False Faces

LAST week N. and I had to go to a dinner. We had tried every device honest and dishonest to escape it, but none would serve. Our hostess was kind, our obligation considerable; we must needs bow to the inevitable, since we had not the courage to announce in plain English, ‘Your dinner may go to Ballyhack for all us. Leave us alone.’

N. had a bad day at the office and came home later, and weary. He found me, like the dutiful spouse I sometimes try to be, fidgeting the studs into his shiny shirt, to save him at least one imprecation.

'This white waistcoat is all clean and ready, too,’ I consoled him, ‘ but do tell me what this queer thing is that I found in the pocket.’

He was shaving, and cocked one eye at me across the puffy lather.

'Oh, that ?' he said out of the corner of his mouth. ‘Have n’t you ever seen that before? That’s my false face.’

I held it up to the light. It was a slimsy thing that clung to my fingers. It resembled nothing so much as the spiritual remains of a child’s balloon, done in transparent flesh-color.

'Your false face?’ I repeated, as N. emerged radiant, though angry, from his ritual scraping.

'Certainly. Did n’t you know it always went to dinners with me? Just see here.’

He appeared to hold the thing up to his face, and with a deft twist of the fingers to fasten invisible loops over his ears. I stared at him, fascinated. Unmistakably he had changed his face. His eyes were just as black, his nose just as straight, his jaw just as firm; but I saw plainly that this was not the N. who rode and skated and worked and played with me all the easy days, or worried and planned and helped, all the hard ones. It was an N. I hardly knew, with a patient, polite, bored smile spoiling the good lines around his mouth, and a kind of blank simulated intelligence in the eyes that knew how to laugh and darken so readily.

‘Take it off quick!’ I cried. ‘It’s horrid. It blurs you all out. It’s worse than blacking up for a minstrel-show.

I never would have married you if you 'd looked like that. Please take it off.’

He twitched the invisible ear-loops and tucked the horrid polite false face back into its convenient pocket. ‘Naturally,’ he said, ‘ that’s what false faces are for. To blur people all out. To make them all look just alike. To choke out their individuality,’ he continued fiercely. ‘ But you wear one, too. You 've got one stuffed up your sleeve or inside your glove or somewhere every time you go to a dinner or a tea or a reception. Only women wear their false faces more naturally and gracefully than men, and maybe you don't always know when you've got yours on. It seems to be rather more part of the game with you than with us, and it ’s like this new style of purple wigs with purple gowns: your face belongs so nicely with your diamonds and spangles and chiffon that people hardly notice.

‘But confound it all,’ he concluded as he tied his cravat with a jerk, ‘why need they make us wear ’em? To go out when you want to stay at home; to eat a lot when you’d rather eat a little; to pretend you’re tickled to death when you’re bored to death; to look like asses and chatter like parrots; and never to say or hear a true word for three hours straight, confound it !’

I observed N. with great care that evening; and every time I glanced across the gleaming, flower-laden table at his patient, deferentially bowed head, and heard his patient, would-be-amused laughter, I thought of the little loops that held his false face on by the ears, and my hand stole up involuntarily to my own face. Yes, without doubt I was wearing one too: I could feel it stretch and squeak a little as I smiled, and my ears and chin felt tight, somehow, as if the elastic cord of my childish Sunday hats were digging into them.

‘Thank God, that’s done!’ said N. devoutly, as we stepped at last into the fresh bare starry night. ‘Take them off.’ He shook his fingers as one does to snap off a persistent cobweb. ' Now I can breathe again.’ Under the arclight his face showed once more fierce and humorous and swift to change.

‘I suppose,’ I said, ‘that everybody else there had one on too?’

‘ Yes, of course. Only some of them like it. Lots of them breathe better behind their false faces. They feel undressed without them. Lots of them have n’t any real faces to show: just a dreadful white smudge. But great Scott!’ he exploded again, ‘why need they make us wear them? — I feel as if I’d been eating sawdust and talking hot air and hearing a vacuum-cleaner gossip with an electric fan. Come home quick. This collar’s guillotining me.’

As I hung my gown in the closet, something slid from under the sleeveruffle. It clung to my fingers, and I saw that it was my own little thin, delicate false face. But I did not examine it. I tucked it back, ready for the next occasion, among the lace and beads. N.’s was safe in his pocket.

‘False faces!’ I meditated. ‘And all of us doing all kinds of solemn or ridiculous things behind them. — Some day,’ I said aloud, ‘let’s go to a party without ours on.’

‘All right.’ N. responded. ‘And then that would be the last party we’d ever be asked to. That’s a good scheme.’

But he knows as well as I that only geniuses, fools, and children, may go unprotected into the Society that eats and talks for the sake of talking and eating; and that we, being none of the favored, will never dare to risk ourselves in spangles and glossy shirts without our faithful old false faces.