The Lady of
It is not generally known that the Lady of Shalott lived last summer in
an attic, at the east end of South Street.
The wee-est, thinnest, whitest little lady! And yet the brightest,
stillest, and withal such a smiling little lady!
If you had held her up by the window,—for she could not hold up
herself,—she would have hung like a porcelain transparency in your
hands. And if you had said, laying her gently down, and giving the tears
a smart dash, that they should not fall on her lifted face, "Poor
child!" the Lady of Shalott would have said, "O, don't!" and smiled. And
you would have smiled yourself, for very surprise that she should outdo
you; and between the two there would have been so much smiling done that
one would have fairly thought it was a delightful thing to live last
summer in an attic at the east end of South Street.
This perhaps was the more natural in the Lady of Shalott because she had
never lived anywhere else.
When the Lady of Shalott was five years old, her mother threw her down
stairs one day, by mistake, instead of the whiskey-jug.
This is a fact which I think Mr. Tennyson has omitted to mention in his
They picked up the Lady of Shalott and put her on the bed; and there she
lay from that day until last summer, unless, as I said, somebody had
occasion to use her for a transparency.
The mother and the jug both went down the stairs together a few years
after, and never came up at all,—and that was a great convenience, for
the Lady of Shalott's palace in the attic was not large, and they took
up much unnecessary room.
Since that the Lady of Shalott had lived with her sister, Sary Jane.
Sary Jane made nankeen vests, at sixteen and three quarters cents a
Sary Jane had red hair, and crooked shoulders, and a voice so much like
a rat-trap which she sometimes set on the stairs that the Lady of
Shalott could seldom tell which was which until she had thought about it
a little while. When there was a rat caught, she was apt to ask "What?"
and when Sary Jane spoke, she more often than not said, "There's
Her crooked shoulders Sary Jane had acquired from sitting under the
eaves of the palace to sew. That physiological problem was simple. There
was not room enough under the eaves to sit straight.
Sary Jane's red hair was the result of sitting in the sun on July noons
under those eaves, to see to thread her needle. There was no question
about that. The Lady of Shalott had settled it in her own mind, past
dispute. Sary Jane's hair had been—what was it? brown? once. Sary Jane
was slowly taking fire. Who would not, to sit in the sun in that palace?
The only matter of surprise to the Lady of Shalott was that the palace
itself did not smoke. Sometimes, when Sary Jane hit the rafters, she was
sure that she saw sparks.
As for Sary Jane's voice, when one knew that she made nankeen vests at
sixteen and three quarters cents a dozen, that was a matter of no
surprise. It never surprised the Lady of Shalott.
But Sary Jane was very cross; there was no denying that; very cross.
And the palace. Let me tell you about the palace. It measured just
twelve by nine feet. It would have been seven feet post,—if there had
been a post in the middle of it. From the centre it sloped away to the
windows, where Sary Jane had just room enough to sit crooked under the
eaves at work. There were two windows and a loose scuttle to let in the
snow in winter and the sun in summer, and the rain and wind at all times.
It was quite a diversion to the Lady of Shalott to see how many
different ways of doing a disagreeable thing seemed to be practicable to
that scuttle. Besides the bed on which the Lady of Shalott lay, there
was a stove in the palace, two chairs, a very ragged rag-mat, a shelf
with two notched cups and plates upon it, one pewter teaspoon, and a
looking-glass. On washing-days Sary Jane climbed upon the chair and hung
her clothes out through the scuttle on the roof; or else she ran a
little rope from one of the windows to the other for a drying-rope. It
would have been more exact to have said on washing-nights; for Sary Jane
always did her washing after dark. The reason was evident. If the rest
of us were in the habit of wearing all the clothes we had, like Sary
Jane, I have little doubt that we should do the same.
I should mention that there was no sink in the Lady of Shalott's palace;
no water. There was a dirty hydrant in the yard, four flights below,
which supplied the Lady of Shalott and all her neighbors. The Lady of
Shalott kept her coal under the bed; her flour, a pound at a time, in a
paper parcel, on the shelf, with the teacups and the pewter spoon. If
she had anything else to keep, it went out through the palace scuttle
and lay on the roof. The Lady of Shalott's palace opened directly upon a
precipice. The lessor of the house called it a flight of stairs. When
Sary Jane went up and down she went sidewise to preserve her balance.
There were no bannisters to the precipice, and about once a week a baby
patronized the rat-trap, instead. Once, when there was a fire-alarm, the
precipice was very serviceable. Four women and an old man went over.
With one exception (she was eighteen, and could bear a broken
collar-bone), they will not, I am informed, go over again.
The Lady of Shalott paid one dollar a week for the rent of her palace.
But then there was a looking-glass in the palace. I think I noticed it.
It hung on the slope of the rafters, just opposite the Lady of Shalott's
window,—for she considered that her window at which Sary Jane did not
make nankeen vests at sixteen and three quarters cents a dozen.
Now, because the looking-glass was opposite the window at which Sary
Jane did not make vests, and because the rafters sloped, and because
the bed lay almost between the looking-glass and the window, the Lady of
Shalott was happy. And because, to the patient heart that is a seeker
after happiness, "the little more, and how much it is!" (and the little
less, what worlds away!) the Lady of Shalott was proud as well as happy.
The looking-glass measured in inches 10 X 6. I think that the Lady of
Shalott would have experienced rather a touch of mortification than of
envy if she had known that there was a mirror in a house just round the
corner measuring almost as many feet. But that was one of the advantages
of being the Lady of Shalott. She never parsed life in the comparative
I suppose that one must be the Lady of Shalott to understand what
comfort there may be in a 10 X 6 inch looking-glass. All the world came
for the Lady of Shalott into her looking-glass,—the joy of it, the
anguish of it, the hope and fear of it, the health and hurt,—10 X 6
inches of it exactly.
"It is next best to not having been thrown down stairs yourself!" said
the Lady of Shalott.
To tell the truth, it sometimes occurred to her that there was a
monotony about the world. A garret window like her own, for instance,
would fill her sight if she did not tip the glass a little. Children sat
in it, and did not play. They made lean faces at her. They were locked
in for the day and were hungry. She could not help knowing how hungry
they were, and so tipped the glass. Then there was the trap-door in the
sidewalk. She became occasionally tired of that trap-door. Seven people
lived under the sidewalk; and when they lifted and slammed the trap,
coming in and out, they reminded her of something which Sary Jane bought
her once, when she was a very little child, at Christmas time,—long ago,
when rents were cheaper and flour low. It was a monkey, with whiskers
and a calico jacket, who jumped out of a box when the cover was lifted;
and then you crushed him down and hasped him in. Sometimes she wished
that she had never had that monkey, he was so much like the people
coming in and out of the sidewalk.
In fact, there was a monotony about all the people in the Lady of
Shalott's looking-glass. If their faces were not dirty, their hands were.
If they had hats, they went without shoes. If they did not sit in the
sun with their heads on their knees, they lay in the mud with their
heads on a jug.
"Their faces look blue!" she said to Sary Jane.
"No wonder!" snapped Sary Jane.
"Why?" asked the Lady of Shalott.
"Wonder is we ain't all dead!" barked Sary Jane.
The people in the Lady of Shalott's glass died, however,
sometimes,—often in the summer; more often last summer, when the attic
smoked continually, and she mistook Sary Jane's voice for the rat-trap
The people were jostled into pine boxes (in the glass), and carried away
(in the glass) by twilight, in a cart. Three of the monkeys from the
spring-box in the sidewalk went, in one week, out into the foul, purple
twilight, away from the looking-glass, in carts.
"I'm glad of that, poor things!" said the Lady of Shalott, for she had
always felt a kind of sorrow for the monkeys. Principally, I think,
because they had no glass.
When the monkeys had gone, the sickly twilight folded itself up, over
the spring-box, into great feathers, like the feathers of a wing. That
was pleasant. The Lady of Shalott could almost put out her fingers and
stroke it, it hung so near, and was so clear, and gathered such a
peacefulness into the looking-glass.
"Sary Jane, dear, it's very pleasant," said the Lady of Shalott. Sary
Jane said it was very dangerous, the Lord knew, and bit her threads off.
"And, Sary Jane, dear!" added the Lady of Shalott, "I see so many other
"The more fool you!" said Sary Jane.
But she wondered about it that day over her tenth nankeen vest. What,
for example, could the Lady of Shalott see?
"Waves!" said the Lady of Shalott, suddenly, as if she had been asked
the question. Sary Jane jumped. She said, "Nonsense!" For the Lady of
Shalott had only seen the little wash-tub full of dingy water on Sunday
nights, and the dirty little hydrant (in the glass) spouting dingy jets.
She would not have known a wave if she had seen it.
"But I see waves," said the Lady of Shalott. She felt sure of it. They
ran up and down across the glass. They had green faces and gray hair.
They threw back their hands, like cool people resting, and it seemed
unaccountable, at the east end of South Street last summer, that
anything, anywhere, if only a wave in a looking-glass, could be cool or
at rest. Besides this, they kept their faces clean. Therefore the Lady
of Shalott took pleasure in watching them run up and down across the
glass. That a thing could be clean, and green, and white, was only less
a wonder than cool and rest last summer in South Street.
"Sary Jane, dear," said the Lady of Shalott, one day, "how hot is it
"Hot as Hell!" said Sary Jane.
"I thought it was a little warm," said the Lady of Shalott. "Sary Jane,
dear, isn't the yard down there a little—dirty?"
Sary Jane put down her needle, and looked out of the blazing, blindless
window. It had always been a subject of satisfaction to Sary Jane,
somewhere down below her lean shoulders and in the very teeth of the
rat-trap, that the Lady of Shalott could not see out of that window. So
she winked at the window, as if she would caution it to hold its burning
tongue, and said never a word.
"Sary Jane, dear," said the Lady of Shalott, once more, "had you ever
thought that perhaps I was a little—weaker—than I was—once?"
"I guess you can stand it if I can!" said the rat-trap.
"O, yes, dear," said the Lady of Shalott. "I can stand it if you can."
"Well, then!" said Sary Jane. But she sat and winked at the bald window,
and the window held its burning tongue.
It grew hot in South Street. It grew very hot in South Street. The lean
children in the attic opposite fell sick, and sat no longer in the
window making faces, in the Lady of Shalott's glass.
Two more monkeys from the spring-box were carried away one ugly twilight
in a cart. The purple wing that hung over the spring-box lifted to let
them pass; and then fell, as if it had brushed them away.
"It has such a soft color!" said the Lady of Shalott, smiling.
"So has nightshade!" said Sary Jane.
One day a beautiful thing happened. One can scarcely understand how a
beautiful thing could happen at the east end of South Street. The Lady
of Shalott herself did not entirely understand.
"It is all the glass," she said.
She was lying very still when she said it. She had folded her hands,
which were hot, to keep them quiet too. She had closed her eyes, which
ached, to close away the glare of the noon. At once she opened them, and
"It is the glass."
Sary Jane stood in the glass. Now Sary Jane, she well knew, was not in
the room that noon. She had gone out to see what she could find for
dinner. She had five cents to spend on dinner. Yet Sary Jane stood in
the glass. And in the glass, ah! what a beautiful thing!
"Flowers!" cried the Lady of Shalott aloud. But she had never seen
flowers. But neither had she seen waves. So she said, "They come as the
waves come." And knew them, and lay smiling. Ah! what a beautiful,
Sary Jane's hair was fiery and tumbled (in the glass), as if she had
walked fast and far. Sary Jane (in the glass) was winking, as she had
winked at the blazing window; as if she said to what she held in her
arms, Don't tell! And in her arms (in the glass), where the waves
were—oh! beautiful, beautiful! The Lady of Shalott lay whispering:
"Beautiful, beautiful!" She did not know what else to do. She dared not
stir. Sary Jane's lean arms (in the glass) were full of silver bells;
they hung out of a soft green shadow, like a church tower; they nodded
to and fro; when they shook, they shook out sweetness.
"Will they ring?" asked the Lady of Shalott of the little glass.
I doubt, in my own mind, if you or I, being in South Street, and seeing
a lily of the valley (in a 10 X 6 inch looking-glass) for the very first
time, would have asked so sensible a question.
"Try 'em and see," said the looking-glass. Was it the looking-glass? Or
the rat-trap? Or was it—
O, the beautiful thing! That the glass should have nothing to do with it,
after all! That Sary Jane, in flesh and blood, and tumbled hair, and
trembling, lean arms, should stand and shake an armful of church towers
and silver bells down into the Lady of Shalott's little puzzled face and
And that the Lady of Shalott should think that she must have got into
the glass herself, by a blunder,—as the only explanation possible of
such a beautiful thing!
"No, it isn't glass-dreams," said Sary Jane, winking at the church
towers, where they made a solemn, green shadow against the Lady of
Shalott's bent cheek. "Smell 'em and see. You can 'most stand the yard
with them round. Smell 'em and see! It ain't the glass; it's the Flower
"The what?" asked the Lady of Shalott slowly.
"The Flower Charity."
"Heaven bless it!" said the Lady of Shalott. But she said nothing more.
She laid her cheek over into the shadow of the green church towers. "And
there'll be more," said Sary Jane, hunting for her wax. "There'll be
more, whenever I can call for 'em,—bless it!"
"Heaven bless it!" said the Lady of Shalott again.
"But I only got a lemon for dinner," said Sary Jane.
"Heaven bless it!" said the Lady of Shalott, with her face hidden under
the church towers. But I don't think that she meant the lemon, though
Sary Jane did.
"They do ring," said the Lady of Shalott by and by. She drew the tip
of her thin fingers across the tip of the tiny bells. "I thought they
"Humph!" said Sary Jane, squeezing her lemon under her work-box. "I
never see your beat for glass-dreams. What do they say? Come, now!"
Now the Lady of Shalott knew very well what they said. Very well! But
she only drew the tips of her poor fingers over the tips of the silver
bells. Clever mind! It was not necessary to tell Sary Jane.
But it grew hot in South Street. It grew very hot in South Street. Even
the Flower Charity (bless it!) could not sweeten the dreadfulness of
that yard. Even the purple wing above the spring-box fell heavily upon
the Lady of Shalott's strained eyes, across the glass. Even the
gray-haired waves ceased running up and down and throwing back their
hands before her; they sat still, in heaps upon a blistering beach, and
gasped for breath. The Lady of Shalott herself gasped sometimes, in
One day she said: "There's a man in them."
"A what in which?" buzzed Sary Jane. "Oh! There's a man across the
yard, I suppose you mean. Among them young ones, yonder. I wish he'd
stop 'em throwing stones, plague on 'em! See him, don't you?"
"I don't see the children," said the Lady of Shalott, a little troubled.
Her glass had shown her so many things strangely since the days grew hot.
"But I see a man, and he walks upon the waves. See, see!"
The Lady of Shalott tried to pull herself up upon the elbow of her
calico night-dress, to see.
"That's one of them Hospital doctors," said Sary Jane, looking out of
the blazing window. "I've seen him round before. Don't know what
business he's got down here; but I've seen him. He's talkin' to them
boys now, about the stones. There! He'd better! If they don't look out,
"O, the glass! the glass!"
The Hospital doctor stood still; so did Sary Jane, half risen from her
chair; so did the very South Street boys, gaping in the gutter, with
their hands full of stones, such a cry rang out from the palace window.
"O, the glass! the glass! the glass!"
In a twinkling the South Street boys were at the mercy of the South
Street police; and the Hospital doctor, bounding over a beachful of
shattered, scattered waves, stood, out of breath, beside the Lady of
"O the little less, and what worlds away!"
The Lady of Shalott lay quite still in her little brown calico
night-gown [I cannot learn, by the way, that Bulfinch's studious and in
general trustworthy researches have put him in possession of this point.
Indeed, I feel justified in asserting that Mr. Bulfinch never so much as
intimated that the Lady of Shalott wore a brown calico
night-dress]—the Lady of Shalott lay quite still, and her lips turned
"Are you very much hurt? Where were you struck? I heard the cry, and
came. Can you tell me where the blow was?"
But then the doctor saw the glass, broken and blown in a thousand
glittering sparks across the palace floor; and then the Lady of Shalott
gave him a little blue smile.
"It's not me. Never mind. I wish it was. I'd rather it was me than the
glass. O, my glass! my glass! But never mind. I suppose there'll be some
"Were you so fond of the glass?" asked the doctor, taking one of the two
chairs that Sary Jane brought him, and looking sorrowfully about the
room. What other "pleasant thing" could even the Lady of Shalott
discover in that room last summer, at the east end of South Street?
"How long have you lain here?" asked the sorrowful doctor, suddenly.
"Since I can remember, sir," said the Lady of Shalott, with that blue
smile. "But then I have always had my glass."
"Ah!" said the doctor, "the Lady of Shalott!"
"Sir?" said the Lady of Shalott.
"Where is the pain?" asked the doctor, gently, with his finger on the
Lady of Shalott's pulse.
The Lady of Shalott touched the shoulder of her brown calico night-dress,
"And what did you see in your glass?" asked the doctor, once more
stooping to examine "the pain."
The Lady of Shalott tried to tell him, but felt confused; so many
strange things had been in the glass since it grew hot. So she only said
that there were waves and a purple wing, and that they were broken now,
and lay upon the floor.
"Purple wings?" asked the doctor.
"Over the sidewalk," nodded the Lady of Shalott. "It comes up at night."
"Oh!" said the doctor, "the malaria. No wonder!"
"And what about the waves?" asked the doctor, talking while he touched
and tried the little brown calico shoulders. "I have a little girl of my
own down by the waves this summer. She—I suppose she is no older than
"I am seventeen, sir," said the Lady of Shalott. "Do they have green
faces and white hair? Does she see them run up and down? I never saw any
waves, sir, but those in my glass. I am very glad to know that your
little girl is by the waves."
"Where you ought to be," said the doctor, half under his breath. "It is
"What is cruel?" asked the Lady of Shalott, looking up into the doctor's
The little brown calico night-dress swam suddenly before the doctor's
eyes. He got up and walked across the floor. As he walked he stepped
upon the pieces of the broken glass.
"O, don't!" cried the Lady of Shalott. But then she thought that perhaps
she had hurt the doctor's feelings; so she smiled, and said, "Never
"Her case could be cured," said the doctor, still under his breath, to
Sary Jane. "The case could be cured yet. It is cruel!"
"Sir," said Sary Jane,—she lifted her sharp face sharply out of billows
of nankeen vests,—"it may be because I make vests at sixteen and three
quarters cents a dozen, sir; but I say before God there's something
cruel somewheres. Look at her. Look at me. Look at them stairs. Just see
that scuttle, will you? Just feel the sun in't these windows. Look at
the rent we pay for this 'ere oven. What do you s'pose the meriky is up
here? Look at them pisen fogs arisen' out over the sidewalk. Look at the
dead as have died in the Devil in this street this week. Then look out
Sary Jane drew the doctor to the blazing, blindless window, out of which
the Lady of Shalott had never looked.
"Now talk of curin' her!" said Sary Jane.
The doctor turned away from the window, with a sudden white face.
"The Board of Health—"
"Don't talk to me about the Board of Health!" said Sary Jane.
"I'll talk to them," said the doctor. "I did not know matters were so
bad. They shall be attended to directly. To-morrow I leave town—" He
stopped, looking down at the Lady of Shalott, thinking of the little
lady by the waves, whom he would see to-morrow, hardly knowing what to
say. "But something shall be done at once. Meantime, there's the
"She tried Horspital long ago," said Sary Jane. "They said they couldn't
do nothing. What's the use? Don't bother her. Let her be."
"Yes, let me be," said the Lady of Shalott, faintly. "The glass is
"But something must be done!" urged the doctor, hurrying away. "I will
attend to the matter directly."
He spoke in a busy doctor's busy way. Undoubtedly he thought that he
should attend to the matter directly.
"You have flowers here, I see." He lifted, in hurrying away, a spray of
lilies that lay upon the bed, freshly sent to the Lady of Shalott that
"They ring," said the Lady of Shalott, softly. "Can you hear?
'Bless—it! Bless—it!' Ah, yes, they ring!"
"Bless what?" asked the doctor, half out of the door.
"The Flower Charity," said the Lady of Shalott.
"Amen!" said the doctor. "But I'll attend to it directly." And he was
quite out of the door, and the door was shut.
"Sary Jane, dear?" said, the Lady of Shalott, a few minutes after the
door was shut.
"Well!" said Sary Jane.
"The glass is broken," said the Lady of Shalott.
"Should think I might know that!" said Sary Jane, who was down upon her
knees, sweeping shining pieces away into a pasteboard dust-pan.
"Sary Jane, dear?" said the Lady of Shalott again.
"Dear, dear!" echoed Sary Jane, tossing purple feathers out of the
window and seeming, to the eyes of the Lady of Shalott, to have the
spray of green waves upon her hands. "There they go!"
"Yes, there they go," said the Lady of Shalott. But she said no more
It was a hot night for South Street. It was a very hot night for even
South Street. The lean children in the attic opposite cried savagely,
like lean cubs. The monkeys from the spring-box came out and sat upon
the lid for air. Dirty people lay around the dirty hydrant; and the
purple wing stretched itself a little in a quiet way, to cover them.
"Sary Jane, dear?" said the Lady of Shalott, at night. "The glass is
broken. And, Sary Jane, dear, I am afraid I can't stand it as well as
Sary Jane gave the Lady of Shalott a sharp look, and put away her
nankeen vests. She came to the bed.
"It isn't time to stop sewing, is it?" asked the Lady of Shalott, in
faint surprise. Sary Jane only gave her sharp looks, and said,—
"Nonsense! That man will be back again yet. He'll look after ye, maybe.
"Yes," said the Lady of Shalott, "he will come back again. But my glass
"Nonsense!" said Sary Jane. But she did not go back to her sewing. She
sat down on the edge of the bed, by the Lady of Shalott; and it grew
"Perhaps they'll do something about the yards; who knows?" said Sary
Jane through the growing dark.
"But my glass is broken," said the Lady of Shalott.
"Sary Jane, dear!" said the Lady of Shalott, when it had grown quite,
quite dark. "He is walking on the waves."
"Nonsense!" said Sary Jane. For it was quite, quite dark.
"Sary Jane, dear!" said the Lady of Shalott. "Not that man. But there
is a man, and he is walking on the waves."
The Lady of Shalott raised herself upon her little calico night-dress
sleeve. She looked at the wall where the 10 X 6 inch looking-glass had
"Sary Jane, dear!" said the Lady of Shalott. "I am glad that girl is
down by the waves. I am very glad. But the glass is broken."
Two days after, the Board of Health at the foot of the precipice, which
the lessor called a flight of stairs, which led into the Lady of
Shalott's palace, were met and stopped by another board.
"This one's got the right of way, gentlemen!" said something at the
brink of the precipice, which sounded so much like a rat-trap that the
Board of Health looked down by instinct at its individual and collective
feet to see if they were in danger, and dared not by instinct stir a
The board which had the right of way was a pine board, and the Lady of
Shalott lay on it, in her little brown calico night-dress, with Sary
Jane's old shawl across her feet. The Flower Charity (Heaven bless it!)
had half covered the old shawl with silver bells, and solemn green
shadows, like the shadows of church towers. And it was a comfort to know
that these were the only bells which tolled for the Lady of Shalott, and
that no other church shadow fell upon her burial.
"Gentlemen," said the Hospital doctor, "we're too late, I see. But you'd
better go on."
The gentlemen of the Board of Health went on; and the Lady of Shalott
The Lady of Shalott went out into the cart that had carried away the
monkeys from the spring-box, and the purple wing lifted to let her pass;
and fell again, as if it had brushed her away.
The Board of Health went up the precipice, and stood by the window out
of which the Lady of Shalott had never looked.
They sent orders to the scavenger, and orders to the Water Board, and
how many other orders nobody knows; and they sprinkled themselves with
camphor, and they went their ways.
And the board that had the right of way went its way, too. And Sary Jane
folded up the shawl, which she could not afford to lose, and came home,
and made nankeen vests at sixteen and three quarters cents a dozen in
the window out of which the Lady of Shalott had never looked.