— The comforting thought that the most ugly and commonplace stretches of life — like the most barren phases of nature — always possess innumerable touches of beauty is most frequently brought home to me by the children in grimy city streets. Not that they are often visions of loveliness. I do not haunt the Italian quarter, and nowhere else should I expect a predominance of beauty; but still I have a whole gallery of precious little portraits in my memory that I have accumulated one by one out of the usual material that the streets, oftenest the poor streets, spread before one ; and though they are very minute, very “ unimportant” from the picture dealer’s point of view, yet I find them, against their ugly backgrounds, possessed of a special and touching grace. To tell about children one peculiarly needs the help of the voice and of pantomime, but let me try what I can do toward translating two or three tiny scenes into the mere symbols of language.
There were the half dozen little girls — very small, but not babies, the oldest perhaps eight — whom, one raw, gray March Sunday, I saw sitting on the inhospitable steps of a gloomy closed business building down town. Why had that unshepherded flock settled there, of all places ? It was a cross-street ; there were very few people going by. It must have been a dreary tenement house indeed from which, on such a day, this bare place offered a refuge. I suppose a few people, going to and from a ferry, were their entertainers ; for, as you will see, it was to feast on the passers-by that they were there. As I approached, they were gabbling, but softly, with their heads all together, and turned from me toward some retreating feminine figure ; but when one looked my way, she set up a mysterious little wild cackle, whereupon all attention and much excitement were centred upon my modest person, and (my vanity expands delightfully now with the recollection) from the first observer I caught, in the loudest and most gleeful of undertones, the words, “That’s me! That’s me!” Then, lowering her voice, with a note of awe, “ Oh, see, see ! Silk ! silk ! ” and the small blue grimy hands smoothed automatically her own ragged frock, while, in a trance of rapture, she gazed at mine, where, after all, I remember with still poignant regret, only a very humble portion of silk was visible. They were “ choosing,” you see, as I used to from fashion plates, and were utterly oblivious of my existence other than as a lovely vision sent for their delight ; and what a thing it is for me to know that I have once presented such an aspect to fellow-beings !
Altogether a different note was struck by a good-looking ten-year-old boy, in shabby-respectable clothes ; but if the little girls gave me my finest experience of flattery, I am not sure but this boy revealed to me the purest possibilities of soul-to-soul human intercourse. Yet words play so small a part in such intercourse as that that it is quite possible you may miss an atmosphere I would fain convey. I met him on a street given over to the smallest of shops and almost the cheapest of restaurants ; a miraculously unattractive spot. It was autumn, and I carried a branch of flaming, splendid maple leaves. He stopped, as if the sight of them really took his breath away.
“ Oh, give me one ! ” he gently exclaimed, in a manner that was more than polite. It lifted our interview straightway into some rare, superhuman atmosphere, where perfect simplicity, the absolute accord of the outward expression with the inward feeling, became a matter of course. Unfortunately, this was not so becoming to me as to him. I said, “ Oh, I hate to,” but at the same time I began looking for the meanest little leaf I could find. When I had discovered and was presenting it, shame overcame me, and, torn with conflicting emotions, I said, “ I know I’m being horridly stingy.” “ Never mind,” said my boy, in a big, masculine, comforting manner, “I know just how you feel.” He smiled his thanks reassuringly, and we parted, never to meet again ; and I went on my way with only the usual automata around me. I declare, I could write a sad little poem about it this minute.
For fear I should, let me turn quickly to the three giddy small boys whom I once saw being perfectly wicked in the same neighborhood. There was nothing sad about them, and I dare say you will have to use a mental microscope in order to discover anything about them. The incident is the tiniest imaginable, but it is not less than they were. They looked exactly like the most grotesquely diminutive pictures of street urchins in the comic papers. It was after dark, and the wild lateness of the hour doubtless played its part in exciting their zest for dangerous revelry. They sat in a row on a low doorstep, so low that their feet reached the pavement, looking as big as your thumb, and took their pleasure in making remarks of a facetious nature to and about the passers-by. I came along, with a foreign cap of somewhat unusual cut on my head, and out of a little gurgling nest of giggles an infantine voice piped, “ Hi ! see the cap ! ” I turned to discover my critics, and there they were, all helplessly tumbling against each other in Mephistophelian mirth. I stretched my eyes very wide, as I gazed at them, and the youngest, who was the only one sufficiently self-controlled to be able to see anything, had a daring inspiration all to himself. He gasped like a fish in awe of his own audacity for a second, and then weakly sang out, “ Hi ! see the eyes ! ” and before the last word was fairly uttered tumbled over behind his limp companions in sin, overcome, like an “ æsthetic ” poet, with the bliss and terror of transgression.