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    Little Girls I Have Met

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    Chapter 16
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    Perhaps some reader who does not know a little girl her psychology,
    after that account of the Alvediston maidie who presented me with a
    flower with an arch expression on her face just bordering on a mocking
    smile, will say, "What a sophisticated child to be sure!" He would be
    quite wrong unless we can say that the female child is born
    sophisticated, which sounds rather like a contradiction in terms. That
    appearance of sophistication, common in little girls even in a remote
    rustic village hidden away among the Wiltshire downs, is implicit in,
    and a quality of the child's mind--the _female_ child, it will be
    understood--and is the first sign of the flirting instinct which shows
    itself as early as the maternal one. This, we know, appears as soon as
    a child is able to stand on its feet, perhaps even before it quits the
    cradle. It seeks to gratify itself by mothering something, even an
    inanimate something, so that it is as common to put a doll in a baby-
    child's hands as it is to put a polished cylindrical bit of ivory--I
    forget the name of it--in its mouth. The child grows up nursing this
    image of itself, whether with or without a wax face, blue eyes and tow-
    coloured hair, and if or when the unreality of the doll begins to spoil
    its pleasure, it will start mothering something with life in it--a
    kitten for preference, and if no kitten, or puppy or other such
    creature easy to be handled or cuddled, is at hand, it will take kindly
    to any mild-mannered old gentleman of its circle.

    It is just these first instinctive impulses of the girl-child, combined
    with her imitativeness and wonderful precocity, which make her so
    fascinating. But do they think? They do, but this first early thinking
    does not make them self-conscious as does their later thinking, to the
    spoiling of their charm. The thinking indeed begins remarkably early. I
    remember one child, a little five-year-old and one of my favourites,
    climbing to my knee one day and exhibiting a strangely grave face.
    "Doris, what makes you look so serious?" I asked. And after a few
    moments of silence, during which she appeared to be thinking hard, she
    startled me by asking me what was the use of living, and other
    questions which it almost frightened me to hear from those childish
    innocent lips. Yet I have seen this child grow up to womanhood--a quite
    commonplace conventional woman, who when she has a child of her own of
    five would be unspeakably shocked to hear from it the very things she
    herself spoke at that tender age. And if I were to repeat to her now
    the words she spoke (the very thought of Byron in his know-that-
    whatever-thou-hast-been-'Twere-something-better-not-to-be poem) she
    would not believe it.

    It is, however, rare for the child mind in its first essays at
    reflection to take so far a flight. It begins as a rule like the
    fledgling by climbing with difficulty out of the nest and on to the
    nearest branches.

    It is interesting to observe these first movements. Quite recently I
    met with a child of about the same age as the one just described, who
    exhibited herself to me in the very act of trying to climb out of the
    nest--trying to grasp something with her claws, so to speak, and pull
    herself up. She was and is a very beautiful child, full of life and fun
    and laughter, and came out to me when I was sitting on the lawn to ask
    me for a story.

    "Very well," I said. "But you must wait for half an hour until I
    remember all about it before I begin. It is a long story about things
    that happened a long time ago."

    She waited as patiently as she could for about three minutes, and then
    said: "What do you mean by a long time ago?"

    I explained, but could see that I had not made her understand, and at
    last put it in days, then weeks, then seasons, then years, until she
    appeared to grasp the meaning of a year, and then finished by saying a
    long time ago in this case meant a hundred years.

    Again she was at a loss, but still trying to understand she asked me:
    "What is a hundred years?"

    "Why, it's a hundred years," I replied. "Can you count to a hundred?"

    "I'll try," she said, and began to count and got to nineteen, then
    stopped. I prompted her, and she went on to twenty-nine, and so on,
    hesitating after each nine, until she reached fifty. "That's enough," I
    said, "it's too hard to go the whole way; but now don't you begin to
    understand what a hundred years means?"

    She looked at me and then away, and her beautiful blue intelligent eyes
    told me plainly that she did not, and that she felt baffled and
    worried.

    After an interval she pointed to the hedge. "Look at the leaves," she
    said. "I could go and count a hundred leaves, couldn't I? Well, would
    that be a hundred years?"

    And no further could we get, since I could not make out just what the
    question meant. At first it looked as if she thought of the leaves as
    an illustration--or a symbol; and then that she had failed to grasp the
    idea of time, or that it had slipped from her, and she had fallen back,
    as it were, to the notion that a hundred meant a hundred objects, which
    you could see and feel. There appeared to be no way out of the puzzle-
    dom into which we had both got, so that it came as a relief to both of
    us when she heard her mother calling--calling her back into a world she
    could understand.

    I believe that when we penetrate to the real mind of girl children we
    find a strong likeness in them even when they appear to differ as
    widely from one another as adults do. The difference in the little ones
    is less in disposition and character than in unlikeness due to
    unconscious imitation. They take their mental colour from their
    surroundings. The red men of America are the gravest people on the
    globe, and their children are like them when with them; but this
    unnatural gravity is on the surface and is a mask which drops or fades
    off when they assemble together out of sight and hearing of their
    elders. In like manner our little ones have masks to fit the character
    of the homes they are bred in.

    Here I recall a little girl I once met when I was walking somewhere on
    the borders of Dorset and Hampshire. It was at the close of an autumn
    day, and I was on a broad road in a level stretch of country with the
    low buildings of a farmhouse a quarter of a mile ahead of me, and no
    other building in sight. A lonely land with but one living creature in
    sight--a very small girl, slowly coming towards me, walking in the
    middle of the wet road; for it had been raining a greater part of the
    day. It was amazing to see that wee solitary being on the lonely road,
    with the wide green and brown earth spreading away to the horizon on
    either side under the wide pale sky. She was a sturdy little thing of
    about five years old, in heavy clothes and cloth cap, and long knitted
    muffler wrapped round her neck and crossed on her chest, then tied or
    bound round her waist, thick boots and thick leggings! And she had a
    round serious face, and big blue eyes with as much wonder in them at
    seeing me as I suppose mine expressed at seeing her. When we were still
    a little distance apart she drew away to the opposite side of the road,
    thinking perhaps that so big a man would require the whole of its
    twenty-five yards width for himself. But no, that was not the reason of
    her action, for on gaining the other side she stopped and turned so as
    to face me when I should be abreast of her, and then at the proper
    moment she bent her little knees and dropped me an elaborate curtsey;
    then, rising again to her natural height, she continued regarding me
    with those wide-open astonished eyes! Nothing in little girls so
    deliciously quaint and old-worldish had ever come in my way before; and
    though it was late in the day and the road long, I could not do less
    than cross over to speak to her. She belonged to a cottage I had left
    some distance behind, and had been to the farm with a message and was
    on her way back, she told me, speaking with slow deliberation and
    profound respect, as to a being of a higher order than man. Then she
    took my little gift and after making a second careful curtsey proceeded
    slowly and gravely on her way.

    Undoubtedly all this unsmiling, deeply respectful manner was a mask, or
    we may go so far as to call it second nature, and was the result of
    living in a cottage in an agricultural district with adults or old
    people:--probably her grandmother was the poor little darling's model,
    and any big important-looking man she met was the lord of the manor!

    What an amazing difference outwardly between the rustic and the city
    child of a society woman, accustomed to be addressed and joked with and
    caressed by scores of persons every day--her own people, friends,
    visitors, strangers! Such a child I met last summer at a west-end shop
    or emporium where women congregate in a colossal tea-room under a glass
    dome, with glass doors opening upon an acre of flat roof.

    There, one afternoon, after drinking my tea I walked away to a good
    distance on the roof and sat down to smoke a cigarette, and presently
    saw a charming-looking child come dancing out from among the tea-
    drinkers. Round and round she whirled, heedless of the presence of all
    those people, happy and free and wild as a lamb running a race with
    itself on some green flowery down under the wide sky. And by-and-by she
    came near and was pirouetting round my chair, when I spoke to her, and
    congratulated her on having had a nice holiday at the seaside. One knew
    it from her bare brown legs. Oh yes, she said, it was a nice holiday at
    Bognor, and she had enjoyed it very much.

    "Particularly the paddling," I remarked.

    No, there was no paddling--her mother wouldn't let her paddle.

    "What a cruel mother!" I said, and she laughed merrily, and we talked a
    little longer, and then seeing her about to go, I said, "you must be
    just seven years old."

    "No, only five," she replied.

    "Then," said I, "you must be a wonderfully clever child."

    "Oh yes, I know I'm clever," she returned quite naturally, and away she
    went, spinning over the wide space, and was presently lost in the
    crowd.

    A few minutes later a pleasant-looking but dignified lady came out from
    among the tea-drinkers and bore down directly on me. "I hear," she
    said, "you've been talking to my little girl, and I want you to know I
    was very sorry I couldn't let her paddle. She was just recovering from
    whooping-cough when I took her to the seaside, and I was afraid to let
    her go in the water."

    I commended her for her prudence, and apologised for having called her
    cruel, and after a few remarks about her charming child, she went her
    way.

    And now I have no sooner done with this little girl than another cometh
    up as a flower in my memory and I find I'm compelled to break off.
    There are too many for me. It is true that the child's beautiful life
    is a brief one, like that of the angel-insect, and may be told in a
    paragraph; yet if I were to write only as many of them as there are
    "Lives" in Plutarch it would still take an entire book--an octavo of at
    least three hundred pages. But though I can't write the book I shall
    not leave the subject just yet, and so will make a pause here, to
    continue the subject in the next sketch, then the next to follow, and
    probably the next after that.
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    Chapter 16
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