You never really know anybody–until you have either lived with them, travelled with them, or drunk a glass of port with them quietly over the fireside. In almost every other instance, what you become acquainted with is one of a variety of masks! And everyone has a fine assortment of these, haven’t they? For the most part you don them unconsciously–or rather, you have got so used to assuming them suddenly that you have lost all consciousness of effort. But they are masks, nevertheless–and a mask always hides the truth, doesn’t it? Not that I am one of those, however, who dislike camouflage because it is camouflage. In fact, most of the time I thank Heaven for it–my own and other people’s! The “assumed” is so often so much more agreeable than the natural, and nine times out of ten all you require of men and women is that they should at least look pleasant. You’ve got to get through this life day after day somehow, and time passes ever so much quicker for everyone if the hypocrite be a smiling hypocrite at all times. At every moment of the everyday–preserve me from the sour-visaged saint.
After all, only love and friendship and the law demand the truth and nothing but the truth. Among acquaintances, among all the many thousands you meet through life only to discuss the weather and your own influenza symptoms–all you ask of them is that they should bring out their smiling mask as readily as you struggle to assume your own. Only, as I said before, in love and friendship and the courts of law is the mask an insult, a tragic disillusion and a sham. In every other circumstance it is usually a blessing. Without it society, as a social entertainment, would become impossible. For society is but a collection of men and women wearing masks, each one vying with the others to make his mask the most attractive, and, at the same time, the most concealing. But the worst of wearing masks is, that we become tired at last of holding them in front of our features. This makes the entertainment of watching the truth peering through the camouflage one of the most amusing among the many unpremeditated amusements of the social world. After all, as I said before, so long as your lover and your friend, and the witnesses you have subpoenaed on behalf of your own case, show you truth–all you ask of the others is the most agreeable mask they can put on for the occasion. But even lovers and friends may deceive you, while some witnesses’ idea of the truth in the law courts hasn’t that semblance of reality possessed by the Medium’s description of life in the world beyond. That is what makes matrimony often such a gamble with loaded dice, and holidays so often more tedious than work. To be in the company of one’s lover for one ecstatic hour tells one nothing of what he will be when, day after day, one has to live with him in deadly intimacy until death doth part us both.
Neither do you really know how much, or how little, your friend means to you, until you have been with her on a cold railway station for hours, when fate has done its best to make you both lose your tempers and your luggage. Only a very real love can survive smiling through that period when, from almost maudlin appreciation, a husband gradually sinks into the commonplace mood of taking his soul’s mate “for granted.” Only real friendship can live through the disillusionment of irritable temper, lack of imagination, and boredom so often revealed while travelling in the company of friends. More than half the mutual life of lovers and friends is spent behind masks–for masks are sometimes necessary to keep love and friendship great and true. But one must, nevertheless, know something of the real man and woman behind the mask–even though that which lies behind it may prove disappointing–before you can prove that your love is real love, that your friendship is real friendship, that you love your lover or your friend, not only for what they are, but also in spite of what they are not.