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 yearsone 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 worn.
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 spurscross-country riders
theseroisterers and gamestersa sorry lot, no doubt.
Or perhaps it is an old bow-legged high-boyits club-feet slippered
on easy rollersthe 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 mittsthey 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 nowone 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
And yet no sobriquet could better express her personality: She was
littlea dainty, elf-like littleness, with tiny feet and wee hands;
she was graya soft, silver graytoo 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, speechin 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 withereda wispy gray. (That is not
the way it happened.) It was a new, all-of-a-sudden gray, and in less
than a weekso Margaret once told mebleaching 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 rosettesears
reallybehind 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 ownits thin ankles and splay feet hidden by a modest
frill. There were all these things and a lot moreand 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 bluea 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
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
Annieit 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, andand 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
Rioway out to South America to join his Uncle Harry.
He won't go, dearienot 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,
Markplease forgive me.' If he loves youand 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 of Tom.
But Tom had asked me
Yesand so had Mark
Yesbut he had no right She was up in arms again: she
wouldn'tshe couldn'tand again an outburst of tears choked her
The Little Gray Lady had known Kate's mother, now dead, and what
might have happened but for a timely wordand 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 alikesame 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 yearsso 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
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, dearieand don't ever say it. That has wrecked
more lives than you know. That is what I once knew a girl to saya
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?
Nonever. She is still unmarried.
Yesbut it wasn't her fault, was it?
Yesalthough 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 friendstraightening out just some such
foolish quarrel as you have had with Markbut 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?
Yeshe was my dear friend. I was just thinking of him when you
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
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
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 candelabraand if there
aren't enough I'll get more from Margaret.
No, noone 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 strangely affecting.
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
But you can have some more, urged Kate.
Not like those that have gone before, dearieno, 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 comethe 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 yearbut I welcome all who
come. It's the old maid's hour, you knowthis 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 meno 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 aloneand you might, dearie, if Mark should
leave youyou will love these twilight hours, too.
The girl reached up her hands and touched the Little Gray Lady's
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 likelikethat isI shall ever
I don't know, dearie. No one can ever tell what will happen. I
never thought twenty years ago I should be all alonebut 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 himto-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 nightfor it was
now quite darkhad 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 here?
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 all.
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?
Noit'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 methis was before I and your mother were
engagedand 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 thenHarry 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 means never.
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 beforein 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 alive.
Kate started up and caught Mark's arm. Oh, Mark! I have it! she
whispered, and we willyesthat 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 garret.
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 partythere
were six in allwould 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, yesthere she isin her big
chairyou 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
firstthe front door is never fastenedand if she is asleepand I
think she iswe will all crouch down behind her until she wakes up.
And another thing, whispered Mark from behind his handeverybody
must drop their coats and things in the hall, so we can surprise her
all at once.
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
cheeksthe 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:
Noit isn't soHow foolish I am Then there came softly:
Harryand again in almost a whisperas if hope had died in her
Kate, half frightened, sprang forward and flung her arms around the
Little Gray Lady.
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
candlesevery one of them, and make an awful big fireand have a
real, real Christmas.
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 asleepyes, 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 ChristmasOnly, 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 planepile 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 wall.
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
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 wrist.
Hushnot a word! Where is she? he cried.
With a low whistle of surprise Mark pushed open the door. The
stranger stepped in.
The Little Gray Lady raised her head.
And who can this new guest be? she askedand 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 another trick.
He had reached her side and stood looking down at her. Again came
the voicea strong, clear voice, with a note of infinite tenderness
How white your hair is, Annie; and your hand is so thin! Have I
changed like this?
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 againand he did and before
everybodyhe 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
And now, if you don't mind, dear reader, we will put everything back
and shut the Little Gray Lady's bureau drawer.