The Little Gray Grandmother; or The Enchanted Mirror
NOBODY knew whence she came or whither she went. All that any one of the children could have told you about her, was that oftentimes they looked up from their play and there she stood, in her soft misty gray gown, and still softer, long, gray cloak and shadowy gray veil which always reminded them of thin smoke. Sometimes her face could scarcely be seen behind this mysterious veil, and sometimes it shone quite clear and distinct. This was always the case when any one of them had done some unselfish or brave act and thought no one knew it. And yet, if happy with the thought, he or she chanced to look up, there would be the Little Gray Grandmother, her face fairly shining with the glad smile of approval. Then suddenly she would disappear and they would not hear of her for days and days.
There was a large family of them, and they had sharp eyes too, but none of them ever saw her coming until, as I said before, there she stood in the midst of them. They lived near the great sea, and its mist often covered the coast for miles and miles so that nothing but the dim outline of objects could be seen. Therefore, their city cousins had fallen into the way of laughing at them and saying the Little Gray Grandmother was only a bit of the sea fog left behind after a damp day, but they knew better.
Although she had never spoken to them, had she not smiled at them, and sometimes looked sad when she came upon them suddenly and found any one of them doing a mean or greedy deed, and ah, how stern her eyes were the day she found Wilhelm telling a lie! Nobody could make them believe that she was only a dream which came from a bit of sea fog! Then, too, had she not left that thimble for Mai which was no sooner placed on her thimble-finger than it began to push the needle so fast that a seam a yard long would be finished before you could say, "Jack Robinson," unless you had practiced saying it very often.
Who else was it that brought those tall leather boots for Gregory which helped him to run so fast when sent on an errand that even his dog, Oyster, could not keep up with him? And as for Lelia, everybody knew that it was just after the Little Gray Grandmother had paid them a visit Lelia had found herself holding that bottle of Attic salt from far-away Greece, two grains of which placed on the end of her tongue, caused good humor and wit to flow with every word she said until she was equal to a bit of sunshine on a dark day.
All of them were as certain as certain could be that she had presented Doodle when he was a very little child with those soft, warm mittens which somehow grew as he grew and so always just fitted his hands. What wonderful mittens they were, too! All Doodle had to do on the coldest day was to reach out his hand in his hearty, cheery way, to any one, and no matter how cold that person might be, even if his teeth were chattering with the cold, he was sure to feel a warm glow all over his body. This was how Doodle got into the way of taking care of all the lame dogs and sick cats that came along; and why all the old people liked him. They said he made them feel young again. And Tom and Wilhelm and the rest of them, had not the Little Gray Grandmother left a gift for each of them?
Ah, but they were a happy family! What if they did have to eat herring and dry bread all the year round, with potatoes now and then thrown in, and had to live in a hut, didn't they have a Little Gray Grandmother, when so many city children, who thought themselves fine because they lived in big houses, had never even heard of her!
Now, you can understand why all the children were gathered together eagerly looking at something which lay on the sand before them. The Little Gray Grandmother had been there and had left something. What was it? They could not tell. It glittered like the surface of a pool of water when it is quite still and the sun shines down upon it, and they could see their faces reflected on it just as they had often seen them in the well back of the house, only this mirrored their faces much more clearly than the well did. What was it? For whom had the Little Gray Grandmother intended it? These were the questions they could not answer. So they decided to take it in to the dear-mother and have her explain it to them.
Ah, the dear-mother, she must know, she knew almost everything and what she didn't know she always tried to find out for them. That was the finest thing about the dear-mother. Of course she cooked their food for them, and made their clothes, and nursed any of them when they were ill, and all such things, but the great thing about her was that she never seemed too busy to look at what they brought her and was always ready to answer their questions. Therefore they with one accord decided to take this new gift into the house and ask the dear-mother about it.
Of course she admired it; she always admired everything they brought her, if it was only a star-fish or a new kind of sea-weed. She said it was made of some sort of precious metal, and that it seemed to be a mirror such as they used in olden times before looking-glasses had been invented. "Perhaps," she added, "it has been washed up from the sea." But the children cried, "Oh, no, the Little Gray Grandmother left it." They were very, very sure of that. But for whom had it been left? Even the dear-mother could not settle this question.
At last it was decided that it should be hung on the cottage wall that all might use it; so there it hung for many a year, and ah, such strange things as the children saw reflected in it! It was not at all like an ordinary mirror, not in the least like anything you ever saw, and yet, perchance you may have seen something like it. How do I know?
Well, at any rate the children had never heard of such a wonderful mirror before. It had a queer way of swinging itself on its hinge—I forgot to tell you that it had been fastened to the wall by a hinge so that its face could be turned toward the east or the west window, and thus let the children see themselves in the morning as well as the evening light. At first they thought this was a fine idea, but sometimes it was not exactly comfortable to have the small mirror suddenly swing round and face them when they didn't care to be faced.
For instance, when Mai had been working hard all day and because she felt tired, spoke crossly to the little brothers, it was not at all agreeable to look up and see the face of a bear reflected in the silver mirror, or when Gregory had been boasting of something fine he was going to accomplish, to catch a glimpse of a barnyard rooster strutting about as if he were indeed the master of the farm. Somehow it made Gregory feel foolish even if the rest of the children did not see the image in the mirror. Once little Beta came in ahead of the others, and, finding some apples that the father had brought home, seized the largest one and began to devour it. A swing of the silver mirror brought its polished surface before her eyes, and instead of a reflection of her own chubby face, she saw a pig greedily devouring a pile of apples. She couldn't understand it, and yet it made her feel ashamed and she quietly laid the apple back on the table.
But the pictures were not all disagreeable ones. Sometimes the small silver mirror reflected beautiful pictures. One bright summer day when Mai had stayed indoors all the morning to help the dear-mother finish a jacket for Beta, when she was longing with all her heart to be out in the sunshine, she chanced to glance up at the small mirror, and there was the vision of a beautiful Saint, with a golden light around her head such as Mai had seen in a church window once when she was in the city. The smile on the face was radiant. In a moment the vision had disappeared and only the shining surface of silver remained.
One day Gregory rowed little Beta across the bay to the large town on the other side, and did without his dinner that with his little farthing he might pay for the privilege of letting her climb the light-house stairs and see how big the world was. That night when they reached home, tired and happy, Beta looked into the mirror and there she saw the good St. Christopher wading through a dark stream of water with the little Christ-child on his shoulder, and somehow the face of St. Christopher was Gregory's face. As she cried, "Look!" she pointed to the mirror, but Gregory could see nothing but its shining surface. Still, Beta ever afterwards called him "St. Christopher," little dreaming that in years to come he would truly be the means by which many little children were carried safely across the dark streams.
At another time Doodle had rescued a poor frightened cat from some boys on the beach who were tormenting her, and even though they jeered at him and called him, "chicken-hearted" he had taken the little creature up in his arms and brought her in to the dear mother. As he passed the small silver mirror, a picture of a young knight shone in the depths of its surface, with a face so strong and pure and brave that Doodle stopped to admire it and wonder how it came there. Again and again when the children did a kind, or a truthful, or loving thing, the mirror reflected for a moment some beautiful image which instantly disappeared if it were spoken of. Somehow it constantly reminded them of the glad look in the eyes of the Little Gray Grandmother when she found them playing peacefully and happily together. And strange to say, the Little Gray Grandmother never came again after the small silver mirror had been hung on the wall. Probably she thought they did not need her any longer.
Many years passed by and the children were all grown, when the dear-mother was called to pass on to her heavenly home. As they gathered around her death bed she asked them to hand her the small silver mirror which still hung on the home wall. She took it and broke it into pieces, giving a piece to each of the eight children, and each piece immediately became a full-sized mirror as large as the first one had been. These she told them to keep always with them, and then with a gentle smile she passed away. As they separated to go out into the world, each one took his or her small silver mirror and hung it in his or her private bed room, that each might look into it and know, for certain, whether that day had been spent for the cause of the right or the wrong.