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    On Cromer Beach

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    Chapter 19
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    It is true that when little girls become self-conscious they lose their
    charm, or the best part of it; they are at their best as a rule from
    five to seven, after which begins a slow, almost imperceptible decline
    (or evolution, if you like) until the change is complete. The charm in
    decline was not good enough for Lewis Carroll; the successive little
    favourites, we learn, were always dropped at about ten. That was the
    limit. Perhaps he perceived, with a rare kind of spiritual sagacity
    resembling that of certain animals with regard to approaching weather-
    changes, that something had come into their heart, or would shortly
    come, which would make them no longer precious to him. But that which
    had made them precious was not far to seek: he would find it elsewhere,
    and could afford to dismiss his Alice for the time being from his heart
    and life, and even from his memory, without a qualm.

    To my seven-years' rule there are, however, many exceptions--little
    girls who keep the child's charm in spite of the changes which years
    and a newly developing sense can bring to them. I have met with some
    rare instances of the child being as much to us at ten as at five.

    One instance which I have in my mind just now is of a little girl of
    nine, or perhaps nearly ten, and it seemed to me in this case that this
    new sense, the very quality which is the spoiler of the child-charm,
    may sometimes have the effect of enhancing it or revealing it in a new
    and more beautiful aspect.

    I met her at Cromer, where she was one of a small group of five
    visitors; three ladies, one old, the others middle-aged, and a middle-
    aged gentleman. He and one of the two younger ladies were perhaps her
    parents, and the elderly lady her grandmother. What and who these
    people were I never heard, nor did I enquire; but the child attracted
    me, and in a funny way we became acquainted, and though we never
    exchanged more than a dozen words, I felt that we were quite intimate
    and very dear friends.

    The little group of grown-ups and the child were always together on the
    front, where I was accustomed to see them sitting or slowly walking up
    and down, always deep in conversation and very serious, always
    regarding the more or less gaudily attired females on the parade with
    an expression of repulsion. They were old-fashioned in dress and
    appearance, invariably in black--black silk and black broadcloth. I
    concluded that they were serious people, that they had inherited and
    faithfully kept a religion, or religious temper, which has long been
    outlived by the world in general--a puritanism or Evangelicalism dating
    back to the far days of Wilberforce and Hannah More and the ancient
    Sacred order of Claphamites.

    And the child was serious with them and kept pace with them with slow
    staid steps. But she was beautiful, and under the mask and mantle which
    had been imposed on her had a shining child's soul. Her large eyes were
    blue, the rare blue of a perfect summer's day. There was no need to ask
    her where she had got that colour; undoubtedly in heaven "as she came
    through." The features were perfect, and she pale, or so it had seemed
    to me at first, but when viewing her more closely I saw that colour was
    an important element in her loveliness--a colour so delicate that I
    fell to comparing her flower-like face with this or that particular
    flower. I had thought of her as a snowdrop at first, then a windflower,
    the March anemone, with its touch of crimson, then various white,
    ivory, and cream-coloured blossoms with a faintly-seen pink blush to
    them.

    Her dress, except the stocking, was not black; it was grey or dove-
    colour, and over it a cream or pale-fawn-coloured cloak with hood,
    which with its lace border seemed just the right setting for the
    delicate puritan face. She walked in silence while they talked and
    talked, ever in grave subdued tones. Indeed it would not have been
    seemly for her to open her lips in such company. I called her
    Priscilla, but she was also like Milton's pensive nun, devout and pure,
    only her looks were not commercing with the skies; they were generally
    cast down, although it is probable that they did occasionally venture
    to glance at the groups of merry pink-legged children romping with the
    waves below.

    I had seen her three or four or more times on the front before we
    became acquainted; and she too had noticed me, just raising her blue
    eyes to mine when we passed one another, with a shy sweet look of
    recognition in them--a questioning look; so that we were not exactly
    strangers. Then, one morning, I sat on the front when the black-clothed
    group came by, deep in serious talk as usual, the silent child with
    them, and after a turn or two they sat down beside me. The tide was at
    its full and children were coming down to their old joyous pastime of
    paddling. They were a merry company. After watching them I glanced at
    my little neighbour and caught her eyes, and she knew what the question
    in my mind was--Why are not you with them? And she was pleased and
    troubled at the same time, and her face was all at once in a glow of
    beautiful colour; it was the colour of the almond blossom;--her sister
    flower on this occasion.

    A day or two later we were more fortunate. I went before breakfast to
    the beach and was surprised to find her there watching the tide coming
    in; in a moment of extreme indulgence her mother, or her people, had
    allowed her to run down to look at the sea for a minute by herself. She
    was standing on the shingle, watching the green waves break frothily at
    her feet, her pale face transfigured with a gladness which seemed
    almost unearthly. Even then in that emotional moment the face kept its
    tender flower-like character; I could only compare it to the sweet-pea
    blossom, ivory white or delicate pink; that Psyche-like flower with
    wings upraised to fly, and expression of infantile innocence and fairy-
    like joy in life.

    I walked down to her and we then exchanged our few and only words. How
    beautiful the sea was, and how delightful to watch the waves coming in!
    I remarked. She smiled and replied that it was very, very beautiful.
    Then a bigger wave came and compelled us to step hurriedly back to save
    our feet from a wetting, and we laughed together. Just at that spot
    there was a small rock on which I stepped and asked her to give me her
    hand, so that we could stand together and let the next wave rush by
    without wetting us. "Oh, do you think I may?" she said, almost
    frightened at such an adventure. Then, after a moment's hesitation, she
    put her hand in mine, and we stood on the little fragment of rock, and
    she watched the water rush up and surround us and break on the beach
    with a fearful joy. And after that wonderful experience she had to
    leave me; she had only been allowed out by herself for five minutes,
    she said, and so, after a grateful smile, she hurried back.

    Our next encounter was on the parade, where she appeared as usual with
    her people, and nothing beyond one swift glance of recognition and
    greeting could pass between us. But it was a quite wonderful glance she
    gave me, it said so much:--that we had a great secret between us and
    were friends and comrades for ever. It would take half a page to tell
    all that was conveyed in that glance. "I'm so glad to see you," it
    said, "I was beginning to fear you had gone away. And now how
    unfortunate that you see me with my people and we cannot speak! They
    wouldn't understand. How could they, since they don't belong to our
    world and know what we know? If I were to explain that we are different
    from them, that we want to play together on the beach and watch the
    waves and paddle and build castles, they would say, 'Oh yes, that's all
    very well, but--' I shouldn't know what they meant by that, should you?
    I do hope we'll meet again some day and stand once more hand in hand on
    the beach--don't you?"

    And with that she passed on and was gone, and I saw her no more.
    Perhaps that glance which said so much had been observed, and she had
    been hurriedly removed to some place of safety at a great distance. But
    though I never saw her again, never again stood hand in hand with her
    on the beach and never shall, I have her picture to keep in all its
    flowery freshness and beauty, the most delicate and lovely perhaps of
    all the pictures I possess of the little girls I have met.
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    Chapter 19
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