawyer in East Harbor; a man of intelligence and wit, and with a capacity for winning friends. Politics attracted him. He had served on the city council, and served two terms as Mayor In this capacity he made some trouble for Newt Bragg by enforcing the ordinance that required ptublic automobiles to be licensed. Newt disliked most people, but after that, he hated Charlie Dart. When Charlie ran for the state legislature, Newt used his peculiar talent for mendacity in an effort to defeat him. But Charlie was elected, and Newt began to develop a sulkiness of tongue and manner which were new to him. He seemed to feel that East Harbor had affronted him by electing Dart.

One day in Charlie's second term, Newt had occasion to drive over to Augusta, some forty miles inland, with a passenger. He started back for East Harbor in the late afternoon, and four or five miles out of Augusta, he met a car, going toward town, in which he recognized Charlie Dart, and a woman. Newt's curiosity was aroused; and he turned and followed. Charlie left the main road, and sought the end of a street car line, where the woman alighted to wait for a car. Newt saw Charlie kiss her hand. Then Charlie drove away.

Newt wanted to find out who the woman was, so he drew nearer. She wore a veil, but when Charlie was gone, she lifted it, and Newt saw that she was Mary Stevens, wife of Ned Stevens of East Harbor. Newt did not speak to her; but he turned about and took up his homeward journey rather well pleased with himself. He got home late; the pitch game at the Master House had broken up, but Jim Swett, the hotel clerk, was there, and Newt was satisfied with this much of an audience. He had a tidbit that the town would relish, he was sure; for there had been talk, ever since Ned Stevens and Mary Thome were married. Ned was much older than his wife, and East Harbor said her mother had made her marry him. There had been a time when it was thought she would marry Charlie Dart.

When Newt came into the Hotel lobby, he said to the clerk: "Howdo, Jim."

Swett nodded. "Late, Newt," he commented. "What kept you?"

"Been to Augusta," Newt explained. "I seen. ." He was never one to wait for a cue; but Swett interrupted him, asking: "Ain't heard about Ned Stevens, then, have you?"

Newt stared a little at this coincidence. "What about him?" he demanded, and Jim Swett said: "That truck of his went through the draw in the old bridge to-day. Drowned him."

This was real news. "Drowned him?" he repeated. "Dead? By God, that's lucky for Charlie Dart."

The clerk looked st him curiously. "What for?" he asked. "What d'you mean?"

"I see Charlie and Mrs. Stevens, this side of Augusta, out a-riding in Charlie's car and carrying on," said Newt. "Figured I'd have to tell Ned. Ned'd rip Charlie up the back. Now he's gone and got drowned." He saw Jim Swett begin to grin, and in an angry way he demanded: "What are you laughing at?"

"You're the damndest liar I ever saw," Jim told him. "I ain't lying," Newt cried. "I'm telling the truth. Saw them in Charle's car, and saw them drive back to town. Saw Charlie kiss her good-by. On the hand." The clerk was unimpressed. "Shucks!" he commented. "Go on home. Them lies of yours. Can't you let a drowned man rest?"

Now there is no more poignant anguish for a liar than to be called a liar when he tells the truth. Newt had never encountered this experience before, because he seldom cared to tell what was merely true. In the face of Jim Swett's incredulity, he lost his head a little; waved his hands, repeated his story and amplified it. Finally stalked out in a rage, to seek a more credulous listener.

But every one was abed in East Harbor, and it was not till next morning that he had further opportunity to repeat his story. By that time, it had begun to grow. He did not consciously magnify his tale; he was one of those men who come to believe anything they say. He told folks, next morning, that he saw Charlie Dart kiss Mrs. Stevens; but he did not say that Charlie kissed her on the hand. He thought it sounded foolish for a man to kiss a woman's hand; and he wished the story to seem convincing.

No one believed him. As a matter of fact, there seemed to be proof that he lied; for upon her husband's death, a telephone message had been sent to Portland, where Mrs. Stevens was supposed to be staying for a day or two. The message was taken by a woman who said she was Mrs. Stevens. . . And the widow herself arrived in East Harbor next morning, by the first possible train.

But it was never necessary to prove Newt Bragg a liar; people took it for granted that when he spoke ill of others, he lied. At first there was a little indignation because he had obtruded his falsehood into the general grief for Ned Stevens' death; but people had difficulty in feeling honest anger at Newt. They despised him, spoke to him contemptuously. . . And laughed at his story.

He elaborated it, day by day, after the funeral; and about this time the man began to fly into queer, aimless fits of rage when people declined to believe him. To be called a liar made him violently indignant; and this was no mock indignation. You could see his cheeks twitch, his mouth tremble, his eyes grow hot. The man had never minded being called a liar, as long as he was one; but he could not bear disbelief when he was telling what passed with him for truth. Someone carried his tale to Mary Stevens; she merely asked: "Do you believe Newt Bragg?" And of course no one did. When Charlie Dart heard it, he laughed, made a gesture of helplessness with his open hands. "Well he's an old man," he said. Once Newt confronted him, loudly demanded that he admit or deny the story. "Ain't it so?" he cried passionately. "Ain't I telling what's so? Wasn't you out with Mary Stevens, that very day? Wasn't you, now?"

Charlie said quietly; "You're making a fool of yourself, old man."

And he maintained that attitude, and kept his temper, so that Newt had the worst of the encounter and went home, maundering under his breath. The thing was becoming an obsession with him.

Newt had hitherto been a man without friends; nevertheless he had always sought crowds, thrusting himself among them. Now he began to be a solitary. He could not meet a man without seeking to find a believer; the man's contemptuous scorn was more than he could bear. When he met this scorn on every hand, he withdrew, himself, and after a little time, he no longer sought opportunities to tell his story. But the more jocular men in town liked still to rouse him, and it became the fashion to ask Newt Bragg whether he had seen Charlie Dart kissing any one lately. They saw the question irked him; they tormented him with its repetition till he became a sullen, silent recluse, forever muttering beneath his breath.

The thing began to be forgotten. But about eighteen months after Ned Stevens' death, Mary Stevens and Charlie Dart were married. Everyone was glad of it; everyone liked Charlie, and liked the girl; and East Harbor had been sorry for her in her previous marriage.

But when he heard of this marriage, old Newt Bragg threw up his hands in a barbarous sort of triumph. He ran abroad, repeating his ancient, ugly tale. "Don't it prove it's so, now? Them marrying?" he challenged. "Didn't I tell you so, year ago last fall?"

Doubtless there were in East Harbor as elsewhere, old women here and there, old women of either sex, who had always had a sneaking belief in the story. But they were in the minority and they kept their beliefs to themselves. Publicly Newt's new outbreak was greeted with a contemptuous ridicule which made the old man furious. The blindness and the incredulity of the world maddened him. He rose early and stayed awake late, trying to find believers. He became a sort of Ancient Mariner, whose tongue could follow but a single outworn groove. It became the fashion to meet him gravely, to ask him about the tale, to make him repeat it in every detail; under this treatment, the story grew and grew. When East Harbor men went away for a week or a month, they would ask, upon their return: "How's Newt's yarn getting along? What's he saying now?"

About that time, a Congressional election came along, and Charlie Dart became a candidate. He won the nomination, equivalent to election in that year when the Republican tide was sweeping everywhere. Newt Bragg took this nomination as a further affront; the man could not sleep, could scarcely eat, for the bitterness of his hatred of Charlie. His lie by this time had grown to such proportions that people outside of East Harbor were beginning to hear of it. Friends of the man who was a candidate against Charlie began to investigate. They came to Newt; and he told them what by this time he believed he had seen. They were incredulous; their investigations of his reputation did not increase their credulity. One of them took the pains to tell Newt he was a rotten old scoundrel. "If I were Dart, I'd send you to jail," he said.

Newt flew into such a tremulous and frenzied rage that the man amended his remark. "Or put you in an asylum," he said. "That's where you belong. You're crazy as a coot, old man."

Newt was frightened by that; frightened into silence. And from that day, he became less given to speech. When Charlie Dart was elected, he took to his bed; and for more than a week lay unattended save by the physician whom he called, and who came twice to his miserable quarters. He aged considerably, during his illness; and when he began to go abroad once more, he was become an old man.

He is an old man now; a wander-witted man with a grudge against the world, and never a friend to take his part. A thick, nervous, jerky man with a quirking mouth and aimless eyes. His rages are less violent; there is something plaintive about him. Sometimes when people speak the name of Charlie Dart to him now, he only shakes his heavy head. "Ain't no use my telling you. Folks think I'm always lying. Ain't nobody that believes a thing I say." There is no more poignant anguish for a liar than to be called a liar when he tells the truth. This anguish has broken Newt Bragg, in body and in mind. By and by, he will die, in the single squalid room that is his home; and East Harbor will have to seek out a new butt for its jests.

Sometimes kindly folk think Newt deserves pity; think he has been punished over heavily for his sins. Charlie Dart and Mary Stevens and the Reverend Mr. Walters are the only ones who know the whole story. Charlie told the minister the truth, the harmless truth, before he and Mary were married. The preacher is a thoughtful man; he sees in the whole incident the working of a great Law. You remember his text, in that sermon he preached about Newt.

"There are six things which Jehovah hateth; yea seven which are an abomination unto him."

Newt Bragg is the sixth of these things.


THE END

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