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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

A Shadow

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If I were to choose among all gifts and qualities that which, on the whole, makes life pleasantest, I should select the love of children. No circumstance can render this world wholly a solitude to one who has that possession. It is a freemasonry. Wherever one goes, there are the little brethren and sisters of the mystic tie. No diversity of race or tongue makes much difference. A smile speaks the universal language. "If I value myself on anything," said the lonely Hawthorne, "it is on having a smile that children love." They are such prompt little beings; they require so little prelude; hearts are won in two minutes, at that frank period, and so long as you are true to them they will be true to you. They need no argument, no bribery. They have a hearty appetite for gifts, no doubt, but it is not for these that they love the giver. Take the wealth of the world and lavish it with counterfeited affection: I will win all the children's hearts away from you by empty-handed love. The gorgeous toys will dazzle them for an hour; then their instincts will revert to their natural friends. In visiting a house where there are children I do not like to take them presents: it is better to forego the pleasure of the giving than to divide the welcome between yourself and the gift. Let that follow after you are gone.

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It is an exaggerated compliment to women when we ascribe to them alone this natural sympathy with childhood. It is an individual, not a sexual trait, and is stronger in many men than in many women. It is nowhere better exhibited in literature than where the happy Wilhelm Meister takes his boy by the hand, to lead him "into the free and lordly world." Such love is not universal among the other sex, though men, in that humility which so adorns their natures, keep up the pleasing fiction that it is. As a general rule any little girl feels some glimmerings of emotion towards anything that can pass for a doll, but it does not follow that, when grown older, she will feel as ready an instinct toward every child. Try it. Point out to a woman some bundle of blue-and-white or white-and-scarlet in some one's arms at the next street corner. Ask her, "Do you love that baby?" Not one woman in three will say promptly, "Yes." The others will hesitate, will bid you wait till they are nearer, till they can personally inspect the little thing and take an inventory of its traits; it may be dirty, too; it may be diseased. Ah! but this is not to love children, and you might as well be a man. To love children is to love childhood, instinctively, at whatever distance, the first impulse being one of attraction, though it may be checked by later discoveries. Unless your heart commands at least as long a range as your eye, it is not worth much. The dearest saint in my calendar never entered a railway car that she did not look round for a baby, which, when discovered, must always be won at once into her arms. If it was dirty, she would have been glad to bathe it; if ill, to heal it. It would not have seemed to her anything worthy the name of love, to seek only those who were wholesome and clean. Like the young girl in Holmes's most touching poem, she would have claimed as her own the outcast child whom nurses and physicians had abandoned.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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