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Little Girls I Have Met

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.

W. H. Hudson