A Maker of Mirrors

I.

ABEL STARBUCK ! She could scarcely believe her eyes. . . . Abel Starbuck, — whose discoveries in chemistry had partially revolutionized that science, — whose brilliant studies in metaphysics had introduced a new element into the philosophy of life, — Abel Starbuck turned furniture-maker. . . . The thing was ludicrous, — inconceivable !

She knew that Abel Starbuck was generally accounted the first scientist of the age, though certain of his colleagues deplored a touch of eccentricity in his genius, alien, as they held, to the true scientific spirit. His versatility was also reckoned against him. By reason of his insatiable curiosity, and the catholicity of his interests, he was constantly before the public eye. His experiments ranged over every department of life, including philanthropy. Had he painted the picture of the year, or started a new religion, Joanna Cochrane would have found no great matter for surprise. But to take up with artistic furniture! ... It was connected in her mind with so many sordid experiences, — ignorance on the part of the public, — meanness on the part of the dealers. She had for many years been making furniture designs for London manufacturers, and had specialized in inlaying metal and enamel work: but the joy of her unusual skill in these crafts was not sufficient compensation for the poverty, the hardships, the gnawing uncertainties that were her lot. It was incomprehensible to her how any one should descend from the sublime realms of abstract thought to this world she knew, — a world that had beauty in it no doubt, but a beauty overshadowed, and often hidden, by the ugliness of its associations. Yet there, before her, was the printed announcement of Starbuck’s declension: a leaderette commented lightly upon it, suggesting equally incongruous employments for other eminent men of the day; and, most convincing of all, she came, in the advertising column, upon an advertisement inserted by Professor Starbuck himself, for an assistant who understood working in metals and enamels.

Why not ? The blood rushed to her face with the suddenness of the thought. She read the advertisement through again more carefully. “Apply personally, after twelve noon at the factory, Bankside, Lambeth, London.”

Such a chance had never come her way before. And she might, too, see Abel Starbuck! The romance of the thought for a moment overrode all more practical considerations. Yet these, when they came to be weighed, were sufficiently alluring. If the wildly improbable should happen, — if she should succeed in obtaining the post, — it would mean working under the direction of a man of ideas, — a man of understanding and of generosity,— it would mean regular employment, adequate remuneration, relief from the pressing anxieties that every morning she had to face.

She looked critically at the rainbow work that lay before her; she knew it to be good of its kind, — possibly unique. She put together one or two designs of perfect workmanship, to serve as specimens, looked up a few drawings that had been rejected on the score of originality: then she crossed over to her dressing-table, for the attic served as workroom and bedroom in one. Now she looked at herself critically in the looking-glass; and the old depression grew upon her that she, who had such exquisite taste in the manipulation of stone and pearl, should be so absolutely lacking in the power of managing aright her own personal setting. She could frame a gem so as to enhance its every shade of color, its every subtlety of contour; but her own hair she could not dress becomingly, nor choose wisely the hats and gowns that would emphasize the graces of her face and figure, and minimize the defects. It distressed her, — not that she was faded or worn, but that she appeared to suggest the fact. The old diffidence — the old mistrust of herself which had lost her every opportunity so far — came upon her with renewed force. She felt she would be nervous to foolishness at the interview, — she would say the wrong things, and undo her chances. It was morbid, egotistical, despicable, but she had never been able thoroughly to conquer her temperamental self-consciousness.

And now the temptation was strong upon her to shirk a trial in which she might be foredoomed to failure. She always shrank physically from facing a crisis, and felt an irresistible inclination to run away from opportunities. But to let slip so splendid a chance as this would be little short of a crime; and she turned from the looking-glass trembling, — determined. If only she had not looked in the glass at all; had been able to forget this dull thing dressed in unattractive garments, and had remembered instead the intimate, invisible self that sometimes almost seemed one with the loveliness it dreamed of. But that self must remain hidden for all time in its fading sheath.

So she set out, and soon after twelve she reached the factory at Lambeth.

The factory was an old building, in appearance, recently adapted to its present purpose. It stood on the water’s edge, not far above Westminster Bridge. Joanna was ushered into a bare room, round which, on forms, sat a number of men and women, — applicants evidently for the same post as herself. It was a motley assemblage. Almost every class seemed to be represented, from the skilled artisan, to the fashionable dilettante ; and all were under the influence of a like uncomfortable tension, inevitable where the competition was so immediate and so obvious.

Joanna lost count of time; the room gradually cleared: some one came and took her specimens away, and then she was summoned into the presence of Abel Starbuck himself.

Tall, with a slight stoop; grave, slow in movement, as though his thoughts were too big to translate themselves into action; with eyes deep-set, heavylidded, and of an extraordinary vitality, — such was Abel Starbuck at a first glance. He was much younger than Joanna expected, and might well have passed for thirty-five.

“Will you sit down,” he said pointing to a chair.

The room was peculiar in shape. It reminded Joanna of the circular rooms in lighthouses, for it was built right over the river, and one half was occupied by a bay window opening up a great tract of water. The walls were colorwashed, gray, — and a rosy atmosphere stole in off the water, tempering the austerity with a faint flush.

“ Your work is very beautiful, ” Starbuck said, “and the designs submitted have the boldness, the simplicity, and the promise of originality that I am looking for.”

“I am glad they please you,” murmured Joanna. His directness, his impersonal manner set her partially at her ease, but she was still oppressed by the keen, overwhelming consciousness of his greatness.

“Perhaps I might try to give you some idea of my requirements, ” Starbuck went on. “Now what article of furniture strikes you as primarily in need of revision ? ”

Joanna pondered a moment. “We have practically perfect designs for tables, for chairs, for bedsteads ” — she began.

“Have you ever given thought to looking-glasses ? These are of fairly modern invention. There is no good old tradition here to keep us right in the matter of their construction or framing, and yet perhaps no other piece of furniture has so large a share of our attention, — or looms with such importance in our lives. ”

Joanna gazed at him with amazement. The matter seemed to her too trifling to merit the emphasis he gave it. It was clear that the man himself had not a particle of vanity in his composition, — his clothes were serviceable, even to carelessness, and he spoke with the aloofness of a mathematician discussing a problem.

“I have sometimes thought that we set too much store by looking-glasses,” Joanna replied.

“ That is possible, ” said Starbuck; “still looking-glasses are an established accessory, which we are bound to accept. Now, in primitive times, what would you suppose to have been the natural mirror ? ”

“A lake or a pool,” said Joanna.

“Exactly: still water. Now consider for a moment how these ancient looking-glasses were framed. Some perhaps were set in a delicate rim of reeds, whose slender lines were scarcely blurred in their reflection; some, perhaps, had an edge of sea-worn rocks, softened by a filmy haze of sea-weed; some would be circled by the broad leaves of lilies, and some shine smooth out of a dusky border of shadows.”

“It is a pity those mirrors of Nature were ever superseded,” Joanna put in.

“First we replace water by glass, — a wretched substitute, — but that I suppose is inevitable; and next we set our glass in hideous, narrow squares of wood, or in the doors of wardrobes, surrounded with a trivial apparatus of drawers and shelves: by every means in our power we strive to kill the old open-air tradition. Now my idea is to bring mirrors back into their proper relationship with the woodland and seashore pools. ”

“By framing them in carvings of water lily leaves, or drapery of seaweed ? ”

“To some extent; but Art is convention, and our looking-glasses are no longer horizontal, which alters the conditions. I want to give, not a slavish copy of any particular natural object, but the spirit of all natural objects, expressed symbolically. ”

“Water always flows and shapes in curves,” replied Joanna thoughtfully; “there should be no angles — no straight lines in your mirrors.”

“You have caught the very idea,” exclaimed Starbuck eagerly; “now we will discuss the material for the framework. Certain woods might serve occasionally, carved or stained, but I should prefer silver, copper, bronze, — and for cheaper mirrors gun-metal and pewter. I shall try to achieve an effect of ripples at the edges, and you must suggest in your frames the dim green of fields, and the faint shimmer of sands.”

“The idea is alive with inspiration,” cried Joanna. “I can feel fiery dawns in the copper, and soft twilights in the silver and mother-of-pearl.”

“I see I am more than fortunate in your coöperation. The glass-making, the quicksilver, the whole process of manufacture is under my personal direction ; I believe I can give a new sense of depth to the mirror ” (he scanned her curiously for a moment as he said these words), “ and in time I may be able to graduate its color, and produce treereflections and water-lights at the edge. That is why I have built this room over the river, — that I may master the secret of each shifting gleam, — and learn the mystery of each luminous ripple. I want you to undertake the department of the frames. Use what material you will, so that you keep within the general limitations I have roughly laid down. You will no doubt shortly require a number of skilled assistants ; but in the first instance I should like you to think out some designs, and submit the drawings to me.”

“And is the inculcation of beauty your sole aim? ” asked Joanna.

For the first time in their long interview Professor Starbuck became aware that he was dealing with an individual, instead of with a mere satisfactory item in his scheme.

“You are interested in motives?” he inquired.

“I am interested in Professor Starbuck’s motives,” she replied.

“Well, I may tell you that beauty is not my only object; nor is it my only object to bring the influence of Nature intimately into people’s lives; though both these things seem to me good. But come into my workshop, and I will show you the experimental mirror I have made; perhaps I had better have it sent up to your house that you may make yourself thoroughly familiar with its rather unusual coloring. Like water, it looks grayer on a dark day than ordinary glass.”

He led the way into a side room fitted up as a laboratory. On an easel stood a mirror, wreathed round with newly cut branches of the beech. The leaves, exquisite with spring, were quite fresh; they seemed to waver over a still deep pool.

“I am no artist, — I have had to use natural objects themselves in my experiments, ” said Starbuck apologetically, “but you can feel at once how much can be made out of the beech idea: the beech stems suggested, perhaps, in dull silver, and the beech floor —— of faded leaves — in copper. I don’t quite know how you will get the sun effect that lives in this delicious green.”

“I could almost believe it a pool of water; it is astounding, ” murmured Joanna.

“I am pleased myself,” Starbuck acknowledged. “I have been rambling about for a long time, studying all manner of pools, in all manner of places; but Nature is infinitely various, and I have only conquered one fleeting mood. ”

“You make new worlds open before me,” said Joanna; “it is a joy to be associated in this scheme, and I hope my inspiration may stand by me, and all the material things I work in be kind.”

They discussed a few practical details, and then parted.

II.

The light of pearly morning came through the curtain-drawn window, and sank deep into the circular mirror that Starbuck had sent up, just a year ago, to serve Joanna as a test for the color and material of her frames.

Obeying a sentimental impulse, — which she did not stop to analyze, — Joanna had wreathed the mirror with branches of the beech tree in honor of the anniversary. From behind the fresh, green leaves came gleams of silver and of copper, the metals she had used in carrying out her symbolization of the spirit of the beech.

She lay watching the light waver and brighten over the surface of the mirror. The peace of lonely waters had entered into her soul. All the year she had been brooding over the loveliness of remote lakes and shadowy pools, and when she closed her eyes, vast tracts of water gleamed upon her consciousness, or shimmered vaguely through images of waving flags and grasses.

The beech-mirror was not only dear to her because it was the medium through which her dreams became actualities; it was infinitely more precious because it had been Starbuck’s first experiment, because, in some mysterious way, it existed by reason of his brain and blood, — and because, with the exception of her own, no other face than his had ever been reflected from its depths.

Sometimes, in fanciful moods, she had peered into the glass, wondering if the mercury might not hold some lingering shadow of Starbuck, who had bent for so many months over its manipulation, before it gave him back the echo he asked; and once, very late at night, she had fancied that Starbuck’s face appeared behind the reflection of her own. She knew that the illusion was one of thought-projection, but it startled her that the thought of him should so easily take visible shape. Was it indeed the peace of lonely waters that had made the last year so lovely and wonderful, or some dim, unacknowledged consciousness, that sent a glamour over the things of this world ?

She sprang up, and went over to the mirror. Framed in the beech leaves, her face looked out at her, soft, round, faintly luminous, set in a cloud of hair tossed after the night. How young she had grown during the past year! Yes, even pretty; and what a difference this knowledge had made to her, —what happiness it had brought, — what selfconfidence. She now trod the world joyfully and boldly, freed from the burden of diffidence that had made her selfconscious.

She began to dress, questioning herself. Was she indeed the same girl who had looked in the looking-glass a year ago with a misery so acute that she still remembered the pang of it? Or — she had never dared investigate the question before — could those newspapers be right which insinuated that Starbuck’s phenomenal success as a maker of mirrors was due to the fact that his mirrors flattered? Of course she had always admitted to herself that a face set in an exquisite framework would show at its very best: Starbuck had once pointed out how different a bird looks, seen in a forest glade, or in a cage, — and she had always supposed the innuendoes of the press inspired by commercial jealousy. But The Eaglet of the night before had suggested a very simple test in the matter, and the remembrance of it frightened her.

“ It has been maintained, ” so the paragraph ran, “that the mirrors of Professor Starbuck lend to the reflection no more than an artistic setting: this,of course, were a perfectly legitimate device. But any one can easily prove that in these mirrors the glass itself has been manipulated with a view to flattery. Place one of Professor Starbuck’s beside another of ordinary manufacture, cover up the frames of each, and carefully compare the images reflected. The face will show in Professor Starbuck’s glass, more delicate in outline and coloring, — most of the lines will have vanished, and all the harshnesses be softened. To put it baldly, these mirrors are held in esteem because they are based on a lie ; and Professor Starbuck’s enormous fortune has been accumulated by the most direct and flagrant falsehood. ”

After all she had better know the worst before it was too late! She fetched from the bottom of a cupboard the cheap old looking-glass, of former days, in its square wooden frame.

The newspaper was absolutely justified : the glass showed her a face thinner, more lined and more worn, than that which smiled from her beloved mirror wreathed with beech leaves.

It had always seemed to Joanna that the first duty in life was to accept facts as they are. She was impatient of those who colored them and shaped them to suit their own convenience or pleasure. “Paint me with my wrinkles ” had been to some extent her motto in everything; and to disguise ugliness, or the signs of age, seemed to her a cowardice, since it involved a direct violation of the truth.

And yet during the past year she had — unconsciously — given her assistance toward the propagation of a flattery of the coarsest type! She had based her whole personal life on a delusion! So now she stood shivering, stripped bare of all the false loveliness that had set a mirage about her days.

And Starbuck, — her Starbuck, — was he a charlatan ? The thing seemed impossible. He had been to her the one absolutely single-minded man she had ever met. Yet though in their close association of interests they had become warm comrades, she had never been able to fathom his motives, nor to discover what had led him to abandon abstract science for the trade of mirror-making. Their long conversations had circled round details of the immediate work, and she had failed to win a glimpse into His more intimate thoughts.

Of course there was nothing else for it but to abandon the position. Starbuck had cut out the rest of the trade, not because his goods were of better or more artistic workmanship, but that he had had recourse to a trick, — a trick, evil in its results, since it must inevitably increase in sum total the foolish vanity of the world. It was terrible to her to reflect that a genius so towering and unique should be applied to devices so trivial and unworthy. Her conscience would not allow her to remain any longer a party to the fraud; she would give notice that very day.

The bare room where Joanna had waited on her first introduction was now turned into a show-room. It was lighted from the roof, and every inch of wall was hung with mirrors. There stood the two great mirrors that had just been completed.

The stalactite mirror shone like a black pool from its frame of marble and ivory, — the marble was rounded as if by the constant action of water, and great needles of ivory stalactites tapered to meet the ivory stalagmites at the base.

The Wastwater mirror symbolized the screes, in flint; and pebbles seemed to run a little way under the glass ; the magnificent color of mountain image, shown on the lake in late autumn, was represented by masses of copper and lapis-lazuli. Only a small part of the mirror gave back reflections. Then there was the long frieze, — a new experiment in decoration; the glass was ridged to show as ripples, and the movements of people passing wavered vaguely and delightfully over it, as they do in running water, or in faded tapestry. Oh, why had not Starbuck been satisfied with the loveliness of these creations? Why had he allowed the serpent, the flatterer to creep into them ?

She knocked at the door of the river room, and went in. Starbuck’s greeting was more friendly than ever.

“I want to speak to you, Professor Starbuck, ” she said. “ I — I am afraid I cannot stay with you any longer. ”

“Miss Cochrane ! ” Starbuck looked blank with dismay.

“I am very sorry. I have been supremely happy in the work.”

She had hardly realized the fatality to him of her defection. Starbuck’s gravity struck her to the heart. Perhaps she had been precipitate, — perhaps there would be some explanation, — her very resolution began to falter.

“ But what is your reason ? Surely there must be some remedy? There is nothing — absolutely nothing — I would not do ” —

“You have been too good already; but there are no doubt other excellent workers who would not feel about some things as I do.”

“Miss Cochrane, —it is not only your work, — though your work is a veritable dream made to live, — a rainbow-given permanence. Have you not known, — have you not felt, — what happiness, —what an inspiration your companionship has been ? If you leave me, the whole industry will collapse, it is true ; but also my life will be emptied of its sweetness. I would have said this better, — I would have asked you more worthily to be my wife, — only you surprised me into this sudden, into this blunt confession. Forgive me. Do what you think best, — do what is for your own happiness, only I had begun to hope, — I had begun to believe ” —

Joanna grew quite pale. “ You have never known me as I really am, ” she said in a low voice; “ you have seen a fancy projection of myself, built on the false assumptions of your mirror.”

“ But this is a riddle. I do not understand. ”

“In the beech looking-glass you gave me a year ago, I appeared to myself young, — almost pretty. And I acted, I felt, as if I were young and pretty. I may even have made you think so too, for we are often accepted at our own valuation. But the looking-glass spoke falsely, — it flattered, — it lied ” —

“Is this the whole difficulty? ” said Starbuck. “ Is this why you want to leave me ? Tell me more particularly. ”

“Can’t you understand how hard you have made it for me to speak to you of things like this ? ”

“You have no doubt been reading the newspapers, too. They are just now particularly full of my misdoings.”

“ How can you speak so lightly ? ” “We try to be armed in steel against misconception. But I ought to have foreseen that you might be puzzled, annoyed ” —

“You can explain? ”

“I think so, — I hope so. And first of all, do you think ‘ flattery ' quite a fair term to apply to my mirrors ? Would you apply it to the mirrors of Nature,— the lakes and the pools? They blur slightly, — they change subtly, but they express all the more forcibly the essential truth.”

Joanna hesitated. “Flattery ” was obviously not the proper word to describe the effect produced by reflections in water. “Water softens roughnesses, — it lends a glamour of color, — it almost idealizes ” — she began.

“Do my mirrors do more? Like Nature, they merely idealize ” —

“But why should we see ourselves idealized ? ”

“Because we become what we believe ourselves to be. I may confess to you now that there is a philosophical idea underlying this making of mirrors. You must have known that I would never have abandoned my work in abstract science without some very serious intention. All the poetry of the framework, all the exquisite manipulation of material, were but ministers to my design. I have been working many years to perfect a discovery, which I believe will have an important influence on the destinies of man. I succeeded only very partially in embodying this discovery in the first mirror I made, which is now in your possession. My principle is, that the heroic in man will always respond to the right appeal; I took a practical way of making such an appeal by partially eliminating the trivial blemishes which deflect clear vision. You yourself have told me that my mirror has been an influence in your life.”

“It spoke falsely ” —

“It spoke truly. It glozed over what was transitory and unimportant, in order that it might reveal what was vital and abiding. So you became free from the minor trammels, — your real self asserted itself. I could not help watching, —rejoicing ” —

To some extent Joanna felt this to be an accurate statement of fact. She knew that she had largely grown to the conception of herself that had been suggested by the mirror.

“How did you achieve your result? ” she asked.

“First, by studying the processes of reflection in nature, and applying my materials accordingly. It was in experimentalizing along these lines that I made my discovery.”

“For the weak, — for the timid, — your mirrors might prove an inspiration, I allow,” said Joanna, “but what of those who are over-vain already? ”

“I admit the danger; I foresaw it; I can counteract it. Up to the present I have employed little more than a certain scientific ingenuity in this manufacture ; but I have at last learned how to apply to mirror-making the great chemical discovery I have spoken of. We are only slowly and gradually finding out the marvelous — I had almost said the psychic—properties of matter. By a combination of minerals I have managed to produce a substance capable of reflecting what is invisible to the human eye, — of reflecting, that is to say, our subtler, our less grossly material parts.”

“Can you possibly mean our thoughtselves, our souls ? ”

“The realm of the material is at present very ill-defined, and its borders are constantly shifting. I cannot venture to pronounce scientifically on terms the definition of which is so vague. I can only say that this new substance is able to reflect the light of our inner, our higher selves.”

“But this is past belief,—past hope.”

“Think what it means. The eye will learn to apprehend spiritual beauty, and physical beauty will fade before it. You were the first to look into my other mirror; be the first to look with me into this one.”

They went into the laboratory. A great irregular sheet of metal, unframed, hung against the wall. Their faces shone from it, changed, transfigured, and they knew that doubt could never come between them again, for they had seen into each other’s souls.

Ethel Wheeler.