“Prevarication Jones” by Leonard Wibberley

This time, his tall tales could cost him a lifelong job.

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Leonard Patrick O’Connor Wibberley (1915-1983) was the Irish-born author of more than 100 books under his name and three pen names — Patrick O’Connor, Leonard Holton, and Christopher Webb — as well as numerous short stories, several published in the Post. His most famous work, The Mouse That Roared, originally appeared in 1954 as a six-part serial in The Saturday Evening Post under the title “The Day New York Was Invaded.”

Originally published on June 2, 1962

 

Everybody who knew him — and that included all the settlers along the Monongahela and a fair number farther west on the Ohio — agreed that he was the biggest tarnation liar west of the Alle­ghenies. They made this remark judiciously, aware that there was a lot of territory west of the Alleghenies and that in the year 1784 this territory included some of the most beautiful liars ever produced by a young, vigorous, and imaginative nation. Even his name attested to his reputation, for he was called Prevarication Jones.

“The Prevarication part is true,” the boy’s father said. “But as to Jones — why, I reckon that must be a lie like everything else, and his true name is likely Robinson or Williams or something like that.” And then he gave a deep chuckle, a kind of hen’s clucking as it were, in amusement at a man so talented in lying that people couldn’t even bring themselves to believe that his name was what he said it was.

Prevarication Jones made three and sometimes four trips a year to the settlements along the Monongahela. His headquarters — or what he said was his headquarters — was Philadelphia. He was a packman, and on each trip, he brought with him, besides his own mount, two packhorses whose saddles were laden with the kind of goods the settlers liked to buy. For the men he had English axheads and tenpenny nails and hammerheads and belt buckles — mostly of horn, but one or two special ones of hard iron. Also lead and bullet molds and springs with which to repair the cocking mechanism of their rifles. Sometimes, on special order, he would bring a rifle with him. But mostly he carried an assortment of parts from an assortment of rifles that his ­customers would paw through, looking maybe for a pan or a hammer or a spring or some such thing that would fit their own weapons.

For the women, Prevarication Jones brought mostly soap. To be sure, the women of the settlement — five families, including the boy’s — could make soap of their own with fat and lye. It was good soap, but rough, and burned their hands if they got too much lye in it. But Prevarication Jones brought them special soap — Windsor soap, it was called. It was in nice little oval cakes and looked pretty, pink and yellow and white. And it was scented soap, smelling of roses or violets or some other flower.

All the women bought one or two cakes of the Windsor soap — “Made to the King’s own formula,” Prevarication Jones would say, as solemn as a parson at his psalms. They kept the cakes of Windsor soap on a high shelf in their kitchens and used it sparingly. The boy sometimes got a stool and reached up for his mother’s cake of soap and sniffed at the fragrance in pleasure. He particularly liked to do this in the winter — to get the smell of roses when all around was deep in snow. That was a kind of miracle. Prevarication Jones was the man who made it possible, and the boy adored him.

Prevarication Jones traveled alone all the way from Philadelphia. The Indians weren’t much trouble anymore — not like they had been 20 years ago. And in any case he was a veteran not only of the frontier but also of the Revolutionary War and feared, as he put it, “neither man nor beast, savage or tame, but only God Himself.” And then he would add with a shy smile, “And Him and me been friends for many a year.”

The settlement in which the boy lived was on the right bank of the Monongahela, on a bluff overlooking the river. It was called Platts Landing, and the boy’s father, Ephraim Platt, had built the first loghouse there. That was 15 years or so before, and though Ephraim Platt was not conscious of this, he was a part of the westward movement of the American people that followed the Revolutionary War and would spill over the Ohio and on into the territories even beyond the Mississippi until the time would come when there would be Americans living all across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Others had come after Ephraim — the Blacks, from New Jersey, two years after; the Sawyers from Northeastern Pennsylvania a few months after the Blacks, and then the Pols and the Wainwrights. They all looked to Ephraim Platt as the oldest settler, and it was at his loghouse — there was a wall of stakes around it in case of Indian attack — that they met for social occasions.

In the settlement there were eight children of schooling age and five babies, and Mrs. Platt was of the opinion that the time had come to start a school. She was a very quiet woman and small, with hair so fair that, though there were several gray strands in it, they didn’t show. Her hands were small and her feet were small, and she always looked neat, even when she had on the old black work dress that she wore while about her chores.

“We’ve got to have a schoolhouse, Mr. Platt,” she said one evening to her husband as they sat down to their supper. “There’s eight children in this settlement should be at school this very day.”

“Then let their mothers teach them,” said her husband. “Boy, pass the salt dish. Deer meat can stand a lot of salt, Mrs. Platt. Beef comes salty, being cured. But deer meat is fresh and must be salted if a man is to get any strength from it.”

He reached out a big arm, and the boy passed the enameled bowl with the salt to his father. There was a Bible in their house and a picture in it of John the Baptist. Under the picture were the words A VOICE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS. The picture showed a big man with long hair and a huge black beard that came to the middle of his chest. It looked very much like the boy’s father, and he sometimes thought of his father as John the Baptist; a voice crying in the wilderness. Crying about what? Crying about America. Some message about America and how the people must come and settle the land and make the nation bigger.

“That first little loghouse that we built, Mr. Platt,” said the boy’s mother, “would make a tolerable schoolhouse for now. Later we will want something bigger.”

“That whole tale of yours about Bunker Hill is a lie, and you know it. You weren’t there and neither was George Washington.”

“So it would,” said Mr. Platt. “So it would. It would indeed. There is no doubt about it.” When he sensed that he was being driven into a corner by his wife, Mr. Platt, for all his big size, capitulated without any fight at all. He agreed, as it were, with an overabundance of concord, asserting in several different ways that what she said was absolutely right. Sometimes he found that by these tactics his wife would become uncertain and retreat from her position, and the matter would be dropped. But this was not such an occasion.

“Good,” said Mrs. Platt. “Then that is settled.”

“So it is,” said Mr. Platt. “So it is. Except for a few details. As, item: what about slates to write on? And what about books to learn out of — spellers and such like? And what about benches to sit on? And what about someone to teach school?”

“We can get spellers and slates from Prevarication Jones,” said Mrs. Platt.

“And who’s to hold school?” asked Mr. Platt. “Not the men. They’re busy in the fields. Nor the women, for they’re busy in the fields too. Or with washing or mending clothes or making soap or cooking meals or caring for the babies. So who’s to teach school? Answer me that, Mrs. Platt.”

But it was the boy who answered. He didn’t mean to answer. It just popped right out of him. And what he said was, “Prevarication Jones.”

The boy’s father had a gobbet of deer meat on his hunting knife halfway to his mouth when the boy said “Prevarication Jones.” The knife remained in mid-passage, and Mr. Platt’s mouth, the lips showing pink through his black beard, remained open, frozen for a second in surprise.

“Prevarication Jones!” he roared, when he had recovered. “There’s a fine schoolmaster for you. The biggest tarnation liar west of the Alleghenies. Why, he’d stuff their young heads with nonsense until they couldn’t tell black from white.”

Mrs. Platt exchanged a quick look with her son. She saw that his eyes were brighter than they should be and his face pale with anxiety.

The boy lowered his head quickly and said, “I don’t think he’s a liar. Not on important things.” He didn’t say this very loud. He was talking to himself really, assuring himself that this was so. But his father heard him.

“Not really a liar, eh,” he said. “Not on the important things, huh? Well, I can tell you everything he says is a lie, and what is particularly a lie is that story of his about the Battle of Bunker Hill. I know that’s a lie, and if he had any regard for his reputation, he would leave that one out when he’s spinning his tales.”

“You enjoy the tale yourself, Mr. Platt,” said his wife.

“Ah, so I do,” replied her husband. “And that other one about being with John Paul Jones on the Bonhomme Richard. Enjoy them very much. But they’re both lies, like everything he says.

“Now I’ll tell you what. If Prevarication Jones will just admit to that tale of Bunker Hill being a lie, there might be some hope for him as a schoolmaster. But otherwise, no.”

“Admit it or prove that it is true,” said Mrs. Platt, looking at the boy. For answer, Mr. Platt snorted and left the table.

Prevarication Jones visited the settlement two weeks later. That was at the end of June. He had his usual assortment of goods, not forgetting the scented soap for the women. And for Mrs. Platt he had brought a little silk bag full of lavender seeds.

“I mentioned your name to my friend Mr. Franklin — Benjamin, that is,” he said. “And he asked me particularly to bring this to you. The great ladies of France wear them sewn in their dresses, and he had it from the Countess of Vercennes. He would take it as a favor if you would accept it from him, though a stranger.”

Mrs. Platt was all blushes as she took the little silken sack of lavender and sniffed it and then handed it to all the other women, who exclaimed over it with gasps of pleasure. The men stood around grinning. They liked Prevarication Jones. There was no harm in him at all, and the little gifts he brought for the women gave them the kind of pleasure that they, in the rough frontier life, could not provide and indeed did not even think of. That lavender bag, for instance. It was certain that Benjamin Franklin had never seen it. But it was a pretty woman’s thing, and long after the last fragrance had gone, Mrs. Platt would treasure it and might even come to believe that once it had been worn by one of the great ladies of France. So she would have a tiny link, even if it were imaginary, with Paris and the great, exciting world beyond the mountains.

When he had made the initial sales from his pack and given all the women some little trinket — always with a sort of footnote that it had once belonged to some great man or woman — Prevarication Jones was brought into the Platt house and given a meal of breast of venison with corn stuffing and potatoes and a special gravy that he pronounced superior to the best to be had anywhere.

And then, for this was always the custom during his visits, the whole settlement gathered in the Platt loghouse, and listened while Prevarication Jones told story after story. Some of the tales his audience had heard before, but nonetheless they delighted in them. There was the tale of the Maumee Indian chief he had met and whose life he had saved.

“He gave me,” said Prevarication Jones, “this stone here. It is a bluish stone as you can see, and it has this curious property, that laid between any wound and the heart, it will instantly combat any malignancy and speed the healing of the wound in a miraculous manner.”

The stone was passed from hand to hand, the children holding it the longest, their eyes big with wonder. One little girl put it on her doll, from which the foot was broken off. Seeing this, Prevarication Jones exchanged a barely perceptible nod with her mother, and the boy knew what that meant. Prevarication Jones would provide a new foot for the doll during the night when the girl was asleep.

Then he told the story of the eagle that had carried away a sleeping child in the Hampshire Grants and how by using a bullroarer — that is, a long string with a weight on the end, whirled above the head to produce a deep hum — he had charmed the eagle to the ground and returned the infant unhurt to its mother

It was Ephraim Platt who, not without a measure of vindictiveness, prompted him to tell the story of Bunker Hill.

“June 17, 1775,” said Prevarication Jones, for this was the way he always commenced his account. “And as nice a day as a man could expect in that part of the world. I particularly recall the grasshoppers singing in the long grass before our works. The grass came up the flanks of the hill toward our works. It was pale gold and should have been cut for hay, but had been left until the summer was a little further advanced. It was to be cut that day, though — not by scythes, but by bullets. The British lined the foot of the hill at the shore, and some of their war vessels had been bombarding us all morning. Now you’ll say it’s strange that over cannon shot I could hear the grasshoppers singing. And yet I could, and thought it strange myself. Most of the shot was spent when it reached us and rolled along the ground like bowling balls — 18-pounders they were.

“We’d been all night putting up the defenses. Mostly we dug a ditch and threw the earth in front in barrels and sacks and suchlike containers, and were thirsty about noon. Two boys went back over the peninsula, but all they could bring for us to drink was rum, and heady stuff it was too.

“About noon, I would say, the British were ready. There were three lines of them at the foot of the hill — three red lines as straight as pokers. I remember an English officer’s voice saying something quite sharp, though I couldn’t catch the words. Then there was another voice, and the words came to us clear, for the cannon fire had died down. They were, ‘The infantry will advance on the enemy’s works.’ It gave me quite a turn, hearing that quiet voice coming up the hill and realizing that we were the enemy. Three meadowlarks rose up in the air right then out of the long, pale-gold grass, and I thought it might be a sign of some kind. I turned around because it frightened me to see those redcoats come on in such fine formation and saw Gen. Washington standing right behind me.

“‘Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes,’ he said, and I can tell you that those words steadied every mother’s son of us. …”

So the tale went on, very vividly told, of the repulse of the first assault and then the second assault and then the lack of powder and men giving a ragged volley and doing what they could with spades and mattocks against the English bayonets. Not a word was uttered by the ­audience during the telling, and at the end there was a stirring, like a sigh of content and pride that the challenge had been met. The men had stood and America had been born that day.

Even Ephraim Platt was moved and, watching his son’s solemn face, his small jaw set tight and his lips pulled into a thin line, he was glad that he had not interrupted, as he had planned, and pointed out that he knew for a fact that George Washington had never been present at Bunker Hill and Prevarication Jones neither and so the whole thing was suspect.

But, moved as he was, he still was determined that the man wouldn’t do as a schoolmaster. His wife might be set on it and the boy might want it, but a schoolmaster had to know the truth from a lie. And Prevarication Jones didn’t.

Ephraim Platt, though a man of sentiment, was also a man of purpose. And when the audience had gone and the boy had gone to bed, he confronted Jones before the dying fire.

“Mr. Jones,” he said, “that whole tale of yours about Bunker Hill is a thundering lie, and you know it. You weren’t there and neither was George Washington. He didn’t take command of the Continental Army until after the battle had been fought.

“Now,” he continued, “there’s some thought of starting a school here, and Mrs. Platt has you in mind for a schoolmaster. You are an educated man, I have no doubt. But you’ll understand that we can’t have a schoolmaster who is a tarnation liar. If you’ll admit to me, man to man — just me, mind you — that that story of Bunker Hill is nothing but lies, since you weren’t there nor George Washington neither, then you can settle here and teach school, and the community will support you. Otherwise it’s a packman’s life for you to the end of your days. And you are not getting any younger.”

“Mr. Platt,” said Prevarication Jones, “I regret that you take that view of my tale. And now, sir, I am weary and would like to sleep.”

The boy watched him for a while as Prevarication Jones lay on the two benches which served him as a bed before the fire. He did look old. What happened to packmen when they were old? the boy wondered. Who took care of them? It became all the more important that Prevarication Jones become the schoolmaster in the settlement. But he would never admit that George Washington had not spoken to him at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Maybe it wasn’t true, but Prevarication Jones, the boy sensed, would never admit it. And then maybe it was true. There was only one man who could say so, one way or another — a man who had a reputation for never telling a lie.

The boy went over to his mother’s bed. She woke, as she always did, as soon as he stood beside her. He bent over and whispered something in her ear so as not to disturb his father, and she got quietly out of bed after only a slight demur and, taking a sheet of paper and a pen, started to write at the kitchen table.

Prevarication Jones left early the following morning, announcing that he would likely be back in September, and all summer long the boy kept thinking about him. The school was opened in the settlement, and the women took turns at teaching, but it was not really satisfactory because, although they could teach ciphering and arithmetic and reading, they knew little of history or geography or other subjects. And sometimes they were too busy to teach, and there was no school. Even Ephraim Platt agreed that it was not a satisfactory arrangement.

In September he will be back, the boy told himself all summer long. And then my father will see that he should stay here and teach school — even if he is the biggest tarnation liar west of the Alleghenies.

Prevarication Jones did come back in September, but a little later than usual, and it was plain that he was not well. The journey had tired him, he said, and he talked about mountain sickness and said he knew of a particular root shown him by an African when he was on the Barbary Coast that would cure him. It grew hereabouts as well as in Africa. He must first rest and then find the root and all would be well.

“It’s your fault, Mr. Platt,” said his wife, when she got him by himself. “You’ve taken the heart out of him. He’s not telling his tales the way he did. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“What? For telling him he’s a liar?” said her husband.

“No gentleman would do such a thing,” replied his wife.

“A liar’s a liar,” said Mr. Platt.

“And a gentleman is a gentleman and wouldn’t say so,” said his wife in unaccustomed rebellion.

Prevarication Jones stayed a week, but grew weaker rather than stronger. To be sure, the women brought him broths and soothing drinks and fussed over him and made the children play away from the Platt house so he could get some rest. But, as Mrs. Platt had said, his illness was of the spirit, and without the spirit the body could do little.

Finally one day Mr. Platt took his son aside. “Boy,” he said, “do you write well?”

“Yes,” said the boy.

“I mean ciphering, not printing. I can print myself.”

“I cipher well if I have the good quill,” said the boy. “The one Mr. Jones brought from Philadelphia. The one that was used by Mr. Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence.”

The father flushed and was about to say something about tarnation lies, but checked himself. “All right,” he said. “Get it and some paper and some sealing wax and bring it over to the schoolhouse. I have a letter for you to put down as neat as you can. Say nothing about it to anybody.”

The boy did as he was told, and the letter was written.

That night the neighbors assembled again in the Platt house, as was their custom. Prevarication Jones was there in the chair that was reserved for him, but nobody expected him to tell any stories because he was feeling so poorly. To thank them, he tried, but every time his eyes met those of Mr. Platt, he failed and the spirit went out of his tale. In telling the story of the Indian chief and the wonderful blue stone, he did not even bother to produce the stone, such was his lack of animation.

“I have an apology to make in your presence to Prevarication Jones,” said Mr. Platt, blushing but resolute, when this particular tale was done.

“I had accused him privately when he was last here of lying about the Battle of Bunker Hill. I told him that George Washington was not there at that battle, and so his whole story was a lie. But I have got a letter brought down the river that shows he was right and I was wrong. Boy, give me that letter.”

The boy reached for the letter his father had dictated to him and about which he had been told to say nothing, but to be ready to produce it. But, even while he was fumbling in his pocket, Mrs. Platt was on her feet. Blushing slightly, she herself produced a letter — a letter with a big wax seal on the cover and addressed in a florid and forceful handwriting.

“I think this is the letter you want, Mr. Platt,” she said in her small but determined voice. “It came by the keelboat yesterday.”

Much disconcerted, Mr. Platt took it from her, turned it over a couple of times, opened it, glanced at the signature at the bottom, and started reading. It went:

Madam: I trust you will forgive the delay in replying to your letter about one Prevarication Jones and his part and mine in the Battle of Bunker Hill. I have read with interest your story of his account and have been deeply moved by it.

The Continental Army was made up of many men such as Prevarication Jones. It was they, rather than I, who saw the Revolution through to success. It is their tale, quite as much as mine, that should be given credence by their fellows in the recounting of the many battles they fought against appalling odds. Let me say that I am indebted to Mr. Jones for making me the hero of his tale, and let me add also, Madam, that I could not, with honor, quarrel with a word of it.

Your Obedient Servant,

George Washington.

There was a deep silence when Mr. Platt had finished reading this letter. All eyes were on Prevarication Jones, who was working his mouth and who raised his sleeve for a moment and brushed it fiercely against his cheek.

“I trust, Mr. Jones,” said the boy’s father, “that you will forgive me for my doubts and stay here with us in Platts Landing and school the youngsters. We’d be proud to have you, if you are so minded.”

Prevarication Jones looked straight at Mr. Platt and then reached a trembling hand out for the letter. He read it through in silence himself and put it carefully inside his deerskin tunic.

“June 17, 1775,” he said suddenly and fiercely, and launched again into the tale of the Battle of Bunker Hill, told with all his old vigor.

He’ll be our schoolmaster then, said the boy to himself.

And suddenly he was filled with a great surge of love not only for Prevarication Jones but also for his father and for another fine gentleman and soldier who lived hundreds of miles away, whose honor was beyond question, who had stood by his friend, and whose name was George Washington.

For more about Leonard Wibberley and his work, visit leonardwibberley.wixsite.com/author.

This story is featured in the May/June 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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