Chapter 6 Mrs. Smedley's Tale

It is strange how a moral weakness in her child gives a mother the same sense of yearning pity that she has for a bad bodily infirmity. I wonder if that is how God feels for us when we go on year by year doing the thing we hate? I think a mother gets to understand many things about the dealings of God that are not plain to others. For instance, how it helps me to say, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins," when I think of my poor little Fanny's ugly fault. Though there is some return of it nearly every day, what could I do but forgive?

But forgiveness that does not heal is like the wretched ointments with which poor people dress their wounds. In one thing I know I have not done well; I have hardly said a word to John about the poor little girl's failing, though it has troubled me constantly for nearly a year. But I think he suspects there is something wrong; we never talk quite freely about our shy, pretty Fanny. Perhaps that is one reason for it. She is such a nervous, timid little being, and looks so bewitching when the long lashes droop, the tender mouth quivers, and the colour comes and goes in her soft cheek, that we are shy of exposing, even to each other, the faults we see in our graceful, fragile little girl. Perhaps neither of us quite trusts the other to deal with Fanny and to use the knife sparingly.

But this state of things must not go on: it is a miserable thing to write down, but I cannot believe a word the child says! And the evil is increasing. Only now and then used Fanny to be detected in what we called a fib, but now the doubt lest that little mouth may be at any moment uttering a lie takes the delight out of life, and accounts for the pale looks which give my husband much concern.

For example, only within the last day or two I have noticed the following and other such examples:––

"Fanny, did you remember to give my message to cook?"

"Yes, mother."

"And what did she say?"

"That she wouldn't be able to make any jam to-day, because the fruit had not come."

I went into the kitchen shortly after, and found cook stirring the contents of a brass pan, and, sad to say, I asked no questions. It was one of Fanny's circumstantial statements of the kind I have had most reason to doubt. Did she lie because she was afraid to own that she had forgotten? Hardly so: knowing the child's sensitive nature, we have always been careful not to visit her small misdemeanours with any punishment whenever she "owned up." And then, cowardice would hardly cause her to invent so reasonable an answer for cook. Again––

"Did you meet Mrs. Fleming's children?"

"Oh Yes, mother! and Berty was so rude! He pushed Dotty off the curb-stone!" Nurse, who was sitting by the fire with baby, raised her eyebrows in surprise, and I saw the whole thing was an invention. Another more extraordinary instance:––

"Mother, when we were in the park we met Miss Butler, just by the fountain, you know; and she kissed me, and asked me how my mother was";––said apropos of nothing, in the most quiet, easy way. I met Miss Butler this morning, and thanked her for the kind inquiries she had been making through my little girl; and––"Do you think Fanny grown?"

Miss Butler looked perplexed; Fanny was a great favourite of hers, perhaps because of the loveliness of which her parents cannot pretend to be unaware.

"It is more than a month since I have seen the little maid, but I shall look in soon, and gladden her mother's heart with all the praises my sweet Fan deserves!"

Little she knew that shame, and not pride, dyed my cheek; but I could not disclose my Fanny's sad secret to even so near a friend.

But to talk it out with John is a different matter. He ought to know. There had I been thinking for months in a desultory kind of way as to the why and wherefore of this ingrained want of truthfulness in the child, and yet I was no nearer the solution, when a new departure in the way of lying made me at last break the ice with John; indeed, this was the only subject about which we had ever had reserves.

"Mother, Hugh was so naughty at lessons this morning! He went close up to Miss Clare while she was writing, nudged her elbow on purpose, and made her spill the ink all over the table-cloth." I chanced to meet Miss Clare in the hall, and remarked that I heard she had found Hugh troublesome this morning.

"Troublesome? Not at all; he was quite industrious and obedient."

I said nothing about the ink, but went straight to the schoolroom, to find the table neat, as Miss Clare always leaves it, and no sign of even a fresh ink-spot. What possessed the child? This inveterate and inventive untruthfulness was like a form of mania. I sat in dismay for an hour or more, not thinking, but stunned by this new idea––that the child was not responsible for her words; and yet, could it be so? Not one of our children was so merry at play, so intelligent at lessons. Well, I would talk it over with her father without the loss of another day.

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"John, I am miserable about Fanny. Do you know the child tells fibs constantly?"

"Call them lies; an ugly thing deserves an ugly name. What sort of lies? What tempts her to lie?"

John did not seem surprised. Perhaps he knew more of this misery than I supposed.

"That's the thing! Her fi–– lies are so uncalled for, so unreasonable, that I do not know how to trust her."

"Unreasonable? You mean her tales don't hang together; that's a common case with liars. You know the saying––"Liars should have good memories'?"

"Don't call the poor child a liar, John; I believe she is more to be pitied than blamed. What I mean is, you can't find rhyme or reason for the lies she tells." And I gave my husband a few instances like those I have written above.

"Very extraordinary! There's a hint of malice in the Hugh and the ink-bottle tale, and a hint of cowardice in that about the jam; but for the rest, they are inventions pure and simple, with neither rhyme nor reason, as you say."

"I don't believe a bit in the malice. I was going to correct her for telling an unkind tale about Hugh, but you know how she hangs on her brother; and she told her tale with the most innocent face. I am convinced there was no thought of harming him."

"Are you equally sure that she never says what is false to cover a fault; in fact, out of cowardice? "

"No; I think I have found her out more than once in ingenious subterfuges; you know what a painfully nervous child she is. For instance, I found the other day a blue cup off that cabinet, with handle gone, hidden behind the woodwork. Fanny happened to come in at the moment, and I asked her if she knew who had broken it.

"No, mother, I don't know, but I think it was Mary, when she was dusting the cabinet; indeed, I'm nearly sure I heard a crash.'

"But the child could not meet my eye, and there was a sort of blanching as of fear about her."

"But, as a rule, you do not notice these symptoms?

'As a rule, poor Fanny's tarradiddles come out in the most quiet, easy way, with all the boldness of innocence; and even when she is found out, and the lie brought home to her, she looks bewildered rather than convicted."

"I wish you would banish the whole tribe of foolish and harmful expressions whose tendency is to make light of sin. Call a spade a spade. A 'tarradiddle' is a thing to make merry over; a fib you smile and wink at; but a lie––why, the soul is very far gone from original righteousness that can endure the name, even while guilty of the thing."

"That's just it; I cannot endure to apply so black a name to the failings of our child; for, do you know, I begin to suspect that poor little Fanny does it unawares––does not know in the least that she has departed from the fact. I have had a horrible dread upon me from time to time that her defect is a mental, and not a moral one: that she has not the clear perception of true and false with which most of us are blessed."

"Whe-ewl" from John; but his surprise was feigned. I could see now that he had known what was going on all the time, and had said nothing, because he had nothing to say; in his heart he agreed with me about our pretty child. The defect arose from a clouded intelligence, which showed itself in this way only, now; but how dare we look forward? Now I saw why poor John was so anxious to have the offence called by the blackest moral name. He wished to save us from the suspicion of an evil––worse, because less open to cure. We looked blankly at each other, he trying to carry the matter off with a light air, but his attempt failed.

I forgot to say that my sister Emma was staying with us, the 'clever woman of the family,' who was "going in" for all sorts of things, to come out, we believed, at the top of her profession as a lady doctor. She had taken no part in the talk about Fanny––which was rather tiresome of her, as I wanted to know what she thought; but now, while we were vainly trying to hide our dismay, she broke out into a long laugh, which seemed a little unfeeling.

"Oh, you absurd parents! You are too good and earnest, and altogether too droll! Why in the world, instead of sitting there with blank eyes––conjuring up bogeys to frighten each other––why don't you look the thing in the face, and find out by the light of modern thought what really ails Fan? Poor pet! 'Save me from my parents!' is a rendering which might be forgiven her."

"Then you don't think there's any mental trouble?" we cried in a breath, feeling already as if a burden were lifted, and we could straighten our backs and walk abroad.

"'Mental trouble?' What nonsense! But there, I believe all you parents are alike. Each pair thinks their own experiences entirely new; their own children the first of the kind born into the world. Now, a mind that had had any scientific training would see at once that poor Fanny's lies––if I must use John's terrible bad word––inventions, I should have called them, are symptomatic, as you rightly guessed, Annie, of certain brain conditions; but of brain disease––oh, no! Why, foolish people, don't you see you are entertaining an angel unawares? This vice of 'lying' you are mourning over is the very quality that goes to the making of poets!"

"Poets and angels are well in their places," said John, rather crossly, "but my child must speak the truth. What she states for a fact, I must know to be a fact, according to the poor common-sense view of benighted parents."

"And there is your work as parents. Teach her truth, as you would teach her French or sums––a little to-day, a little more to-morrow, and every day a lesson. Only as you teach her the nature of truth will the gift she has be effectual. But I really should like to know what is your notion about truth––are we born with it, or educated up to it?"

"I am not sure that we care to be experimented upon, and held up to the world as blundering parents," said I; "perhaps we had better keep our crude notions to ourselves." I spoke rather tartly, I know, for I was more vexed for John than for myself that he should be held up to ridicule in his own house––by a sister of mine, too!

"Now I have vexed you both. How horrid I am! And all the time, as I watch you with the children, I don't feel good enough to tie your shoes. Don't I say to myself twenty times a day, 'After all, the insight and love parents get from above is worth a thousandfold more than all science has to teach'?"

"Nay, Emma, it is we who have to apologise for being jealous of science––that's the fact––and quick to take offence. Make it up, there's a good girl! and let Annie and me have the benefit of your advice about our little girl, for truly we are in a fog."

"Well, I think you were both right in considering that her failing had two sources: moral cowardice the first; she does something wrong, or wrong in her eyes, and does not tell––why?"

"Aye, there's the difficulty; why is she afraid to tell the truth? I may say that we have never punished her, or ever looked coldly on her for any fault but this of prevarication. The child is so timid that we feared severe measures might make truth-telling the more difficult."

"There I think you are right. And we have our finger on one of the weak places: Fanny tells lies out of sheer fear––moral weakness; causeless it may be, but there it is. And I'm not so sure that it is causeless; she is always in favour for good behaviour, gentleness, obedience, and that kind of thing; indeed, this want of veracity seems to me her one fault. Now, don't you think the fear of having her parents look coldly on her and think less well of her may be, to such a timid, clinging child, a great temptation to hide a fault?"

"Very likely; but one does not see how to act. Would you pass over her faults altogether without inquiry or notice?"

"I'm afraid you must use the knife there boldly, for that is the tenderest way in the end. Show little Fan your love––that there is no fault you cannot forgive in her, but that the one fault which hurts you most is, not to hear the exact truth."

"I see. Suppose she has broken a valuable vase and hides the fact, I am to unearth her secret––not, as I am very much inclined to do, let it lie buried for fear of involving her in worse falsehood, but show her the vase and tax her with hiding it."

"And her immediate impulse will be to say, 'I didn't.' No; make sure of your ground, then show her the pieces; say the vase was precious, but you do not mind about that; the thing that hurts you is that she could not trust her mother. I can imagine one of the lovely scenes you mothers have with your children, too good for outsiders to look in upon."

The tears came into my eyes, for I could imagine the scene too. I could see the way to draw my child closer and closer by always forgiving, always comprehending and loving her, and always protesting against the falsehood which would rise between us. I was lost in a happy reverie––how I might sometime come to show her that her mother's ever-ready forgiveness was but a faint picture of what someone calls the "all-forgiving gentleness of God," when I heard John break in:––

"Yes, I can see that if we both make a point of free and tender forgiveness of every fault, on condition that she owns up, we may in time cure her of lying out of sheer fear. But I don't see that she gets the principle of truth any more. The purely inventive lies go on as before, and the child is not to be trusted."

"'Purely inventive,' there you have it. Don't you see? The child is full of imagination, and figures to herself endless scenes, evolved like the German student's camel. The thousand and one things which might happen are so real to her that the child is, as you said, bewildered; hardly able to distinguish the one which has happened. Now, it's perfect nonsense to lament over this as a moral failing––it is a want of mental balance; not that any quality is deficient, but that her conceptive power runs away with her perceptive; she sees the many things that might be more readily than the thing that is. Doesn't she delight in fairy tales? "

"Well, to tell the truth, I have thought them likely to foster her failing, and have kept her a good deal on a diet of facts."

"I shouldn't wonder if you are wrong there. An imperious imagination like Fanny's demands its proper nourishment. Let her have her daily meal: 'The Babes in the Wood,' 'The Little Match-Girl,' 'The Snow-Maiden,' tales and legends half-historic; above all, the lovely stories of the Bible; whatever she can figure to herself and live over and over; but not twaddling tales of the daily doings of children like herself, whether funny or serious. The child wants an opening into the larger world where all things are possible and where beautiful things are always happening. Give her in some form this necessary food, and her mind will be so full of delightful imaginings that she will be under no temptation to invent about the commonplaces of everyday life."

My husband laughed:––"My dear Emma, you must let us do our best with the disease; the cure is too wild! 'Behold, this dreamer cometh!'––think of sending the child through life with that label."

"Your quotation is unfortunate, and you have not heard me out. I do believe that to starve her imagination would be to do real wrong to the child. But, at the same time, you must diligently cultivate the knowledge and the love of the truth. Now, the truth is no more than the fact as it is; and it is my belief that Fanny's falsehoods come entirely from want of perception of the fact through pre-occupation of mind."

"Well, what must we do?"

"Why, give her daily, or half-a-dozen times a day, lessons in truth. Send her to the window: 'Look out, Fanny, and tell me what you see.' She comes back, having seen a cow where there is a horse. She looks again and brings a true report, and you teach her that it is not true to say the thing which is not. You send a long message to the cook, requiring the latter to write it down as she receives it and send you up the slate; if it is all right, the kiss Fanny gets is for speaking the truth: gradually, she comes to revere truth, and distinguishes between the facts of life where truth is all in all, and the wide realms of make-believe, where fancy may have free play." "I do believe you are right, Emma; most of Fanny's falsehoods seem to be told in such pure innocence, I should not wonder if they do come out of the kingdom of make-believe. At any rate, we'll try Emma's specific––shall we, John?"

"Indeed, yes; and carefully, too. It seems to me to be reasonable, the more so, as we don't find any trace of malice in Fanny's misleading statements."

"Oh, if there were, the treatment would be less simple; first, you should deal with the malice, and then teach the love of truth in daily lessons. That is the mistake so many people make. They think their children are capable of loving and understanding truth by nature, which they are not. The best parents have to be on the watch to hinder all opportunities of misstatement."

"And now, that you may see how much we owe you, let me tell you of the painful example always before our eyes, which has done more than anything to make me dread Fanny's failing. It is an open secret, I fear, but do not let it go further out of this house. You know Mrs. Casterton, our neighbour's wife? It is a miserable thing to say, but you cannot trust a word she utters. She tells you, Miss So-and-So has a bad kind of scarlet fever, and even while she is speaking you know it to be false; husband, children, servants, neighbours, none can be blind to the distressing fact, and she has acquired the sort of simpering manner a woman gets when she loses respect and self-respect. What if Fanny had grown up like her?"

"Poor woman! and this shame might have been spared her, had her parents been alive to their duty."