The children, the children, the children. The loveliest, the purest, the most helpless of created beings, what would the world be without them? The sternest men are soft-hearted and gentle-handed in their dealings with these tender flowers; the most shrewish and selfish of women fall into melting moods at sight of them. The fresh, shrill voices and sweet laughter of these little people are music pleasanter to all healthy human ears than the cadences of the prima donna, or the liquid carols of the joyous lark and melancholy nightingale. For them the wisest bows his head; the bravest draws his sword.
After the bloody action which ended in the relief of Lucknow, the fierce, rough Highlanders, new from the dreadful work of slaughter, picked up the children in their arms and kissed and cried over them. Happy the man that hath his quiver full of them; whose beauty mocks the highest art, whose humours are too subtle for the keenest observer, whose pathos is too delicate for the finest poet, whose innocence and gaiety are a reproof unanswerable to them that preach the black doctrine of inherent sin.
The children; the pretty, dainty, unstained mortal fairies. To study them is one of the truest pleasures of life, as to have their confidence and their affection is one of its highest honours.
Their quaint fancies, their sudden questions, their artless artfulness, their splendid confidence, their hope undimmed, and frankness without fear never pall upon their elders, even where blood binds not; but only the parents can know what a mystery, what a marvel, what a glory is a child of one's very own, or can ever fully realise the charm and preciousness of their neighbour's children. Nor can any but a parent understand the yearning affection, the latent pity which the sight even of happy children raises in the breasts of those whose feet are farther on life's road—that half-conscious melancholy, that feeling of sadness and longing That is not akin to pain, And resembles sorrow only As the mist resembles rain. That feeling, ill-defined, arising possibly from regret, that things so fair and spotless should grow into mere men and women—" proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at their beck than they have thought to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in." It seems so pitiful a thing that ever the virgin snow should be sullied by the grime and soot of the world; or that the dainty blossom should fall brown and flaccid, and the spring meadow-grass grow lush and rank.
But if it be pathetic to see a child in happiness and health, knowing what a weary way its tripping feet have yet to run, and what heavy burdens of grief its little back must bear, it is tenfold bitterer to look upon the same child—one's own child, or one like it—in sickness, in sorrow, or in death. To see the curly head tossing in the delirium of fever, or the tender limbs writhing in convulsions ; to bear the plaintive moans of the little sufferer, and feel one's utter helplessness to succour or to save ; to be, as it were, like the horseman in the old German legend, who clasped his boy to his breast as he rode through the Black Fir Forest where the Erl King called, and who found he clasped a lifeless body. To have a baby boy or girl, to hear its lisping talk, to watch its timid first trial on its tiny feet, to feel the wee, soft fingers cling to your neck, to learn to love the trusting smile, the rose- petal cheek and sunny brown hair, and to look daily into the dark hazel eyes, so bright, so clear, so gay, yet deep with a gravity beyond the greatest eld, to feel that little tendril twine and twine about your heart, closer, closer, and then— oh, cruel is the grave—to walk through the wintry church- yard and look upon one little mound of snow, feeling for the first time the bitterness of that word " never." This is a drastic, burning lesson for the bravest heart, a stern and terrible trial for the strongest faith.
Think ye, then, fond parents, gentle women, and kindly men, when your babe sleeps sound and safe in its cosy cot, with its round cheek pressed on its dimpled hand, think ye then of the myriads of frail and helpless infants in the great towns and cities of this prayerful land, who go bare- headed and hungry in the winter's rain, barefooted in the snow-slush of the windy streets, pinched, half nude, dirty, and uncherished, with premature age in their hollow cheeks, and precocious cunning in their childish eyes—a wretched shivering brood of ragged robins, living, God knows how or where, by thievery or beggary, as the chance may run- spurned by the passengers, hunted by the police, hustled in the traffic of the teeming town, now sleeping feverishly in the chill shadow of an arch, now in the noisome atmosphere of some rookery attic, now feeding sparely in poor homes on crusts and refuse, anon snatching fruit offal from beneath the hucksters' barrows.
Any day in any town you may see them flitting and skipping among the horses' feet in the roadway, like the vagrant sparrows, dressed in the strangest and most incongruous garments, begged of their elders or rifled from the ashbin; you may see them skulking like jackals in the shady places of the towns, you may perchance come upon them in some hidden court or patch of waste land when they are at play. It is an eerie sight so to see them caper and dance their " Ring-a-ring of roses "—they who never plucked a flower, unless from a market-stall—to see them play in an elfish fashion the baby games that seem so natural to their happier brothers and sisters, but whose frolic graces sit on them so queerly.
“I never, whatsoever sins may be laid to my charge, relieved a beggar in the street.” So spake a bishop of the Anglican Church. A godly man, no doubt; but could he refuse the children, then surely he never was a father. And had he done no greater sin, then surely he was nearer heaven than many of his right reverend brothers. Is it, then, so wicked to encourage these Arabs of the gutter ? Must we lay the blame of widespread want and vagrancy and drunkenness upon the soft-hearted almsgiver, who allays for a moment one pang of hunger or of grief, and say nothing against the priests and prelates, the governors and statesmen, whose duty it is to grapple with the vice and poverty that cause those pangs, and who leave that duty undischarged ? Oh, most scrupulous bishop did you never spend money worse ? Did you never waste costly wine on godless guests of "quality"? Nor beg for cash to paint and bedizen your gorgeous church ? As who should let the lily buds droop for want of water and see the hawthorn blossoms and young roses trodden in the mire to spend the cost of their maintenance in artificial flowers for the altar; as who should let the living souls of our children be depraved, and their living bodies be consumed or twisted by disease or vice, to lavish gold upon the sculpture of marble angels and holy babes for the cathedral fonts and pulpits. Why, surely, it may be a sin to fall a dupe to your natural feelings, and a prey to the child-sharper of the streets; but there be things, look you, less pardonable and more revolting. And one of these things is to see a congregation of smug, greasy, comfortable heathen chanting nasal psalms in a gaudy church, while famine and shame are playing havoc without.
Convocation! The Church House! The Sacrament of Baptism! The Court of Arches! the doctrine of faith and works ! the cant of grace—prevenient grace! Methodism! Popery! and hole-and-corner Bethels!— all this splashing of holy water, and never a drop for the wretched children. Shame! shame ! If you are not hypocrites and villains, get up off your knees, stop your pealing organs and your snuffling prayers, and save the souls and bodies of the babies dying or sinking into infamy around you. Sure, such piety as this must make the devil laugh,
Out, then, ye canters and ranters, out into the streets, and strike a blow for humanity and justice; get this foul dishonour from the name of England, try to be at least as good Christians as the Lucknow Highlanders who risked their lives for the babies' sakes. For every wee bare foot shall leave a blister on the National soul, and every pinched and stunted child-form shall cast a shadow on the .National glory. Save the babies first, and then build tapering spires and swelling organs, and hang your church walls with pictures, and your vestries with precious tapestries, if you will. But, in heaven's name, either be honest men or honest rogues. "He prayeth best who loveth best all things both great and small," and to help even one of these poor children seems a nobler prayer than any that a bishop ever recited to a decorous and apathetic congregation. "Do you hear the children crying, O my brothers."
" How long," they say; " how long, O cruel nation, Will you stand to move the world, on a child's heart; Stifle down with mailed heel its palpitation, And tread onward to your throne amid the mart ? Our blood splashes upwards, O gold-heaper, And your purple shows the path!" Bat the child's sob in the darkness curses deeper Than the strong man in his wrath.