I’m forever on the lookout for stories that offer the reader an opportunity to inhabit grace. I ran across one yesterday that I would like to commend to you. It’s called “The Happy Hypocrite: A Fairy Tale for Tired Men” (1915), by Max Beerbohm. This long-ish short story depicts the beauty of grace. And, as its title suggests, it also presents grace as a scandal–which it surely is. “The Happy Hypocrite” tells the story of Lord George Hell, the worst of the rakes who stalked Regency London. He is a spendthrift, a gambler, a glutton, a drunkard, a cheat, a liar, a philanderer, and a fop. His one “virtue” is that he doesn’t smoke, but that is only because he considers smoking to be unfashionable. His life of debauchery has left him bloated and purple–a terror to all who see him.
Lord George Hell has never loved anyone but himself. But one day he meets a beautiful and saintly girl named Jenny Mere and loses his heart to her immediately. He makes a fool of himself–or, in any case, a different kind of fool–expressing his love to the girl on their first meeting. But she rejects him flat. She can see his wickedness in the lineaments of his face. She is saving her love, she says, for a man who has the face of a saint–a face that is a true mirror of pure love.
Lord George is heartbroken. But he is also rich. He is so rich, in fact, that he has made it his practice to get whatever he wants. He goes to the most gifted mask-maker in London and has himself fitted for a mask of a saint’s face. When he presents himself to Jenny Mere, she sees the face of the man she has been waiting for. She loves him and marries him. George leaves the debauched London scene behind to live an idyllic country life with his little wife. He seems genuinely to be reforming.
But George’s past catches up with him in the person of an old lover who, in a fit of jealousy, rips the mask from his face.
I won’t tell you what happens next. You can read it for yourself here on Google Books. I got it on my Kindle for $2.39.