A Bad Habit by Juliana Horatia Ewing

Story type: Literature


“Oh, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.”


My godmother, Lady Elizabeth, used to say, “Most things are matters of habit. Good habits and bad habits.” And she generally added, “Your bad habit, Selina, is a habit of grumbling.”

I was always accustomed to seeing great respect paid to anything my godmother said or did. In the first place, she was what Mrs. Arthur James Johnson called “a fine lady,” and what the maids called “a real lady.” She was an old friend and, I think, a relative of my father, who had married a little below his own rank–my mother being the daughter of a rich manufacturer. My father had died before I can remember things, and Joseph and I lived with our mother and her friends. At least, we were with our mother when she could bear the noise; and for the rest of our time, when we were tired of playing games together, we sat with the maids.

“That is where you learned your little toss and your trick of grumbling, my dear,” my godmother said, planting her gold eye-glasses on her high nose; “and that is why your mouth is growing out of shape, and your forehead getting puckered, and your chin poked, and–and your boots bulged crooked.”

My boots, godmother?”

“Your boots, my dear. No boots will keep in shape if you shake your hips and kick with your heels like a servant out Sunday walking. When little girls flounce on the high road, it only looks ridiculous; but when you grow up, you’ll never have a clean petticoat, or be known for a well-bred woman behind your back, unless you learn to walk as if your legs and your feelings were under your own control. That is why the sergeant is coming to-morrow and every week-day morning to drill you and Joseph from ten to eleven whilst you remain here.”

And my godmother pressed the leaves of the journal on her lap, and cut them quite straight and very decisively with a heavy ivory paper-knife.

I had never been taught that it is bad manners to mutter–nurse always talked to herself when she was “put out”–and, as I stood in much awe of Lady Elizabeth, I did not like to complain aloud of her arrangements. So I turned my doll with a sharp flounce in my arms, and muttered behind her tarlatan skirts that “I did think we were to have had whole holidays out visiting.”

I believe my godmother heard me; but she only looked at me for a moment over the top of her gold eye-glasses, and then went on reading the paper through them.

After a few moments, she laid it down on her lap with her left hand, and with her right hand took off her eye-glasses and held them between her fingers.

“I shall be sorry if you don’t grow up nice-looking, Selina,” she said. “It’s a great advantage to a woman–indeed, to anyone–to be good-looking. Your mother was a pretty woman, too; and your father–“

Lady Elizabeth stopped, and then, seeming suddenly to see that I was watching her and waiting, put her glasses before her eyes again, and continued–

“Your father was a very good-looking gentleman, with a fine face and a fine figure, beautiful eyes and mouth, very attractive hands, and most fascinating manners. It will be a pity if you don’t grow up nice-looking.”

I grew crimson, partly with mortification and partly with astonishment. I had a strong natural desire to be pretty, but I felt sure I had been taught somehow that it was much more meritorious not to care about it. It certainly did not please me when (if I had offended them) the maids said I should never be as pretty as Maud Mary Ibbetson, my bosom friend; but when nurse took the good looking-glass out of the nursery, and hung up the wavy one which used to be in her room instead, to keep me from growing vain, I did not dispute her statement that “the less little girls looked in the glass the better.” And when I went to see Maud Mary (who was the only child of rich parents, and had a cheval-glass in her own bed-room), it was a just satisfaction to me to feel that if she was prettier, and could see herself full length, she was probably vainer than I.

It was very mortifying, therefore, to find that my godmother not only thought me plain, but gave me no credit for not minding it. I grew redder and redder, and my eyes filled with tears.

Lady Elizabeth was very nice in one way–she treated us with as much courtesy and consideration as if we were grown up. People do not think about being polite to children, but my godmother was very polite.

“My dear child,” she said, holding out her hand, “I am very sorry if I have hurt your feelings. I beg your pardon.”

I put my hot and rather dirty little paw among her cool fingers and diamond rings. I could not mutter to her face, but I said rather under my sobs that “it seemed such a thing” to be blamed for not being pretty.

“My dear Selina, I never said anything about your being pretty. I said I should be sorry if you did not grow up nice-looking, which is quite another thing. It will depend on yourself whether you are nice-looking or not.”

I began to feel comforted, but I bridled my chin in an aggrieved manner, which I know I had caught from Mrs. Marsden, the charwoman, when she took tea in the nursery and told long tales to nurse; and I said I “was sure it wasn’t for want of speaking to” nurse that my hair did not wave like Maud Mary’s, but that when I asked her to crimp it, she only said, “Handsome is that handsome does, and that ought to be enough for you, Miss Selina, without my slaving to damp-plait your hair every night.”

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I repeated nurse’s speech pretty volubly, and with her sharp accent and accompanying toss. My godmother heard me out, and then she said–

“Nurse quoted a very good proverb, which is even truer than it is allowed to be. Those who do well grow to look well. My little goddaughter, that soft child’s face of yours can be pinched and pulled into a nice shape or an ugly shape, very much as you pull and pinch that gutta-percha head I gave you, and, one way or another, it is being shaped all along.”

“But people can’t give themselves beautiful figures, and eyes, and mouths, and hands, as you said papa had, unless they are born so,” I objected.

“Your father’s figure, my dear,” said Lady Elizabeth, “was beautiful with the grace and power which comes of training. He was a military man, and you have only to look at a dozen common men in a marching regiment and compare them with a dozen of the same class of men who go on plodding to work and loafing at play in their native villages, to see what people can do for their own figures. His eyes, Selina, were bright with intelligence and trained powers of observation; and they were beautiful with kindliness, and with the well-bred habit of giving complete attention to other people and their affairs when he talked with them. He had a rare smile, which you may not inherit, but the real beauty of such mouths as his comes from the lips being restrained into firm and sensitive lines, through years of self-control and fine sympathies.”

I do not quite understand. “Do you mean that I can practise my mouth into a nice shape?” I asked.

“Certainly not, my dear, any more than you can pinch your nose into shape with your finger and thumb; but your lips, and all the lines of your face, will take shape of themselves, according to your temper and habits.

“There are two things,” my godmother continued, after turning round to look at me for a minute, “there are two things, Selina, against your growing up good-looking. One is that you have caught so many little vulgarisms from the servants; and the other is your little bad habit of grumbling, which, for that matter, is a very ill-bred habit as well, and would spoil the prettiest eyes, nose, mouth, and chin that ever were inherited. Under-bred and ill-educated women are, as a general rule, much less good-looking than well-bred and highly-educated ones, especially in middle life; not because good features and pretty complexions belong to one class more than to another, but because nicer personal habits and stricter discipline of the mind do. A girl who was never taught to brush her teeth, to breathe through the nostrils instead of the lips, and to chew with the back teeth instead of the front, has a very poor chance of growing up with a pretty mouth, as anyone may see who has observed a middle-aged woman of that class munching a meat pie at a railway-station. And if, into the bargain, she has nothing to talk about but her own and her neighbour’s everyday affairs, and nothing to think about to keep her from continually talking, life, my dear child, is so full of little rubs, that constant chatter of this kind must almost certainly be constant grumbling. And constant grumbling, Selina, makes an ugly under-lip, a forehead wrinkled with frowning, and dull eyes that see nothing but grievances. There is a book in the library with some pictures of faces that I must show you. Do you draw at all, my dear?”

“Mamma gave me a drawing-slate on my birthday,” I replied, “but Joseph bothered me to lend it to him, and now he’s broken the glass. It is so tiresome! But it’s always the way if you lend things.”

“What makes you think that it is always the way if you lend things?” my godmother gently inquired.

“It seems as if it was, I’m sure,” was my answer. “It was just the same with the fish-kettle when cook lent it to the Browns. They kept it a fortnight, and let it rust, and the first time cook put a drop of water into it it leaked; and she said it always was the way; you might lend everything you had, and people had no conscience, but if it came to borrowing a pepperpot–“

My godmother put up both her long hands with an impatient gesture.

“That will do, my dear. I don’t care to hear all that your mother’s cook said about the fish-kettle.”

I felt uncomfortable, and was glad that Lady Elizabeth went on talking.

“Have you and Joseph any collections? When I was your age, I remember I made a nice collection of wafers. They were quite as pretty as modern monograms.”

“Joseph collected feathers out of the pillows once,” I said, laughing. “He got a great many different sorts, but nurse burned them, and he cried.”

“I’m sorry nurse burned them. I daresay they made him very happy. I advise you to begin a collection, Selina. It is a capital cure for discontent. Anything will do. A collection of buttons, for instance. There are a great many kinds; and if ever some travelled friend crowns your collection with a mandarin’s button, for one day at least you won’t feel a grievance worth speaking of.”

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I was feeling very much aggrieved as Lady Elizabeth spoke, and thinking to myself that “it seemed so hard to be scolded out visiting, and when one had not got into any scrape.” But I only said that “nobody at home ever said that I grumbled so much;” and that I “didn’t know that our servants complained more than other people’s.”

“I do not suppose they do,” said my godmother. “I have told you already that I consider it a foible of ill-educated people, whose interests are very limited, and whose feelings are not disciplined. You know James, the butler, Selina, do you not?”

“Oh, yes, godmamma!”

I knew James well. He was very kind to me, and always liberal when, by Lady Elizabeth’s orders, he helped me to almonds and raisins at dessert.

“My mother died young,” said Lady Elizabeth, “and at sixteen I was head of my father’s household. I had been well trained, and I tried to do my duty. Amid all the details of providing for and entertaining many people, my duty was to think of everything, and never to seem as if I had anything on my mind. I should have been fairly trained for a kitchen-maid, Selina, if I had done what I was told when it was bawled at me, and had talked and seemed more overwhelmed with work than the Prime Minister. Well, most of our servants had known me from babyhood, and it was not a light matter to have the needful authority over them without hurting the feelings of such old and faithful friends. But, on the whole, they respected my efforts, and were proud of my self-possession. I had more trouble with the younger ones, who were too young to help me, and whom I was too young to overawe. I was busy one morning writing necessary letters, when James–who was then seventeen, and the under-footman–came to the drawing room and wished to speak to me. When he had wasted a good deal of my time in describing his unwillingness to disturb me, and the years his father had lived in my father’s service, I said, ‘James, I have important letters to write, and very little time to spare. If you have any complaint to make, will you kindly put it as shortly as you can?’ ‘I’m sure, my lady, I have no wish to complain,’ was James’s reply; and thereon his complaints poured forth in a continuous stream. I took out my watch (unseen by James, for I never insult people), and gave him five minutes for his grievances. He got on pretty fast with them. He had mentioned the stone floor of his bed-room, a draught in the pantry, the overbearingness of the butler, the potatoes for the servants’ hall being under-boiled when the cook was out of temper, the inferior quality of the new plate-powder, the insinuations against his father’s honesty by servants who were upstarts by comparison, his hat having been spoilt by the rain, and that he never was so miserable in his life–when the five minutes expired, and I said ‘Then, James, you want to go?’ He coloured, and I really think tears stood in his eyes. He was a good-hearted lad.

“When he began to say that he could never regard any other place as he looked on this, and that he felt towards his lordship and me as he could feel towards no other master and mistress, I gave him another five minutes for what he was pleased with. To do him justice, the list was quite as long as that of his grievances. No people were like us, and he had never been so happy in his life. So I said, ‘Then, James, you want to stay?’

“James began a fresh statement, in which his grievances and his satisfactions came alternately, and I cut this short by saying, ‘Well, James, the difficulty seems to be that you have not made up your mind what you do want. I have no time to balance matters for you, so you had better go downstairs and think it well over, and let me know what you decide.’

“He went accordingly, and when he was driven to think for himself by being stopped from talking to me, I suppose he was wise enough to perceive that it is easier to find crosses in one’s lot than to feel quite sure that one could change it for a better. I have no doubt that he had not got all he might lawfully have wished for, but, different as our positions were, no more had I, and we both had to do our duty and make the best of life as we found it. It’s a very good thing, dear child, to get into the habit of saying to oneself, ‘One can’t have everything.’ I suppose James learned to say it, for he has lived with me ever since.”

At this moment Joseph called to me through the open window which led into the garden–

“Oh, Selina! I am so sorry; but when I got to the shop I couldn’t remember whether it was a quarter of a yard of ribbon or three-quarters that you wanted for the doll’s hat.”

Joseph was always doing stupid things like this. It vexed me very much, and I jumped up and hastily seized my doll to go out and speak to him, saying, as I did so, that “boys were enough to drive one wild, and one might as well ask the poodle to do anything as Joseph.” And it was not till I had flounced out of the drawing-room that I felt rather hot and uncomfortable to remember that I had tossed my head, and knitted my brows, and jerked my chin, and pouted my lips, and shaken my skirts, and kicked up my heels, as I did so, and that my godmother had probably been observing me through her gold eye-glasses.

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“It is easier to prevent ill habits than to break them.”

I must say that Joseph was rather a stupid boy. He was only a year younger than me, but I never could make him understand exactly what I wanted him to do when we played together; and he was always saying, “Oh, I say, look here, Selina!” and proposing some silly plan of his own. But he was very good-natured, and when we were alone I let him be uncle to the dolls. When we spent the day with Maud Mary, however, we never let him play with the baby-house; but we allowed him to be the postman and the baker, and people of that sort, who knock and ring, and we sent him messages.

During the first week of our visit to Lady Elizabeth, the weather was so fine that Joseph and I played all day long in the garden. Then it became rainy, and we quarrelled over the old swing and the imperfect backgammon board in the lumber-room, where we were allowed to amuse ourselves. But one morning when we went to our play-room, after drilling with Sergeant Walker, Joseph found a model fortress and wooden soldiers and cannon in one corner of the room; and I found a Dutch market, with all kinds of wooden booths, and little tables to have tea at in another. They were presents from my godmother; and they were far the best kind of toys we had ever had, you could do so many things with them.

Joseph was so happy with his soldiers that he never came near the Dutch fair; and at other times he was always bothering to be allowed to play with the dolls. At first I was very glad, for I was afraid he would be coming and saying, “Oh, I say, Selina,” and suggesting things; and I wanted to arrange the shops my own way. But when they were done, and I was taking the dolls from one booth to another to shop, I did think it seemed very odd that Joseph should not even want to walk through the fair. And when I gave him leave to be a shopkeeper, and to stand in front of each booth in turn, he did not seem at all anxious to come; and he would bring a cannon with him, and hide it behind his back when I came to buy vegetables for the dolls’ dinners.

We quarrelled about the cannon. I said no one ever heard of a greengrocer with a cannon in his shop; and Joseph said it couldn’t matter if the greengrocer stood in front of the cannon so as to hide it. So I said I wouldn’t have a cannon in my fair at all; and Joseph said he didn’t want to come to my fair, for he liked his fortress much better, and he rattled out, dragging his cannon behind him, and knocked down Adelaide Augusta, the gutta-percha doll, who was leaning against the fishmonger’s slab, with her chin on the salmon.

It was very hard, and I said so; and then Joseph said there were plenty of times when I wouldn’t let him play with the dolls; and I said that was just it–when I didn’t want him to he wanted, and when I wanted him to he wouldn’t, and that he was very selfish.

So at last he put away his cannon, and came and played at shops; but he was very stupid, and would look over his shoulder at the fortress when he ought to have been pretending to sell; and once, when I had left the fair, he got his cannon back and shot peas out of it, so that all the fowls fell off the real hooks in the poulterer’s shop, and said he was bombarding the city.

I was very angry, and said, “I shall go straight down, and complain to godmamma,” and I went.

The worst of it was that only that very morning Lady Elizabeth had said to me, “Remember one thing, my dear. I will listen to no complaints whatever. No grumbles either from you or from Joseph. If you want anything that you have not got, and will ask for it, I will do my best for you, as my little guests; and if it is right and reasonable, and fair to both, you shall have what you want. But you must know your own mind when you ask, and make the best of what I can do for you. I will hear no general complaints whatever.”

Remembering this, I felt a little nervous when I was fairly in the drawing-room, and Lady Elizabeth had laid down her glasses to hear what I had to say.

“Do you want anything, my dear?” said she.

I began to complain–that Joseph was so stupid; that it seemed so provoking; that I did think it was very unkind of him, etc.; but Lady Elizabeth put up her hand.

“My dear Selina, you have forgotten what I told you. If there is anything that an old woman like me can do to make your father’s child happy, do not be afraid to ask for it, but I will not have grumbling in the drawing-room. By all means make up your mind as to what you want, and don’t be afraid to ask your old godmother. But if she thinks it right to refuse, or you do not think it right to ask, you must make the best of matters as they stand, and keep your good humour and your good manners like a lady.”

I felt puzzled. When I complained to nurse that Joseph “was so tiresome,” she grumbled back again that “she never knew such children,” and so forth. It is always easy to meet grievance with grievance, but I found that it was not so easy to make up my mind and pluck up my courage to ask in so many words for what I wanted.

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“Shall I ask Joseph to put away his cannon and come and play at your game for an hour now, my dear? I will certainly forbid him to fire into your shop.”

This did not quite satisfy me. As a matter of fact, Joseph had left his fortress to play with me; and I did not really think he would discharge his cannon at the poulterer’s again. But I thought myself hardly used, and I wanted my godmother to think so too, and to scold Joseph. What else I wanted, I did not feel quite sure.

“I wish you would speak to Joseph,” I said. “He would attend to you if you told him how selfish and stupid he is.”

“My dear, I never offered to complain to Joseph, but I will order him not to molest you, and I will ask him to play with you.”

“I’m sure I don’t want him to play with me, unless he can play nicely, and invent things for the dolls to say, as Maud Mary would,” was my reply; for I was getting thoroughly vexed.

“Then I will tell him that unless he can play your game as you wish it, he had better amuse himself with his own toys. Is there anything else that you want, my dear?”

I could not speak, for I was crying, but I sobbed out that “I missed Maud Mary so.”

“Who is Maud Mary, Selina?”

“Maud Mary Ibbetson, my particular friend–my very particular friend,” I explained.

I spoke warmly, for at that moment the memory of Maud Mary seemed adorable, and I longed to pour my complaints into her sympathetic ear. Besides, I had another reason for regretting that she was not with me. When we were together, it was she, as a rule, who had new and handsome toys to exhibit, whilst I played the humbler part of admirer. But if she had been with me, then, what would not have been my triumph in displaying the Dutch fair! The longer I thought of her the faster my tears fell, but they did not help me to think of anything definite to ask for; and when Lady Elizabeth said, “would you like to go home, my dear? or do you want me to ask your friend to stay with you?” I had the grace to feel ashamed of my peevishness, and to thank my godmother for her kindness, and to protest against wanting anything more. I only added, amid my subsiding sobs, that “it did seem such a thing,” when I had got a Dutch fair to play at dolls in, that Joseph should be so stupid, and that dear Maud Mary, who would have enjoyed it so much, should not be able to see it.


“Nous aurons aussi la fete dans notre rue.”–RUSSIAN

Next day, when our drill in the long corridor was over, Lady Elizabeth told Joseph to bring his fortress, guns, and soldiers into the library, and to play at the Thirty Years’ War in the bay-window from a large book with pictures of sieges and battles, which she lent him.

To me my godmother turned very kindly and said, “I have invited your little friend Maud to come and stay here for a week. I hope she will arrive to-day, so you had better prepare your dolls and your shops for company.”

Maud Mary coming! I danced for joy, and kissed my godmother, and expressed my delight again and again. I should have liked to talk about it to Joseph, but he had plunged into the Thirty Years’ War, and had no attention to give me.

It was a custom in the neighbourhood where my mother lived to call people by double Christian names, John Thomas, William Edward, and so forth; but my godmother never called Maud Mary anything but Maud.

It was possible that my darling friend might arrive by the twelve o’clock train, and the carriage was sent to meet her, whilst I danced up and down the big hall with impatience. When it came back without her my disappointment knew no bounds. I felt sure that the Ibbetsons’ coachman had been unpunctual, or dear Maud Mary’s nurse had been cross, as usual, and had not tried to get her things packed. I rushed into the library full of my forebodings, but my godmother only said, “No grumbling, my dear!” and Joseph called out, “Oh, I say, Selina, I wish you wouldn’t swing the doors so: you’ve knocked down Wallenstein, and he’s fallen on the top of Gustavus Adolphus;” and I had to compose myself as best I could till the five o’clock train.

Then she came. Darling Maud Mary!

Perhaps it was because I crushed her new feather in kissing her (and Maud Mary was very particular about her clothes); perhaps it was because she was tired with travelling, which I forgot; or perhaps it was because she would rather have had tea first, that Maud Mary was not quite so nice about the Dutch fair as I should have liked her to be.

She said she rather wondered that Lady Elizabeth had not given me a big dolls’ house like hers instead; that she had come away in such a hurry that she forgot to lock hers up, and she should not be the least surprised if the kitten got into it and broke something, but “it did seem rather odd” to be invited in such a very hurried way; that just when she was going to a big house to pay a grand visit, of course the dressmaker “disappointed” Mrs. Ibbetson, but “that was the way things always did happen;” that the last time Mr. Ibbetson was in Paris he offered to bring her a dolls’ railway train, with real first-class carriages really stuffed, but she said she would rather have a locket, and that was the very one which was hanging round her neck, and which was much handsomer than Lucy Jane Smith’s, which cost five pounds in London.

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Maud Mary’s inattention to the fair and the dolls was so obvious that I followed my godmother’s advice, and “made the best of it” by saying, “I’m afraid you’re very much tired, darling?”

Maud Mary tossed her chin and frowned.

It was “enough to tire anybody,” she said, to travel on that particular line. The railway of which her papa was a director was very differently managed.

I think my godmother’s courtesy to us, and her thoughtful kindness, had fixed her repeated hints about self-control and good manners rather firmly in my head. I distinctly remember making an effort to forget my toys and think of Maud Mary’s comfort.

I said, “Will you come and take off your things, darling?” and she said, “Yes, darling;” and then we had tea.

But next day, when she was quite rested, and had really nothing to complain of, I did think she might have praised the Dutch fair.

She said it “seemed such a funny thing” to have to play in an old garret; but she need not have wanted to alter the arrangement of all the shops, and have everything her own way, as she always had at home, because, if her dolls’ house was hers, my Dutch fair was mine. I did think, for a moment, of getting my godmother to speak to her, but I knew it would be of no use to complain unless I had something to ask for. When I came to think of it, I found that what I wanted was that Maud Mary should let me manage my own toys and direct the game, and I resolved to ask her myself.

“Look here, darling,” said I, “when I come and play with you, I always play dolls as you like, because the dolls’ house is yours; I wish you would play my game to-day, as the Dutch fair is mine.”

Maud Mary flounced to her feet, and bridled with her wavy head, and said she was sure she did not want to play if I didn’t like her way of playing; and as to my Dutch fair, her papa could buy her one any day for her very own.

I was nettled, for Maud Mary was a little apt to flourish Mr. Ibbetson’s money in my face; but if her father was rich, my godmother was a lady of rank, and I said that “my godmother, Lady Elizabeth, said it was very vulgar to flounce and toss one’s head if one was put out.”

Maud Mary crimsoned, and, exclaiming that she did not care what Lady Elizabeth or Lady Anybody Else said, she whisked over three shops with the ends of her sash, and kicked the wax off Josephine Esmeralda’s nose with the heel of her Balmoral boot.

I don’t like confessing it, but I did push Maud Mary, and Maud Mary slapped me.

And when we both looked up, my godmother was standing before us, with her gold spectacles on her nose.

* * * * *

Lady Elizabeth was very kind, and even then I knew that she was very right.

When she said, “I have asked your friend for a week, and for that week, my dear, she is your guest, and you must try to please, and make the best of it,” I not only did not dispute it; I felt a spirit of self-suppression and hospitable pride awake within me to do as she had said.

I think the hardest part of it was that, whatever I did and whatever I gave up, Maud Mary recognized no effort on my part. What she got she took as her due, and what she did not get she grumbled about.

I sometimes think that it was partly because, in all that long week, she never ceased grumbling, that I did; I hope for life.

Only once I said, “O godmamma! how glad I shall be when I am alone with Joseph again!” And with sudden remorse, I added, “But I beg your pardon, that’s grumbling; and you have been so kind!”

Lady Elizabeth took off her eye-glasses, and held out her hands for mine.

“Is it grumbling, little woman?” she said. “Well, I’m not sure.”

I’m not sure,” I said, smiling; “for you know I only said I should be so glad to be alone with Joseph, and to try to be good to him; for he is a very kind boy, and if he is a little awkward with the dolls, I mean to make the best of it. One can’t have everything,” I added, laughing.

Lady Elizabeth drew my head towards her, and stroked and kissed it.

“GOD bless you, child,” she said. “You have inherited your father’s smile.”

* * * * *

“But, I say, Selina,” whispered Joseph, when I went to look at his fortress in the bay-window. “Do you suppose it’s because he’s dead that she cried behind her spectacles when she said you had got his smile?”

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