The Woman who Told the Truth

There was once (said Reginald) a woman who told the truth.

Not all at once, of course, but the habit grew upon her

gradually, like lichen on an apparently healthy tree. She

had no children—otherwise it might have been different.

It began with little things, for no particular reason except

that her life was a rather empty one, and it is so easy to

slip into the habit of telling the truth in little matters.

And then it became difficult to draw the line at more

important things, until at last she took to telling the

truth about her age; she said she was forty-two and five

months—by that time, you see, she was veracious even to

months. It may have been pleasing to the angels, but her

elder sister was not gratified. On the Woman’s birthday,

instead of the opera-tickets which she had hoped for, her

sister gave her a view of Jerusalem from the Mount of

Olives, which is not quite the same thing. The revenge of

an elder sister may be long in coming, but, like a

South-Eastern express, it arrives in its own good time.

The friends of the Woman tried to dissuade her from

over-indulgence in the practice, but she said she was wedded

to the truth; whereupon it was remarked that it was scarcely

logical to be so much together in public. (No really

provident woman lunches regularly with her husband if she

wishes to burst upon him as a revelation at dinner. He must

have time to forget; an afternoon is not enough.) And after

a while her friends began to thin out in patches. Her

passion for the truth was not compatible with a large

visiting-list. For instance, she told Miriam Klopstock

exactly how she looked at the Ilexes’ ball. Certainly

Miriam had asked for her candid opinion, but the Woman

prayed in church every Sunday for peace in our time, and it

was not consistent.

It was unfortunate, every one agreed, that she had no

family; with a child or two in the house, there is an

unconscious check upon too free an indulgence in the truth.

Children are given us to discourage our better emotions.

That is why the stage, with all its efforts, can never be as

artificial as life; even in an Ibsen drama one must reveal

to the audience things that one would suppress before the

children or servants.

Fate may have ordained the truth-telling from the

commencement and should justly bear some of the blame; but

in having no children the Woman was guilty, at least, of

contributory negligence.

Little by little she felt she was becoming a slave to what

had once been merely an idle propensity; and one day she

knew. Every woman tells ninety per cent of the truth to her

dressmaker; the other ten per cent is the irreducible

minimum of deception beyond which no self-respecting client

trespasses. Madame Draga’s establishment was a

meeting-ground for naked truths and overdressed fictions,

and it was here, the Woman felt, that she might make a final

effort to recall the artless mendacity of past days. Madame

herself was in an inspiring mood, with the air of a sphinx

who knew all things and preferred to forget most of them.

As a War Minister she might have been celebrated, but she

was content to be merely rich.

“If I take it in here, and—Miss Howard, one moment, if

you please—and there, and round like this—so—I really

think you will find it quite easy.”

The Woman hesitated; it seemed to require such a small

effort to simply acquiesce in Madame’s views. But habit had

become too strong. “I’m afraid,” she faltered, “it’s

just the least little bit in the world too—”

And by that least little bit she measured the deeps and

eternities of her thraldom to fact. Madame was not best

pleased at being contradicted on a professional matter, and

when Madame lost her temper you usually found it afterwards

in the bill.

And at last the dreadful thing came, as the Woman had

foreseen all along that it must; it was one of those paltry

little truths with which she harried her waking hours. On a

raw Wednesday morning, in a few ill-chosen words, she told

the cook that she drank. She remembered the scene

afterwards as vividly as though it had been painted in her

mind by Abbey. The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and

as cooks go she went.

Miriam Klopstock came to lunch the next day. Women and

elephants never forget an injury.