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The infant of literature “wails” and wails feebly, with the invariability of a thing unproved and taken for granted.  Nothing, nevertheless, could be more unlike a wail than the most distinctive cry whereon the child of man catches his first breath.  It is a hasty, huddled outcry, sharp and brief, rather deep than shrill in tone.  With all deference to old moralities, man does not weep at beginning this world; he simply lifts up his new voice much as do the birds in the Zoological Gardens, and with much the same tone as some of the duck kind there.  He does not weep for some months to come.  His outcry soon becomes the human cry that is better known than loved, but tears belong to later infancy.  And if the infant of days neither wails nor weeps, the infant of months is still too young to be gay.  A child’s mirth, when at last it begins, is his first secret; you understand little of it.  The first smile (for the convulsive movement in sleep that is popularly adorned by that name is not a smile) is an uncertain sketch of a smile, unpractised but unmistakable.  It is accompanied by a single sound — a sound that would be a monosyllable if it were articulate — which is the utterance, though hardly the communication, of a private jollity.  That and that alone is the real beginning of human laughter.

From the end of the first fortnight in life, when it appears for the first time, and as it were flickeringly, the child’s smile begins to grow definite and, gradually, more frequent.  By very slow degrees the secrecy passes away, and the dryness becomes more genial.  The child now smiles more openly, but he is still very unlike the laughing creature of so much prose and verse.  His laughter takes a long time to form.  The monosyllable grows louder, and then comes to be repeated with little catches of the breath.  The humour upon which he learns to laugh is that of something which approaches him quickly and then withdraws.  This is the first intelligible jest of jesting man.

An infant never meets your eyes; he evidently does not remark the features of faces near him.  Whether because of the greater conspicuousness of dark hair or dark hat, or for some like reason, he addresses his looks, his laughs, and apparently his criticism, to the heads, not the faces, of his friends.  These are the ways of all infants, various in character, parentage, race, and colour; they do the same things.  There are turns in a kitten’s play — arched leapings and sidelong jumps, graceful rearings and grotesque dances — which the sacred kittens of Egypt used in their time.  But not more alike are these repetitions than the impulses of all young children learning to laugh.

In regard to the child of a somewhat later growth, we are told much of his effect upon the world; not much of the effect of the world upon him.  Yet he is compelled to endure the reflex results, at least, of all that pleases, distresses, or oppresses the world.  That he should be obliged to suffer the moods of men is a more important thing than that men should be amused by his moods.  If he is saddened, that is certainly much more than that his elders should be gladdened.  It is doubtless hardly possible that children should go altogether free of human affairs.  They might, in mere justice, be spared the burden they bear ignorantly and simply when it is laid upon them, of such events and ill fortunes as may trouble our peace; but they cannot easily be spared the hearing of a disturbed voice or the sight of an altered face.  Alas! they are made to feel money-matters, and even this is not the worst.  There are unconfessed worldliness, piqués, and rivalries, of which they do not know the names, but which change the faces where they look for smiles.  To such alterations children are sensitive even when they seem least accessible to the commands, the warnings, the threats, or the counsels of elders.  Of all these they may be gaily independent, and yet may droop when their defied tyrants are dejected.

For though the natural spirit of children is happy, the happiness is a mere impulse and is easily disconcerted.  They are gay without knowing any very sufficient reason for being so, and when sadness is, as it were, proposed to them, things fall away from under their feet, they are helpless and find no stay.  For this reason the merriest of all children are those, much pitied, who are brought up neither in a family nor in a public home by paid guardians, but in a place of charity, rightly named, where impartial, unalterable, and impersonal devotion has them in hand.  They endure an immeasurable loss, and are orphans, but they gain in perpetual gaiety; they live in an unchanging temperature.  The separate nest is nature’s, and the best; but it might be wished that the separate nest were less subject to moods.  The nurse has her private business, and when it does not prosper, and when the remote affairs of the governess go wrong, the child receives the ultimate vibration of the mishap.

The uniformity of infancy passes away long before the age when children have this indefinite suffering inflicted upon them; and they have become infinitely various, and feel the consequences of the cares of their elders in unnumbered degrees.  The most charming children feel them the most sensibly, and not with resentment but with sympathy.  It is assuredly in the absence of resentment that consists the virtue of childhood.  What other thing are we to learn of them?  Not simplicity, for they are intricate enough.  Not gratitude; for their usual sincere thanklessness makes half the pleasure of doing them good.  Not obedience; for the child is born with the love of liberty.  And as for humility, the boast of a child is the frankest thing in the world.  A child’s natural vanity is not merely the delight in his own possessions, but the triumph over others less fortunate.  If this emotion were not so young it would be exceedingly unamiable.  But the truth must be confessed that having very quickly learnt the value of comparison and relation, a child rejoices in the perception that what he has is better than what his brother has; this comparison is a means of judging his fortune, after all.  It is true that if his brother showed distress, he might make haste to offer an exchange.  But the impulse of joy is candidly egotistic.

It is the sweet and entire forgiveness of children, who ask pity for their sorrows from those who have caused them, who do not perceive that they are wronged, who never dream that they are forgiving, and who make no bargain for apologies — it is this that men and women are urged to learn of a child.  Graces more confessedly childlike they make shift to teach themselves.