In the dozy hours, and other papers/A Note on Mirrors


Heinrich Heine, who had a particularly nice and discriminating taste in ghosts, and who studied with such delicate pleasure the darkly woven fancies of German superstition, frankly admitted that to see his own face by moonlight in a mirror thrilled him with indefinable horror. Most of us who are blessed, or burdened, with imaginations have shared at moments in this curious fear of that smooth, shining sheet of glass, which seems to hold within itself some power mysterious and malign. By daytime it is commonplace enough, and lends itself with facile ease to the cheerful and homely nature of its surroundings. But at dusk, at night, by lamplight, or under the white, insinuating moonbeams, the mirror assumes a distinctive and uncanny character of its own. Then it is that it reflects that which we shrink from seeing. Then it is that our own eyes meet us with an unnatural stare and a piercing intelligence, as if another soul were watching us from their depths with furtive, startled inquiry. Then it is that the invisible something in the room, from which the merciful dullness of mortality has hitherto saved us, may at any instant take sudden shape, and be seen, not in its own form, but reflected in the treacherous glass, which, like the treacherous water, has the power of betraying things that the air, man's friendly element, refuses to reveal.

This wise mistrust of the ghostly mirror is so old and so far spread that we meet with it in the folk lore of every land. An English tradition warns us that the new moon, which brings us such good fortune when we look at it in the calm evening sky, carries a message of evil to those who see it first reflected in a looking-glass. For such unlucky mortals the lunar virus distils slow poison and corroding care. The child who is suffered to see his own image in a mirror before he is a year old is marked out for trouble and many disappointments. The friends who glance at their reflections standing side by side are doomed to quick dissension. The Swedish girl who looks into her glass by candlelight risks the loss of her lover. A universal superstition, which has found its way even to our own prosaic time and country, forbids a bride to see herself in a mirror after her toilet is completed. If she be discreet, she turns away from that fair picture which pleases her so well, and then draws on her glove, or has some tiny ribbon, flower, or jewel fastened to her gown, that the sour Fates may be appeased, and evil averted from her threshold. In Warwickshire and other parts of rural England it was long the custom to cover all the looking-glasses in a house of death, lest some affrighted mortal should behold in one the pale and shrouded corpse standing by his side. There is a ghastly story of a servant maid who, on leaving the chamber where her dead master lay, glanced in the uncovered mirror, and saw the sheeted figure on the bed beckoning her rigidly to its side.

Some such tale as this must have been told me in my infancy, for in no other way can I account for the secret terror I felt for the little oval mirror which hung by my bed at school. Every night I turned it carefully with its face to the wall, lest by some evil chance I should arise and look in it. Every night I was tormented with the same haunting notion that I had not remembered to turn it; and then, shivering with cold and fright, I would creep out of bed, and, with averted head and tightly shut eyes, feel my way to the wretched thing, and assure myself of what I knew already, that its harmless back alone confronted me. I never asked myself what it was I feared to see;—some face that was not mine, some apparition born of the darkness and of my own childish terror. Nor can I truly say that this apprehension, inconvenient though it seemed on chilly winter nights, did not carry with it a vague, sweet pleasure of its own. Little girls of eleven may be no better nor wiser for the scraps of terrifying folk lore which formed part of my earliest education, yet in one respect, at least, I triumphed by their aid. Even the somewhat spiritless monotony of a convent school was not without its vivifying moments for a child who carried to bed with her each night a horde of goblin fears to keep her imagination lively.

Superstitions of a less ghostly character cluster around the mirror, and are familiar to us all. To break one is everywhere an evil omen. "Seven years' trouble, but no want," follow fast upon such a mishap in Yorkshire, while in Scotland, the cracking of a looking-glass, like the falling of the doomed man's picture from the wall, is a presage of approaching death. Such portents as these, however,—though no one who is truly wise presumes to treat them with levity,—are powerless to thrill us with that indefinable and subtle horror which springs from causeless emotions. Scott, in his prologue to "Aunt Margaret's Mirror," has well defined the peculiar fear which is without reason and without cure. The old lady who makes her servant maid draw a curtain over the glass before she enters her bedroom, "so that she" (the maid) "may have the first shock of the apparition, if there be any to be seen," is of far too practical a turn to trouble herself about the rationality of her sensations, "Like many other honest folk," she does not like to look at her own reflection by candlelight, because it is an eerie thing to do. Yet the tale she tells of the Paduan doctor and his magic mirror is, on the other hand, neither interesting nor alarming. It has all the dreary qualities of a psychical research report which cannot even provoke us to a disbelief.

In fact, divining-crystals, when known as such professionally, are tame, hard-working, almost respectable institutions. In the good old days of necromancy, magicians had no need of such mechanical appliances. Any reflecting surface would serve their turn, and a bowl of clear water was enough to reveal to them all that they wanted to know. It was of more importance, says Brand, "to make choice of a young maid to discern therein those images or visions which a person defiled cannot see." Even the famous mirror, through whose agency Dr. Dee and his seer, Kelly, were said to have discovered the Gunpowder Plot, was in reality nothing more than a black polished stone, closely resembling coal.

"Kelly did all his feats upon
The devil's looking-glass, a stone."

Yet in an old Prayer-Book of 1737 there is a woodcut representing the king and Sir Kenelm Digby gazing into a circular mirror, in which are reflected the Houses of Parliament, and a man entering them with a dark lantern in his hand. Above, the eye of Providence is seen darting a ray of light upon the mirror. Below are legs and hoofs, as of evil spirits flying rapidly away. The truth is, so many conflicting details are related of Dr. Dee's useful and benevolent possession that it has lost a little of its vraisemblance. We are wont to rank it confusedly with such mystic treasures as the mirror which told the fortunate Alasnam whether or not a maid were as chaste as she was beautiful, or the glass which Reynard described with such minute and charming falsehoods to the royal lioness, who would fain have gratified her curiosity by a sight of its indiscreet revelations.

It is never through magic mirrors, nor crystal balls, nor any of the paraphernalia now so abundantly supplied by painstaking students of telepathy that we approach that shadowy land over which broods perpetual fear. Let us rather turn meekly back to the fairy-taught minister of Aberfoyle, and learn of him the humiliating truth that "every drop of water is a Mirrour to returne the Species of Things, were our visive Faculty sharpe enough to …prehend them." In other words, we stand in need, not of elaborate appliances, but of a chastened spirit. If we seek the supernatural with the keen apprehension which is begotten of credulity and awe, we shall never find ourselves disappointed in our quest. The same reverend authority tells us that "in a Witch's Eye the Beholder cannot see his own Image reflected, as in the Eyes of other people," which is an interesting and, it may be, a very useful thing to know.

Two curious stories having relation to the ghostly character of the mirror will best serve to illustrate my text. The first is found in Shelley's journal; one of the inexhaustible store supplied to the poet by "Monk" Lewis, and is about a German lady who, dancing with her lover at a ball, saw in a glass the reflection of her dead husband gazing at her with stern, reproachful eyes. She is said to have died of terror. The second tale is infinitely more picturesque. In the church of Santa Maria Novella at Florence is the beautiful tomb of Beata Villana, the daughter of a noble house, and married in extreme youth to one of the family of Benintendi. Tradition says that she was very fair, and that, being arrayed one night for a festival, she stood looking long in the mirror, allured by her own loveliness. Suddenly her eyes were opened, and she saw, close by her side, a demon dressed with costly raiment like her own, and decked with shining jewels like those she wore upon her arms and bosom. Appalled by this vision of evil, Beata Villana fled from the vanities of the world, and sought refuge in a convent, where she died a holy death in 1360, being then but twenty-eight years of age. Her marble effigy rests on its carven bed in the old Florentine church, and smiling angels draw back the curtains to show her sweet, dead beauty, safe at last from the perilous paths of temptation. In such a legend as this there lingers for us still the elements of mystery and of horror which centuries of prosaic progress are powerless to alienate from that dumb witness of our silent, secret hours, the mirror.