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On Cromer Beach

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.

W. H. Hudson