Essays by Alice Meynell
By Alice Meynell

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Fellow Travellers With a Bird

To attend to a living child is to be baffled in your humour, disappointed of your pathos, and set freshly free from all the preoccupations. You cannot anticipate him. Blackbirds, overheard year by year, do not compose the same phrases; never two leitmotifs alike. Not the tone, but the note alters. So with the uncovenanted ways of a child you keep no tryst. They meet you at another place, after failing you where you tarried; your former experiences, your documents are at fault. You are the fellow traveller of a bird. The bird alights and escapes out of time to your footing.

No man’s fancy could be beforehand, for instance, with a girl of four years old who dictated a letter to a distant cousin, with the sweet and unimaginable message: “I hope you enjoy yourself with your loving dolls.” A boy, still younger, persuading his mother to come down from the heights and play with him on the floor, but sensible, perhaps, that there was a dignity to be observed none the less, entreated her, “Mother, do be a lady frog.” None ever said their good things before these indeliberate authors. Even their own kind–children–have not preceded them. No child in the past ever found the same replies as the girl of five whose father made that appeal to feeling which is doomed to a different, perverse, and unforeseen success. He was rather tired with writing, and had a mind to snare some of the yet uncaptured flock of her sympathies. “Do you know, I have been working hard, darling? I work to buy things for you.” “Do you work,” she asked, “to buy the lovely puddin’s?” Yes, even for these. The subject must have seemed to her to be worth pursuing. “And do you work to buy the fat? I don’t like fat.”

The sympathies, nevertheless, are there. The same child was to be soothed at night after a weeping dream that a skater had been drowned in the Kensington Round Pond. It was suggested to her that she should forget it by thinking about the one unfailing and gay subject–her wishes. “Do you know,” she said, without loss of time, “what I should like best in all the world? A thundred dolls and a whistle!” Her mother was so overcome by this tremendous numeral, that she could make no offer as to the dolls. But the whistle seemed practicable. “It is for me to whistle for cabs,” said the child, with a sudden moderation, “when I go to parties.” Another morning she came down radiant. “Did you hear a great noise in the miggle of the night? That was me crying. I cried because I dreamt that Cuckoo [a brother] had swallowed a bead into his nose.”

The mere errors of children are unforeseen as nothing is–no, nothing feminine–in this adult world. “I’ve got a lotter than you,” is the word of a very young egotist. An older child says, “I’d better go, bettern’t I, mother?” He calls a little space at the back of a London house, “the backy-garden.” A little creature proffers almost daily the reminder at luncheon–at tart-time: “Father, I hope you will remember that I am the favourite of the crust.” Moreover, if an author set himself to invent the naif things that children might do in their Christmas plays at home, he would hardly light upon the device of the little troupe who, having no footlights, arranged upon the floor a long row of candle-shades.

“It’s JOLLY dull without you, mother,” says a little girl who– gentlest of the gentle–has a dramatic sense of slang, of which she makes no secret. But she drops her voice somewhat to disguise her feats of metathesis, about which she has doubts and which are involuntary: the “stand-wash,” the “sweeping-crosser,” the “sewing chamine.” Genoese peasants have the same prank when they try to speak Italian.

Children forget last year so well that if they are Londoners they should by any means have an impression of the country or the sea annually. A London little girl watches a fly upon the wing, follows it with her pointing finger, and names it “bird.” Her brother, who wants to play with a bronze Japanese lobster, asks “Will you please let me have that tiger?”

At times children give to a word that slight variety which is the most touching kind of newness. Thus, a child of three asks you to save him. How moving a word, and how freshly said! He had heard of the “saving” of other things of interest–especially chocolate creams taken for safe-keeping–and he asks, “Who is going to save me to-day? Nurse is going out, will you save me, mother?” The same little variant upon common use is in another child’s courteous reply to a summons to help in the arrangement of some flowers, “I am quite at your ease.”

A child, unconscious little author of things told in this record, was taken lately to see a fellow author of somewhat different standing from her own, inasmuch as he is, among other things, a Saturday Reviewer. As he dwelt in a part of the South-west of the town unknown to her, she noted with interest the shops of the neighbourhood as she went, for they might be those of the fournisseurs of her friend. “That is his bread shop, and that is his book shop. And that, mother,” she said finally, with even heightened sympathy, pausing before a blooming parterre of confectionery hard by the abode of her man of letters, “that, I suppose, is where he buys his sugar pigs.”

In all her excursions into streets new to her, this same child is intent upon a certain quest–the quest of a genuine collector. We have all heard of collecting butterflies, of collecting china-dogs, of collecting cocked hats, and so forth; but her pursuit gives her a joy that costs her nothing except a sharp look-out upon the proper names over all shop-windows. No hoard was ever lighter than hers. “I began three weeks ago next Monday, mother,” she says with precision, “and I have got thirty-nine.” “Thirty-nine what?" “Smiths.”

The mere gathering of children’s language would be much like collecting together a handful of flowers that should be all unique, single of their kind. In one thing, however, do children agree, and that is the rejection of most of the conventions of the authors who have reported them. They do not, for example, say “me is"; their natural reply to “are you?” is “I are.” One child, pronouncing sweetly and neatly, will have nothing but the nominative pronoun. “Lift I up and let I see it raining,” she bids; and told that it does not rain resumes, “Lift I up and let I see it not raining.”

An elder child had a rooted dislike to a brown corduroy suit ordered for her by maternal authority. She wore the garments under protest, and with some resentment. At the same time it was evident that she took no pleasure in hearing her praises sweetly sung by a poet, her friend. He had imagined the making of this child in the counsels of Heaven, and the decreeing of her soft skin, of her brilliant eyes, and of her hair–"a brown tress.” She had gravely heard the words as “a brown dress,” and she silently bore the poet a grudge for having been the accessory of Providence in the mandate that she should wear the loathed corduroy. The unpractised ear played another little girl a like turn. She had a phrase for snubbing any anecdote that sounded improbable. “That,” she said, more or less after Sterne, “is a cotton-wool story.”

The learning of words is, needless to say, continued long after the years of mere learning to speak. The young child now takes a current word into use, a little at random, and now makes a new one, so as to save the interruption of a pause for search. I have certainly detected, in children old enough to show their motives, a conviction that a word of their own making is as good a communication as another, and as intelligible. There is even a general implicit conviction among them that the grown-up people, too, make words by the wayside as occasion befalls. How otherwise should words be so numerous that every day brings forward some hitherto unheard? The child would be surprised to know how irritably poets are refused the faculty and authority which he thinks to belong to the common world.

There is something very cheerful and courageous in the setting-out of a child on a journey of speech with so small baggage and with so much confidence in the chances of the hedge. He goes free, a simple adventurer. Nor does he make any officious effort to invent anything strange or particularly expressive or descriptive. The child trusts genially to his hearer. A very young boy, excited by his first sight of sunflowers, was eager to describe them, and called them, without allowing himself to be checked for the trifle of a name, “summersets.” This was simple and unexpected; so was the comment of a sister a very little older. “Why does he call those flowers summersets?” their mother said; and the girl, with a darkly brilliant look of humour and penetration, answered, “because they are so big.” There seemed to be no further question possible after an explanation that was presented thus charged with meaning.

To a later phase of life, when a little girl’s vocabulary was, somewhat at random, growing larger, belong a few brave phrases hazarded to express a meaning well realized–a personal matter. Questioned as to the eating of an uncertain number of buns just before lunch, the child averred, “I took them just to appetize my hunger.” As she betrayed a familiar knowledge of the tariff of an attractive confectioner, she was asked whether she and her sisters had been frequenting those little tables on their way from school. “I sometimes go in there, mother,” she confessed; “but I generally speculate outside.”

Children sometimes attempt to cap something perfectly funny with something so flat that you are obliged to turn the conversation. Dryden does the same thing, not with jokes, but with his sublimer passages. But sometimes a child’s deliberate banter is quite intelligible to elders. Take the letter written by a little girl to a mother who had, it seems, allowed her family to see that she was inclined to be satisfied with something of her own writing. The child has a full and gay sense of the sweetest kinds of irony. There was no need for her to write, she and her mother being both at home, but the words must have seemed to her worthy of a pen: –"My dear mother, I really wonder how you can be proud of that article, if it is worthy to be called a article, which I doubt. Such a unletterary article. I cannot call it letterature. I hope you will not write any more such unconventionan trash.”

This is the saying of a little boy who admired his much younger sister, and thought her forward for her age: “I wish people knew just how old she is, mother, then they would know she is onward. They can see she is pretty, but they can’t know she is such a onward baby.”

Thus speak the naturally unreluclant; but there are other children who in time betray a little consciousness and a slight mefiance as to where the adult sense of humour may be lurking in wait for them, obscure. These children may not be shy enough to suffer any self- checking in their talk, but they are now and then to be heard slurring a word of which they do not feel too sure. A little girl whose sensitiveness was barely enough to cause her to stop to choose between two words, was wont to bring a cup of tea to the writing- table of her mother, who had often feigned indignation at the weakness of what her Irish maid always called “the infusion.” “I’m afraid it’s bosh again, mother,” said the child; and then, in a half-whisper, “Is bosh right, or wash, mother?” She was not told, and decided for herself, with doubts, for bosh. The afternoon cup left the kitchen an infusion, and reached the library “bosh" thenceforward.


Ceres’ Runaway  •  Wells  •  Rain  •  The Tow Path  •  The Tethered Constellations  •  Rushes and Reeds  •  A Northern Fancy  •  Pathos  •  Anima Pellegrina!  •  A Point of Biography  •  The Honours of Mortality  •  Composure  •  The Little Language  •  A Counterchange  •  Harlequin Mercutio  •  Laughter  •  The Rhythm of Life  •  Domus Angusta  •  Innocence and Experience  •  The Hours of Sleep  •  Solitude  •  Decivilized  •  The Spirit of Place  •  Popular Burlesque  •  Have Patience, Little Saint  •  At Monastery Gates  •  The Sea Wall  •  Tithonus  •  Symmetry and Incident  •  The Plaid  •  The Flower  •  Unstable Equilibrium  •  Victorian Caricature  •  The Point of Honour  •  The Colour of Life  •  The Horizon  •  In July  •  Cloud  •  Shadows  •  The Seventeenth Century  •  Mrs. Dingley  •  Prue  •  Mrs. Johnson  •  Madame Roland  •  Fellow Travellers With a Bird  •  The Child of Tumult  •  The Child of Subsiding Tumult  •  The Unready  •  That Pretty Person  •  Under the Early Stars  •  The Illusion of Historic Time  •  Footnotes

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