THE LITTLE GRAY LADY
By F. Hopkinson Smith
Once in a while there come to me out of the long ago the fragments of a
story I have not thought of for years—one that has been hidden in
the dim lumber-room of my brain where I store my by-gone memories.
These fragments thrust themselves out of the past as do the cuffs of an
old-fashioned coat, the flutings of a flounce, or the lacings of a bodice
from out a quickly opened bureau drawer. Only when you follow the cuff
along the sleeve to the broad shoulder; smooth out the crushed frill that
swayed about her form, and trace the silken thread to the waist it
tightened, can you determine the fashion of the day in which they were
And with the rummaging of this lumber-room come the odors: dry smells from
musty old trunks packed with bundles of faded letters and worthless deeds
tied with red tape; musty smells from dust-covered chests, iron bound,
holding mouldy books, their backs loose; pungent smells from cracked
wardrobes stuffed with moth-eaten hunting-coats, riding-trousers, and high
boots with rusty spurs—cross-country riders these—roisterers
and gamesters—a sorry lot, no doubt.
Or perhaps it is an old bow-legged high-boy—its club-feet slippered
on easy rollers—the kind with deep drawers kept awake by rattling
brass handles, its outside veneer so highly polished that you are quite
sure it must have been brought up in some distinguished family. The scent
of old lavender and spiced rose leaves, and a stick or two of white orris
root, haunt this relic: my lady's laces must be kept fresh, and so must my
lady's long white mitts—they reach from her dainty knuckles quite to
her elbow. And so must her cobwebbed silk stockings and the filmy kerchief
she folds across her bosom:
It is this kind of a drawer that I am opening now—one belonging to
the Little Gray Lady.
As I look through its contents my eyes resting on the finger of a glove,
the end of a lace scarf, and the handle of an old fan, my mind goes back
to the last time she wore them. Then I begin turning everything upside
down, lifting the corner of this incident, prying under that no bit of
talk, recalling what he said and who told of it (I shall have the whole
drawer empty before I get through), and whose fault it was that the match
was broken off, and why she, of all women in the world, should have
remained single all those years. Why, too, she should have lost her
identity, so to speak, and become the Little Gray Lady.
And yet no sobriquet could better express her personality: She was little—a
dainty, elf-like littleness, with tiny feet and wee hands; she was gray—a
soft, silver gray—too gray for her forty years (and this fragment
begins when she was forty); and she was a lady in every beat of her warm
heart; in every pressure of her white hand; in her voice, speech—in
all her thoughts and movements.
She lived in the quaintest of old houses fronted by a brick path bordered
with fragrant box, which led up to an old-fashioned porch, its door
brightened by a brass knocker. This, together with the knobs, steps, and
slits of windows on each side of the door, was kept scrupulously clean by
old Margaret, who had lived with her for years.
But it is her personality and not her surroundings that lingers in my
memory. No one ever heard anything sweeter than her voice; in and nobody
ever looked into a lovelier face, even if there were little hollows in the
cheeks and shy, fanlike wrinkles lurking about the corners of her lambent
brown eyes. Nor did her gray hair mar her beauty. It was not old, dry, and
withered—a wispy gray. (That is not the way it happened.) It was a
new, all-of-a-sudden gray, and in less than a week—so Margaret once
told me—bleaching its brown gold to silver. But the gloss remained,
and so did the richness of the folds, and the wealth and weight of it.
Inside the green-painted door, with its white trim and brass knocker and
knobs, there was a narrow hall hung with old portraits, opening into a
room literally all fireplace. Here there were gouty sofas, and five or six
big easy-chairs ranged in a half-circle, with arms held out as if begging
somebody to sit in them; and here, too, was an embroidered worsted fire
screen that slid up and down a standard, to shield one's face from the
blazing logs; and there were queer tables and old-gold curtains looped
back with brass rosettes—ears really—behind which the tresses
of the parted curtains were tucked; and there were more old portraits in
dingy frames, and samplers under glass, and a rug which some aunt had made
with her own hands from odds and ends; and a huge work-basket spilling
worsteds, and last, and by no manner of means least, a big chintz-covered
rocking-chair, the little lady's very own—its thin ankles and splay
feet hidden by a modest frill. There were all these things and a lot more—and
yet I still maintain that the room was just one big fireplace. Not alone
because of its size (and it certainly was big: many a doubting curly head,
losing its faith in Santa Claus, has crawled behind the old fire-dogs, the
child's fingers tight about the Little Gray Lady's, and been told to look
up into the blue—a lesson never forgotten all their lives), but
because of the wonderful and never-to-be-told-of things which constantly
took place before its blazing embers.
For this fireplace was the Little Gray Lady's altar. Here she dispensed
wisdom and cheer and love. Everybody in Pomford village had sat in one or
the other of the chairs grouped about it and had poured out their hearts
to her. All sorts of pourings: love affairs, for instance, that were
hopeless until she would take the girl's hand in her own and smooth out
the tangle; to-say nothing of bickerings behind closed doors, with two
lives pulling apart until her dear arms brought them together.
But all this is only the outside of the old mahogany high-boy with its
meerschaum-pipe polish, spraddling legs, and rattling handles.
Now for the Little Gray Lady's own particular drawer.
It was Christmas Eve, and Kate Dayton, one of Pomford's pretty girls, had
found the Little Gray Lady sitting alone before the fire gazing into the
ashes, her small frame almost hidden in the roomy chair. The winter
twilight had long since settled and only the flickering blaze of the logs
and the dim glow from one lone candle illumined the room. This, strange to
say, was placed on a table in a corner where its rays shed but little
light in the room.
"Oh! Cousin Annie," moaned Kate (everybody in Pomford who got close enough
to touch the Little Gray Lady's hand called her "Cousin Annie"—it
was only the outside world who knew her by her other sobriquet), "I didn't
mean anything. Mark came in just at the wrong minute, and—and—"
The poor girl's tears smothered the rest.
"Don't let him go, dearie," came the answer, when she had heard the whole
story, the girl on her knees, her head in her lap, the wee hand stroking
the fluff of golden hair dishevelled in her grief.
"Oh, but he won't stay!" moaned Kate. "He says he is going to Rio—way
out to South America to join his Uncle Harry."
"He won't go, dearie—not if you tell him the truth and make him tell
you the truth. Don't let your pride come in; don't beat around the bush or
make believe you are hurt or misunderstood, or that you don't care. You do
care. Better be a little humble now than humble all your life. It only
takes a word. Hold out your hand and say: 'I'm sorry, Mark—please
forgive me.' If he loves you—and he does—"
The girl raised her head: "Oh! Cousin Annie! How do you know?"
She laughed gently. "Because he was here, dearie, half an hour ago and
told me so. He thought you owed him the dance, and he was a little jealous
"But Tom had asked me—"
"Yes—and so had Mark—"
"Yes—but he had no right—" She was up in arms again: she
wouldn't—she couldn't—and again an outburst of tears choked
The Little Gray Lady had known Kate's mother, now dead, and what might
have happened but for a timely word—and she knew to her own sorrow
what had happened for want of one. Kate and Mark should not repeat that
experience if she could help it. She had saved the mother in the old days
by just such a word. She would save the daughter in the same way. And the
two were much alike—same slight, girlish figure; same blond hair and
blue eyes; same expression, and the same impetuous, high-strung
temperament. "If that child's own mother walked in this minute I couldn't
tell 'em apart, they do favor one another so," old Margaret had told her
mistress when she opened the door for the girl, and she was right. Pomford
village was full of these hereditary likenesses. Mark Dab-ney, whom all
the present trouble was about, was so like his father at his age that his
Uncle Harry had picked Mark out on a crowded dock when the lad had visited
him in Rio the year before, although he had not seen the boy's father for
twenty years—so strong was the family likeness.
If there was to be a quarrel it must not be between the Dabneys and the
Daytons, of all families. There had been suffering enough in the old days.
"Listen, dearie," she said in her gentle, crooning tone, patting the
girl's cheek as she talked. "A quarrel where there is no love is soon
forgotten, but a difference when both love may, if not quickly healed,
leave a scar that will last through life."
"There are as good fish in the sea as were ever caught," cried the girl in
sheer bravado, brushing away her tears.
"Don't believe it, dearie—and don't ever say it. That has wrecked
more lives than you know. That is what I once knew a girl to say—a
girl just about your age—"
"But she found somebody else, and that's just what I'm going to do. I'm
not going to have Mark read me a lecture every time I want to do something
he doesn't like. Didn't your girl find somebody else?"
"No—never. She is still unmarried."
"Yes—but it wasn't her fault, was it?"
"Yes—although she did not know it at the time. She opened a door
suddenly and found her lover alone with another girl. The two had stolen
off together where they would not be interrupted. He was pleading for his
college friend—straightening out just some such foolish quarrel as
you have had with Mark—but the girl would not understand; nor did
she know the truth until a year afterward. Then it was too late."
The Little Gray Lady stopped, lifted her hand from the girl's head, and
turned her face toward the now dying fire.
"And what became of him?" asked the girl in a hushed voice, as if she
dared not awaken the memory.
"He went away and she has never seen him since."
For some minutes there was silence, then Kate said in a braver tone:
"And he married somebody else?"
"Well, then, she died?"
The Littie Lady had not moved, nor had she taken her eyes from the blaze.
She seemed to be addressing some invisible body who could hear and
understand. The girl felt its influence and a tremor ran through her. The
fitful blaze casting weird shadows helped this feeling. At last, with an
effort, she asked:
"You say you know them both, Cousin Annie?"
"Yes—he was my dear friend. I was just thinking of him when you came
The charred logs broke into a heap of coals; the blaze flickered and died.
But for the lone candle in the corner the room would have been in total
"Shall I light another candle, Cousin Annie?" shivered the girl, "or bring
that one nearer?"
"No, it's Christmas Eve, and I only light one candle on Christmas Eve."
"But what's one candle! Why, father has the whole house as bright as day
and every fire blazing." The girl sprang to her feet and stepped nearer
the hearth. She would be less nervous, she thought, if she moved about,
and then the warmth of the fire was somehow reassuring. "Please let me
light them all, Cousin Annie," she pleaded, reaching out her hand toward a
cluster in an old-fashioned candelabra—"and if there aren't enough
I'll get more from Margaret."
"No, no—one will do. It is an old custom of mine; I've done it for
"But don't you love Christmas?" Kate argued, her nervousness increasing.
The ghostly light and the note of pain in her companion's voice were
The Little Gray Lady leaned forward in her chair and looked long and
steadily at the heap of smouldering ashes; then she answered slowly, each
word vibrating with the memory of some hidden sorrow: "I've had mine,
"But you can have some more," urged Kate.
"Not like those that have gone before, dearie—no, not like those."
Something in the tones of her voice and quick droop of the dear head
stirred the girl to her depths. Sinking to her knees she hid her face in
the Little Lady's lap.
"And you sit here in the dark with only one candle?" she whispered.
"Yes, always," she answered, her fingers stroking the fair hair. "I can
see those I have loved better in the dark. Sometimes the room is full of
people; I have often to strain my eyes to assure myself that the door is
really shut. All sorts of people come—the girls and boys I knew when
I was young. Some are dead; some are far away; some so near that should I
open the window and shout their names many of them could hear. There are
fewer above ground every year—but I welcome all who come. It's the
old maid's hour, you know—this twilight hour. The wives are making
ready the supper; the children are romping; lovers are together in the
corner where they can whisper and not be overheard. But none of this
disturbs me—no big man bursts in, letting in the cold. I have my
chair, my candle, my thoughts, and my fire. When you get to be my age,
Kate, and live alone—and you might, dearie, if Mark should leave you—you
will love these twilight hours, too."
The girl reached up her hands and touched the Little Gray Lady's cheek,
"But aren't you very, very lonely. Cousin Annie?"
For a moment Kate remained silent, then she asked in a faltering voice
through which ran a note almost of terror:
"Do you think I shall ever be like—like—that is—I shall
ever be—all alone?"
"I don't know, dearie. No one can ever tell what will happen. I never
thought twenty years ago I should be all alone—but I am."
The girl raised her head, and with a cry of pain threw her arms around the
Little Gray Lady's neck:
"Oh, no!—no! I can't bear it!" she sobbed! "I'll tell Mark! I'll
send for him—to-night-before I go to bed!"
It was not until Kate Dayton reached her father's gate that the spell
wrought by the flickering firelight and the dim glow of the ghostly candle
wore off. The crisp air of the winter night—for it was now quite
dark—had helped, but the sight of Mark's waiting figure striding
along the snow-covered path to her home and his manly outspoken apology,
"Please forgive me, Kate, I made an awful fool of myself," followed by her
joyous refrain, "Oh, Mark! I've been so wretched!" had done more. It had
all come just as Cousin Annie had said; there had been neither pride nor
anger. Only the Little Gray Lady's timely word.
But if the spell was broken the pathetic figure of the dear woman, her
eyes fixed on the dying embers, still lingered in Kate's mind.
"Oh, Mark, it is so pitiful to see her!—and I got so frightened; the
whole room seemed filled with ghosts. Christmas seems her loneliest time.
She won't have but one candle lighted, and she sits and mopes in the dark.
Oh, it's dreadful! I tried to cheer her up, but she says she likes to sit
in the dark, because then all the dead people she loves can come to her.
Can't we do something to make her happy? She is so lovely, and she is so
little, and she is so dear!"
They had entered the house, now a blaze of light. Kate's father was
standing on the hearth rug, his back to a great fireplace filled with
"Where have you two gadabouts been?" he laughed merrily. "What do you mean
by staying out this late? Don't you know it's Christmas Eve?"
"We've been to see Cousin Annie, daddy; and it would make your heart ache
to look at her! She's there all alone. Can't you go down and bring her up
"Yes, I could, but she wouldn't come, not on Christmas Eve. Did she have
her candle burning?"
"Yes, just one poor little miserable candle that hardly gave any light at
"And it was in the corner on a little table?"
"Yes, all by itself."
"Poor dear, she always lights it. She's lighted it for almost twenty
"Is it for somebody she loved who died?"
"No—it's for somebody she loved who is alive, but who never came
back and won't."
He studied them both for a moment, as if in doubt, then he added in a
determined voice, motioning them to a seat beside him:
"It is about time you two children heard the story straight, for it
concerns you both, so I'll tell you. Your Uncle Harry, Mark, is the man
who never came back and won't. He was just your age at the time. He and
Annie were to be married in a few months, then everything went to smash.
And it was your mother, Kate, who was the innocent cause of his exile.
Harry, who was the best friend I had in the world, tried to put in a good
word for me—this was before I and your mother were engaged—and
Annie, coming in and finding them, got it all crooked. Instead of waiting
until Harry could explain, she flared up, and off he went. Her hair turned
white in a week when she found out how she had misjudged him, but it was
too late then—Harry wouldn't come back, and he never will. When he
told you, Mark, last year in Rio that he was coming home Christmas I knew
he'd change his mind just as soon as you left him, and he did. Queer boy,
Harry. Once he gets an idea in his head it sticks there. He was that way
when he was a boy. He'll never come back as long as Annie lives, and that
He stopped a moment, spread his fingers to the blazing logs, and then,
with a smile on his face, said: "If ever I catch you two young turtledoves
making such fools of yourselves, I'll turn you both outdoors," and again
his hearty laugh rang through the cheery room.
The girl instinctively leaned closer to her lover. She had heard some part
of the story before—in fact, both of them had, but never in its
entirety. Her heart went out to the Little Gray Lady all the more.
Mark now spoke up. He, too, had had an hour of his own with the Little
Gray Lady, and the obligation still remained unsettled.
"Well, if she won't come up here and have Christmas with us," he cried,
"why can't we go down there and have Christmas with her? Let's surprise
her, Kate; let's clean out all those dead people. I know she sits in the
dark and imagines they all come back, for I've seen her that way many a
time when I drop in on her in the late afternoon. Let's show her they're
Kate started up and caught Mark's arm. "Oh, Mark! I have it!" she
whispered, "and we will—yes—that will be the very thing," and
so with more mumblings and mutterings, not one word of which could her
father hear, the two raced up-stairs to the top of the house and the
Two hours later a group of young people led by Mark Dabney trooped out of
Kate's gate and turned down the Little Gray Lady's street. Most of them
wore long cloaks and were muffled in thick veils.
They were talking in low tones, glancing from side to side, as if fearing
to be seen. The moon had gone under a cloud, but the light of the stars,
aided by an isolated street lamp, showed them the way. So careful were
they to conceal their identity that the whole party—there were six
in all—would dart into an open gate, crouching behind the snow-laden
hedge to avoid even a single passer-by. Only once were they in any danger,
and that was when a sleigh gliding by stopped in front of them, the driver
calling out in a voice which sounded twice as loud in the white stillness:
"Where's Mr. Dabney's new house?" (evidently a stranger, for the town pump
was not better known). No one else stopped them until they reached the
Little Gray Lady's porch.
Kate crept up first, followed by Mark, and peered in. So far as she could
see everything was just as she had left it.
"The candle is still burning, Mark, and she's put more wood on the fire.
But I can't find her. Oh, yes—there she is—in her big chair—you
can just see the top of her head and her hand. Hush! don't one of you
breathe. Now, listen, girls! Mark and I will tiptoe in first—the
front door is never fastened—and if she is asleep—and I think
she is—we will all crouch down behind her until she wakes up."
"And another thing," whispered Mark from behind his hand—"everybody
must drop their coats and things in the hall, so we can surprise her all
The strange procession tiptoed in and arranged itself behind the Little
Gray Lady's chair. Kate was dressed in her mother's wedding-gown, flaring
poke bonnet, and long, faded gloves clear to her shoulder; Mark had on a
blue coat with brass buttons, a buff waistcoat, and black stock, the two
points of the high collar pinching his ruddy cheeks—the same dress
his father and Uncle Harry had worn, and all the young bloods of their
day, for that matter. The others were in their grandmother's or
grandfather's short and long clothes, Tom Fields sporting a tight-sleeved,
high-collared coat, silk-embroidered waistcoat, and pumps.
Kate crept up behind her chair, but Mark moved to the fireplace and rested
his elbow on the mantel, so that he would be in full view when the Little
Gray Lady awoke.
At last her eyes opened, but she made no outcry, nor did she move, except
to lift her head as does a fawn startled by some sudden light, her
wondering eyes drinking in the apparition. Mark, hardly breathing, stood
like a statue, but Kate, bending closer, heard her catch her breath with a
long, indrawn sigh, and next the half-audible words: "No—it isn't so—How
foolish I am—" Then there came softly: "Harry"—and again in
almost a whisper—as if hope had died in her heart—"Harry—"
Kate, half frightened, sprang forward and flung her arms around the Little
"Why, don't you know him? It's Mark, Cousin Annie, and here's Tom and
Nanny Fields, and everybody, and we're going to light all the candles—every
one of them, and make an awful big fire—and have a real, real
The Little Gray Lady was awake now.
"Oh! you scared me so!" she cried, rising to her feet, rubbing her eyes.
"You foolish Children! I must have been asleep—yes, I know I was!"
She greeted them all, talking and entering into their fun, the spirit of
hospitality now hers, saying over and over again how glad she was they
came, kissing one and another; telling them how happy they made her; how
since they had been kind enough to come, she would let them have a real
Christmas—"Only," she added quickly, "it will have to be by the
light of one candle; but that won't make any difference, because you can
pile on just as much wood as you choose. Yes," she continued, her voice
rising in her effort to meet them on their own joyous plane—"pile on
all the kindling, too, Mark; and Kate, dear, please run and tell Margaret
to bring in every bit of cake she has in the pantry. Oh, how like your
mother you are, Kate! I remember that very dress. And you, Mark! Why,
you've got on the same coat I saw your father wear at the Governor's ball.
And you, too, Tom. Oh, what a good time we will all have!"
Soon the lid of the old piano was raised, a spinet, really, and one of the
girls began running her fingers over the keys; and later on it was agreed
that the first dance was to be the Virginia reel, with all the hospitable
chairs and the fire screen and the gouty old sofa rolled back against the
This all arranged, Mark took his place with the Little Gray Lady for a
partner. The music struck up a lively tune and as quickly ceased as the
sound of bells rang through the night air. In the hush that followed a
sleigh was heard at the gate.
Kate sprang up and clapped her hands.
"Oh, they are just in time! There come the rest of them, Cousin Annie. Now
we are going to have a great party! Let's be dancing when they come in;
keep on playing!"
At this instant the door opened and Margaret put in her head. "Somebody,"
she said, with a low bow, "wants to see Mr. Mark on business."
Mark, looking like a gallant of the old school, excused himself with a
great flourish to the Little Gray Lady and strode out. In the hall, with
his back to the light, stood a broad-shouldered man muffled to the chin in
a fur overcoat. The boy was about to apologize for his costume and then
ask the man's errand, when the stranger turned quickly and gripped his
"Hush—not a word! Where is she?" he cried.
With a low whistle of surprise Mark pushed open the door. The stranger
The Little Gray Lady raised her head.
"And who can this new guest be?" she asked—"and in what a queer
The man drew himself up to his full height and threw wide his coat: "And
you don't know me, Annie?"
She did not take her eyes from his face, nor did she move except to turn
her head appealingly to the room as if she feared they were playing her
He had reached her side and stood looking down at her. Again came the
voice—a strong, clear voice, with a note of infinite tenderness
"How white your hair is, Annie; and your hand is so thin! Have I changed
She leaned forward, scanning him eagerly.
There was a little cry, then all her soul went out in the one word:
She was inside the big coat now, his strong arms around her, her head
hidden on his breast, only the tips of her toes on the floor.
When he had kissed her again and again—and he did and before
everybody—he crossed the room, picked up the ghostly candle, and
smothered its flame.
"I saw it from the road," he laughed softly, "that's why I couldn't wait.
But you'll never have to light it again, my darling!"
I saw them both a few years later. Everything in the way of fading and
wrinkling had stopped so far as the Little Gray Lady was concerned. If
there were any lines left in her forehead and around the corners of her
eyes, I could not find them. Joy had planted a crop of dimples instead,
and they had spread out, smoothing the care lines. Margaret even claimed
that her hair was turning brown gold once more, but then Margaret was
always her loyal slave, and believed everything her mistress wished.
And now, if you don't mind, dear reader, we will put everything back and
shut the Little Gray Lady's bureau drawer.