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The Foolish Virgin

By George Gissing

COMING down to breakfast, as usual, rather late, Miss Jewell
was surprised to find several persons still at table. Their
conversation ceased as she entered, and all eyes were directed to
her with a look in which she discerned some special meaning.
For several reasons she was in an irritable humour ; the significant
smiles, the subdued ” Good mornings,” and the silence that fol-
lowed, so jarred upon her nerves that, save for curiosity, she would
have turned and left the room.

Mrs. Banting (generally at this hour busy in other parts of the
house) inquired with a sympathetic air whether she would take
porridge ; the others awaited her reply as if it were a matter of
general interest. Miss Jewell abruptly demanded an egg. The
awkward pause was broken by a high falsetto.

” I believe you know who it is all the time, Mr. Drake,” said
Miss Ayres, addressing the one man present.

” I assure you I don’t. Upon my word, I don’t. The whole
thing astonishes me.”

Resolutely silent, Miss Jewell listened to a conversation the
drift of which remained dark to her, until some one spoke the name
” Mr. Cheeseman ; ” then it was with difficulty that she controlled
her face and her tongue. The servant brought her an egg. She


                        12 The Foolish Virgin

struck it clumsily with the edge of the spoon, and asked in an
affected drawl :

” What are you people talking about ? “

Mrs. Sleath, smiling maliciously, took it upon herself to

” Mr. Drake has had a letter from Mr. Cheeseman. He writes
that he’s engaged, but doesn’t say who to. Delicious mystery,
isn’t it ? ”

The listener tried to swallow a piece of bread-and-butter, and
seemed to struggle with a constriction of the throat. Then, look-
ing round the table, she said with contemptuous pleasantry :

” Some lodging-house servant, I shouldn’t wonder.”

Every one laughed. Then Mr. Drake declared he must be off
and rose from the table. The ladies also moved, and in a minute
or two Miss Jewell sat at her breakfast alone.

She was a tall, slim person, with unremarkable, not ill-moulded
features. Nature meant her to be graceful in form and pleasantly
feminine of countenance ; unwholesome habit of mind and body
was responsible for the defects that now appeared in her. She had
no colour, no flesh ; but an agreeable smile would well have
become her lips, and her eyes needed only the illumination of
healthy thought to be more than commonly attractive. A few
months would see the close of her twenty-ninth year ; but Mrs.
Banting’s boarders, with some excuse, judged her on the wrong
side of thirty.

Her meal, a sad pretence, was soon finished. She went to the
window and stood there for five minutes looking at the cabs and
pedestrians in the sunny street. Then, with the languid step
which had become natural to her, she ascended the stairs and
turned into the drawing-room. Here, as she had expected, two
ladies sat in close conversation. Without heeding them, she


                        By George Gissing 13

walked to the piano, selected a sheet of music, and sat down to

Presently, whilst she drummed with vigour on the keys, some
one approached ; she looked up and saw Mrs. Banting ; the other
persons had left the room.

” If it’s true,” murmured Mrs. Banting, with genuine kindli-
ness on her flabby lips, ” all I can say is that it’s shameful—shame-
ful ! ”

Miss Jewell stared at her.

” What do you mean ? ”

” Mr. Cheeseman—to go and——”

” I don’t understand you. What is it to me ? “

The words were thrown out almost fiercely, and a crash on the
piano drowned whatever Mrs. Banting meant to utter in reply.
Miss Jewell now had the drawing-room to herself.

She ” practised ” for half an hour, careering through many fami-
liar pieces with frequent mechanical correction of time-honoured
blunders. When at length she was going up to her room, a
grinning servant handed her a letter which had just arrived.
A glance at the envelope told her from whom it came, and
in privacy she at once opened it. The writer’s address was

” My dear Rosamund,” began the letter, ” I can’t understand
why you write in such a nasty way. For some time now your
letters have been horrid. I don’t show them to William because
if I did he would get into a tantrum. What I have to say to you
now is this, that we simply can’t go on sending you the money.
We haven’t it to spare, and that s the plain truth. You think
we’re rolling in money, and it s no use telling you we are not.
William said last night that you must find some way of supporting
yourself, and I can only say the same. You are a lady and had a


                        14 The Foolish Virgin

thorough good education, and I am sure you have only to exert
yourself. William says I may promise you a five-pound note
twice a year, but more than that you must not expect. Now do
just think over your position—”

She threw the sheet of paper aside, and sat down to brood miser-
ably. This little back bedroom, at no time conducive to good
spirits, had seen Rosamund in many a dreary or exasperated mood ;
to-day it beheld her on the very verge of despair. Illuminated
texts of Scripture spoke to her from the walls in vain ; portraits
of admired clergymen smiled vainly from the mantelpiece. She
was conscious only of a dirty carpet, an ill-made bed, faded
curtains, and a window that looked out on nothing. One cannot
expect much for a guinea a week, when it includes board and
lodging ; the bedroom was at least a refuge, but even that, it
seemed, would henceforth be denied her. Oh, the selfishness of
people ! And oh, the perfidy of man !

For eight years, since the breaking up of her home, Rosamund
had lived in London boarding-houses. To begin with, she could
count on a sufficient income, resulting from property in which
she had a legitimate share. Owing to various causes, the value of
this property had steadily diminished, until at length she became
dependent upon the subsidies of kinsfolk ; for more than a twelve-
month now, the only person able and willing to continue such
remittances had been her married sister, and Rosamund had hardly
known what it was to have a shilling of pocket-money. From
time to time she thought feebly and confusedly of ” doing some-
thing,” but her aims were so vague, her capabilities so inadequate,
that she always threw aside the intention in sheer hopelessness.
Whatever will she might once have possessed had evaporated in
the boarding-house atmosphere. It was hard to believe that her
brother-in-law would ever withhold the poor five pounds a month.


                        By George Gissing 15

And—what is the use of boarding-houses if not to renew indefi-
nitely the hope of marriage ?

She was not of the base order of women. Conscience yet lived
in her, and drew support from religion ; something of modesty,
of self-respect, still clad her starving soul. Ignorance and ill-luck
had once or twice thrown her into such society as may be found
in establishments outwardly respectable ; she trembled and fled.
Even in such a house as this of Mrs. Banting’s, she had known
sickness of disgust. Herself included, four single women abode
here at the present time ; and the scarcely disguised purpose of
every one of them was to entrap a marriageable man. In the
others, it seemed to her detestable, and she hated all three, even as
they in their turn detested her. Rosamund flattered herself with
the persuasion that she did not aim merely at marriage and a sub-
sistence ; she would not marryany one ; her desire was for sym-
pathy, true companionship. In years gone by she had used to
herself a more sacred word ; nowadays the homely solace seemed
enough. And of late a ray of hope had glimmered upon her dusty
path. Mr. Cheeseman, with his plausible airs, his engaging smile,
had won something more than her confidence ; an acquaintance
of six months, ripening at length to intimacy, justified her in
regarding him with sanguine emotion. They had walked toge-
ther in Kensington Gardens ; they had exchanged furtive and
significant glances at table and elsewhere ; every one grew aware
of the mutual preference. It shook her with a painful misgiving
when Mr. Cheeseman went away for his holiday and spoke no
word ; but probably he would write. He had written—to his
friend Drake ; and all was over.

Her affections suffered, but that was not the worst. Her pride
had never received so cruel a blow.

After a life of degradation which might well have unsexed her,


                        16 The Foolish Virgin

Rosamund remained a woman. The practice of affectations
numberless had taught her one truth, that she could never hope
to charm save by reliance upon her feminine qualities. Boarding-
house girls, such numbers of whom she had observed, seemed all
intent upon disowning their womanhood ; they cultivated mascu-
line habits, wore as far as possible male attire, talked loud slang,
threw scorn (among themselves at all events) upon domestic
virtues ; and not a few of them seemed to profit by the prevailing
fashion. Rosamund had tried these tactics, always with conscious
failure. At other times, and vastly to her relief, she aimed in
precisely the opposite direction, encouraging herself in feminine
extremes. She would talk with babbling naïveté, exaggerate the
languor induced by idleness, lack of exercise, and consequent
ill-health ; betray timidities and pruderies, let fall a pious phrase,
rise of a morning for ” early celebration ” and let the fact be
known. These and the like extravagances had appeared to fasci-
nate Mr. Cheeseman, who openly professed his dislike for andro-
gynous persons. And Rosamund enjoyed the satisfaction of
moderate sincerity. Thus, or very much in this way, would she
be content to live. Romantic passion she felt to be beyond her
scope. Long ago—ah ! perhaps long ago, when she first knew
Geoffrey Hunt—

The name, as it crossed her mind, suggested an escape from
the insufferable ennui and humiliation of hours till evening. It
must be half a year since she called upon the Hunts, her only estim-
able acquaintances in or near London. They lived at Tedding-
ton, and the railway fare was always a deterrent ; nor did she care
much for Mrs. Hunt and her daughters, who of late years had
grown reserved with her, as if uneasy about her mode of life.
True, they were not at all snobbish ; homely, though well-to-do
people ; but they had such strict views, and could not understand


                        By George Gissing 17

the existence of a woman less energetic than themselves. In her
present straits, which could hardly be worse, their counsel might
prove of value ; though she doubted her courage when it came to
making confessions.

She would do without luncheon (impossible to sit at table with
those ” creatures “) and hope to make up for it at tea ; in truth
appetite was not likely to trouble her. Then for dress. Wearily
she compared this garment with that, knowing beforehand that
all were out of fashion and more or less shabby. Oh, what did
it matter ! She had come to beggary, the result that might have
been foreseen long ago. Her faded costume suited fitly enough
with her fortunes—nay, with her face. For just then she caught
a sight of herself in the glass, and shrank. A lump choked her :
looking desperately, as if for help, for pity, through gathering
tears, she saw the Bible verse on the nearest wall : ” Come unto
me—” Her heart became that of a woful child ; she put her
hands before her face, and prayed in the old, simple words of

As her call must not be made before half-past three, she could
not set out upon the journey forthwith ; but it was a relief to get
away from the house. In this bright weather, Kensington
Gardens, not far away, seemed a natural place for loitering, but
the alleys would remind her too vividly of late companionship ;
she walked in another direction, sauntered for an hour by the
shop windows of Westbourne Grove, and, when she felt tired, sat
at the railway station until it was time to start. At Teddington,
half a mile’s walk lay before her ; though she felt no hunger, long
abstinence and the sun’s heat taxed her strength to the point of
exhaustion ; on reaching her friend’s door, she stood trembling
with nervousness and fatigue. The door opened, and to her
dismay she learnt that Mrs. Hunt was away from home.


                        18 The Foolish Virgin

Happily, the servant added that Miss Caroline was in the

” I’ll go round,” said Rosamund at once. ” Don’t trouble—”
The pathway round the pleasant little house soon brought her
within view of a young lady who sat in a garden-chair, sewing.
But Miss Caroline was not alone ; near to her stood a man in
shirt-sleeves and bare-headed, vigorously sawing a plank ; he seemed
to be engaged in the construction of a summer-house, and Rosa-
mund took him at first sight for a mechanic, but when he turned
round, exhibiting a ruddy face all agleam with health and good
humour, she recognised the young lady’s brother, Geoffrey Hunt.
He, as though for the moment puzzled, looked fixedly at her.

” Oh, Miss Jewell, how glad I am to see you ! ”

Enlightened by his sister’s words, Geoffrey dropped the saw,
and stepped forward with still heartier greeting. Had civility
permitted, he might easily have explained his doubts. It was
some six years since his last meeting with Rosamund, and she
had changed not a little ; he remembered her as a graceful and
rather pretty girl, with life in her, even if it ran for the most part
to silliness, gaily dressed, sprightly of manner ; notwithstanding
the account he had received of her from his relatives, it astonished
him to look upon this limp, faded woman. In Rosamund’s eyes,
Geoffrey was his old sell ; perhaps a trifle more stalwart, and if
anything handsomer, but with just the same light in his eyes,
the same smile on his bearded face, the same cordiality of
utterance. For an instant, she compared him with Mr. Cheese-
man, and flushed for very shame. Unable to command her voice,
she stammered incoherent nothings ; only when a seat supported
her weary body did she lose the dizziness which had threatened
downright collapse ; then she closed her eyes, and forgot every-
thing but the sense of rest.


                        By George Gissing 19

Geoffrey drew on his coat, and spoke jestingly of his amateur
workmanship. Such employment, however, seemed not inappro-
priate to him, for his business was that of a timber-merchant.
Of late years he had lived abroad, for the most part in Canada.
Rosamund learnt that at present he was having a longish holiday.

” And you go back to Canada ? “

This she asked when Miss Hunt had stepped into the house to
call for tea. Geoffrey answered that it was doubtful ; for various
reasons he rather hoped to remain in England, but the choice
did not altogether rest with him.

“At all events “—she gave a poor little laugh—”you haven’t
pined in exile.”

” Not a bit of it. I have always had plenty of hard work—
the one thing needful.”

” Yes—I remember—you always used to say that. And I
used to protest. You granted, I think, that it might be different
with women.”

” Did I ? “

He wished to add something to the point, but refrained out of
compassion. It was clear to him that Miss Jewell, at all events,
would have been none the worse for exacting employment.
Mrs. Hunt had spoken of her with the disapprobation natural in
a healthy, active woman of the old school, and Geoffrey himself
could not avoid a contemptuous judgment.

” You have lived in London all this time ? ” he asked, before
she could speak.

” Yes. Where else should I live ? My sister at Glasgow
doesn’t want me there, and—and there’s nobody else, you know.”
She tried to laugh. ” I have friends in London—well, that is to
say—at all events I’m not quite solitary.”

The man smiled, and could not allow her to suspect how pro-

The Yellow Book—Vol. VIII. B


                        20 The Foolish Virgin

foundly he pitied such a condition. Caroline Hunt had reappeared ;
she began to talk of her mother and sister, who were enjoying
themselves in Wales. Her own holiday would come upon their
return ; Geoffrey was going to take her to Switzerland.

Tea arrived just as Rosamund was again sinking into bodily
faintness and desolation of spirit. It presently restored her, but
she could hardly converse. She kept hoping that Caroline would
offer her some invitation—to lunch, to dine, anything ; but as
yet no such thought seemed to occur to the young hostess.
Suddenly the aspect of things was altered by the arrival of new
callers, a whole family, man, wife and three children, strangers to
Rosamund. For a time it seemed as if she must go away
without any kind of solace ; for Geoffrey had quitted her, and she
sat alone. On the spur of irrational resentment, she rose and
advanced to Miss Hunt.

” Oh, but you are not going ! I want you to stay and have
dinner with us, if you can. Would it make you too late ? ”

Rosamund flushed and could scarce contain her delight. In a
moment she was playing with the youngest of the children, and
even laughing aloud, so that Geoffrey glanced curiously towards
her. Even the opportunity of private conversation which she had
not dared to count upon was granted before long ; when the
callers had departed Caroline excused herself, and left her brother
alone with the guest for half an hour. There was no time to be
lost ; Rosamund broached almost immediately the subject upper-
most in her mind.

” Mr. Hunt, I know how dreadful it is to have people asking
for advice, but if I might—if you could have patience with
me “—

” I haven’t much wisdom to spare,” he answered, with easy

                                                ” Oh,

                        By George Gissing 21

” Oh, you are very rich in it, compared with poor me.—And
my position is so difficult. I want—I am trying to find some
way of being useful in the world. I am tired of living for
myself. I seem to be such a useless creature. Surely even I
must have some talent, which it s my duty to put to use !
Where should I turn ? Could you help me with a suggestion ? ”

Her words, now that she had overcome the difficulty of begin-
ning, chased each other with breathless speed, and Geoffrey was
all but constrained to seriousness ; he took it for granted, how-
ever, that Miss Jewell frequently used this language ; doubtless
it was part of her foolish, futile existence to talk of her soul’s
welfare, especially in tête-à-tête with unmarried men. The truth
he did not suspect, and Rosamund could not bring herself to
convey it in plain words.

” I do so envy the people who have something to live for ! “
Thus she panted. ” I fear I haveneverhad a purpose in life—
I m sure I don t know why. Of course I m only a woman, but
even women nowadays are doing so much. You don’t despise
their efforts, do you ? ”

” Not indiscriminately.”

” If I could feel myself a profitable member of society !—I
want to be lifted above my wretched self. Is there no great end
to which I could devote myself ?”

Her phrases grew only more magniloquent, and all the time
she was longing for courage to say : ” How can I earn money ? “
Geoffrey, confirmed in the suspicion that she talked only for
effect, indulged his natural humour.

” I’m such a groveller, Miss Jewell. I never knew these
aspirations. I see the world mainly as cubic feet of timber.”

” No, no, you won’t make me believe that. I know you have
ideals ! ”

                                                ” That

                        22 The Foolish Virgin

” That word reminds me of poor old Halliday. You remember
Halliday, don’t you ? ”

In vexed silence, Rosamund shook her head.

” But I think you must have met him, in the old days. A
tall, fair man—no ? He talked a great deal about ideals, and
meant to move the world. We lost sight of each other when I
first left England, and only met again a day or two ago. He is
married, and has three children, and looks fifty years old, though
he can t be much more than thirty. He took me to see his wife
—they live at Forest Hill.”

Rosamund was not listening, and the speaker became aware of
it. Having a purpose in what he was about to say, he gently
claimed her attention.

” I think Mrs. Halliday is the kind of woman who would
interest you. If ever any one had a purpose in life, she has.”

” Indeed ? And what ? ”

” To keep house admirably, and bring up her children as well
as possible, on an income which would hardly supply some women
with shoe-leather.”

” Oh, that’s very dreadful ! ”

” Very fine, it seems to me. I never saw a woman for whom
I could feel more respect. Halliday and she suit each other
perfectly ; they would be the happiest people in England if they
had any money. As he walked back with me to the station he
talked about their difficulties. They can’t afford to engage a
good servant (if one exists nowadays), and cheap sluts have driven
them frantic, so that Mrs. Halliday does everything with her own

” It must be awful.”

” Pretty hard, no doubt. She is an educated woman—otherwise,
of course, she couldn’t, and wouldn’t, manage it. And, by-the-


                        By George Gissing 23

bye “—he paused for quiet emphasis—” she has a sister, unmarried,
who lives in the country and does nothing at all. It occurs to
one—doesn’t it ?—that the idle sister might pretty easily find scope
for her energies.”

Rosamund stared at the ground. She was not so dull as to
lose the significance of this story, and she imagined that Geoffrey
reflected upon herself in relation to her own sister. She broke the
long silence by saying awkwardly :

” I’m sure I would never allow a sister of mine to lead such a

” I don’t think you would,” replied the other. And, though he
spoke genially, Rosamund felt it a very moderate declaration of his
belief in her. Overcome by strong feeling, she exclaimed :

” I would do anything to be of use in the world. You don’t
think I mean it, but I do, Mr. Hunt. I—”

Her voice faltered ; the all-important word stuck in her throat.
And at that moment Geoffrey rose.

” Shall we walk about ? Let me show you my mother’s fernery
she is very proud of it.”

That was the end of intimate dialogue. Rosamund felt aggrieved,
and tried to shape sarcasms, but the man’s imperturbable good-
humour soon made her forget everything save the pleasure of
being in his company. It was a bitter-sweet evening, yet perhaps
enjoyment predominated. Of course, Geoffrey would conduct
her to the station ; she never lost sight of this hope. There
would be another opportunity for plain speech. But her desire was
frustrated ; at the time of departure, Caroline said that they might
as well all go together. Rosamund could have wept for chagrin.

She returned to the detested house, the hateful little bedroom,
and there let her tears have way. In dread lest the hysterical sobs
should be overheard, she all but stifled herself.


                        24 The Foolish Virgin

Then, as if by blessed inspiration, a great thought took shape
in her despairing mind. At the still hour of night she suddenly
sat up in the darkness, which seemed illumined by a wondrous
hope. A few minutes motionless ; the mental light grew dazzling ;
she sprang out of bed, partly dressed herself, and by the rays of a
candle sat down to write a letter :


“Yesterday I did not tell you the whole truth. I have
nothing to live upon, and I must find employment or starve. My
brother-in-law has been supporting me for a long time—I am ashamed
to tell you, but I will, and he can do so no longer. I wanted to ask
you for practical advice, but I did not make my meaning clear. For
all that, you did advise me, and very well indeed. I wish to offer
myself as domestic help to poor Mrs. Halliday. Do you think she
would have me ? I ask no wages—only food and lodging. I will
work harder and better than any general servants—I will indeed. My
health is not bad, and I am fairly strong. Don’t—don’t throw scorn
on this ! Will you recommend me to Mrs. Halliday—or ask Mrs.
Hunt to do so ? I beg that you will. Please write to me at once,
and say yes. I shall be ever grateful to you.

    ” Very sincerely yours,


This she posted as early as possible. The agonies she endured
in waiting for a reply served to make her heedless of boarding-
house spite, and by the last post that same evening came Geoffrey’s
letter. He wrote that her suggestion was startling. ” Your
motive seems to me very praiseworthy, but whether the thing
would be possible is another question. I dare not take upon
myself the responsibility of counselling you to such a step.
Pray, take time, and think. I am most grieved to hear of your
difficulties, but is there not some better way out of them ? ”


                        By George Gissing 25

Yes, there it was ! Geoffrey Hunt could not believe in her
power to do anything praiseworthy. So had it been six years ago,
when she would have gone through flood and flame to win his
admiration. But in those days she was a girlish simpleton ; she
had behaved idiotically. It should be different now ; were it at
the end of her life, she would prove to him that he had slighted
her unjustly !

Brave words, but Rosamund attached some meaning to them.
The woman in her—the ever-prevailing woman—was wrought by
fears and vanities, urgencies and desires, to a strange point of
exaltation. Forthwith, she wrote again : ” Send me, I entreat
you, Mrs. Halliday’s address. I will go and see her. No, I can’t
do anything but work with my hands. I am no good for anything
else. If Mrs. Halliday refuses me, I shall go as a servant into
some other house. Don’t mock at me ; I don’t deserve it. Write
at once.”

Till midnight she wept and prayed.

Geoffrey sent her the address, adding a few dry words : ” If
you are willing and able to carry out this project, your ambition
ought to be satisfied. You will have done your part towards solving
one of the gravest problems of the time.” Rosamund did not at
once understand ; when the writer s meaning grew clear, she kept
repeating the words, as though they were a new gospel. Yes !
she would be working nobly, helping to show a way out of the
great servant difficulty. It would be an example to poor ladies,
like herself, who were ashamed of honest work. And Geoffrey
Hunt was looking on. He must needs marvel ; perhaps he would
admire greatly ; perhaps—oh, oh !

Of course, she found a difficulty in wording her letter to the
lady who had never heard of her, and of whom she knew practically
nothing. But zeal surmounted obstacles. She began by saying


                        26 The Foolish Virgin

that she was in search of domestic employment, and that, through
her friends at Teddington, she had heard of Mrs. Halliday as a
lady who might perhaps consider her application. Then followed
an account of herself, tolerably ingenuous, and an amplification of
the phrases she had addressed to Geoffrey Hunt. On an after-
thought, she enclosed a stamped envelope.

Whilst the outcome remained dubious, Rosamund’s behaviour to
her fellow-boarders was a pattern of offensiveness. She no longer
shunned them—seemed, indeed, to challenge their observation for
the sake of meeting it with arrogant defiance. She rudely in-
terrupted conversations, met sneers with virulent retorts, made
herself the common enemy. Mrs. Banting was appealed to ;
ladies declared that they could not live in a house where they were
exposed to vulgar insult. When nearly a week had passed Mrs.
Banting found it necessary to speak in private with Miss Jewell,
and to make a plaintive remonstrance. Rosamund’s flashing eye
and contemptuous smile foretold the upshot.

” Spare yourself the trouble, Mrs. Banting. I leave the house

” Oh, but—”

” There is no need for another word. Of course, I shall pay
the week in lieu of notice. I am busy, and have no time to

The day before, she had been to Forest Hill, had seen Mrs.
Halliday, and entered into an engagement. At midday on the
morrow she arrived at the house which was henceforth to be her
home, the scene of her labours.

Sheer stress of circumstance accounted for Mrs. Halliday’s
decision. Geoffrey Hunt, a dispassionate observer, was not misled
in forming so high an opinion of his friend’s wife. Only a year
or two older than Rosamund, Mrs. Halliday had the mind and the


                        By George Gissing 27

temper which enable woman to front life as a rational combatant,
instead of vegetating as a more or less destructive parasite. Her
voice declared her ; it fell easily upon a soft, clear note ; the kind
of voice that expresses good-humour and reasonableness, and many
other admirable qualities ; womanly, but with no suggestion of
the feminine gamut ; a voice that was never likely to test its
compass in extremes. She had enjoyed a country breeding ; some-
thing of liberal education assisted her natural intelligence ; thanks
to a good mother, she discharged with ability and content the
prime domestic duties. But physically she was not inexhaustible,
and the laborious, anxious years had taxed her health. A woman
of the ignorant class may keep house, and bring up a family, with
her own hands ; she has to deal only with the simplest demands
of life ; her home is a shelter, her food is primitive, her children
live or die according to the law of natural selection. Infinitely
more complex, more trying, is the task of the educated wife and
mother ; if to conscientiousness be added enduring poverty, it
means not seldom an early death. Fatigue and self-denial had set
upon Mrs. Halliday’s features a stamp which could never be
obliterated. Her husband, her children, suffered illnesses ; she,
the indispensable, durst not confess even to a headache. Such
servants as from time to time she had engaged merely increased
her toil and anxieties ; she demanded, to be sure, the diligence
and efficiency which in this new day can scarce be found among
the menial ranks ; what she obtained was sluttish stupidity,
grotesque presumption, and every form of female viciousness.
Rosamund Jewell, honest in her extravagant fervour, seemed at
first a mocking apparition ; only after a long talk, when Rosamund’s
ingenuousness had forcibly impressed her, would Mrs. Halliday
agree to an experiment. Miss Jewell was to live as one of the
family ; she did not ask this, but consented to it. She was to


                        28 The Foolish Virgin

receive ten pounds a year, for Mrs. Halliday insisted that payment
there must be.

” I can’t cook,” Rosamund had avowed. ” I never boiled a
potato in my life. If you teach me, I shall be grateful to you.”

” The cooking I can do myself, and you can learn if you like.”

” I should think I might wash and scrub by the light of
nature ? ”

“Perhaps. Good will and ordinary muscles will go a long

” I can’t sew, but I will learn.”

Mrs. Halliday reflected.

” You know that you are exchanging freedom for a hard and a
very dull life ? ”

“My life has been hard and dull enough, if you only knew.

The work will seem hard at first, no doubt. But I don’t think
I shall be dull with you.”

Mrs. Halliday held out her work-worn hand, and received a
clasp of the fingers attenuated by idleness.

It was a poor little house ; built—of course—with sham display
of spaciousness in front, and huddling discomfort at the rear.
Mrs. Halliday’s servants never failed to urge the smallness of the
rooms as an excuse for leaving them dirty ; they had invariably
been accustomed to lordly abodes, where their virtues could expand.
The furniture was homely and no more than sufficient, but here
and there on the walls shone a glimpse of summer landscape, done
in better days by the master of the house, who knew something of
various arts, but could not succeed in that of money-making.
Rosamund bestowed her worldly goods in a tiny chamber which
Mrs. Halliday did her best to make inviting and comfortable ;
she had less room here than at Mrs. Banting’s, but the cleanliness
of surroundings would depend upon herself, and she was not likely


                        By George Gissing 29

to spend much time by the bedside in weary discontent. Halliday,
who came home each evening at half-past six, behaved to her on
their first meeting with grave, even respectful, courtesy ; his tone
flattered Rosamund’s ear, and nothing could have been more
seemly than the modest gentleness of her replies.

At the close of the first day, she wrote to Geoffrey Hunt : ” I
do believe I have made a good beginning. Mrs. Halliday is
perfect and I quite love her. Please do not answer this ; I only
write because I feel that I owe it to your kindness. I shall never
be able to thank you enough.”

When Geoffrey obeyed her and kept silence, she felt that he
acted prudently ; perhaps Mrs. Halliday might see the letter, and
know his hand. But none the less she was disappointed.

Rosamund soon learnt the measure of her ignorance in domestic
affairs. Thoroughly practical and systematic, her friend (this
was to be their relation) set down a scheme of the day’s and
the week’s work ; it made a clear apportionment between them,
with no preponderance of unpleasant drudgery for the new-comer’s
share. With astonishment, which she did not try to conceal,
Rosamund awoke to the complexity and endlessness of home
duties even in so small a house as this.

” Then you have no leisure ? ” she exclaimed, in sympathy, not

” I feel at leisure when I’m sewing—and when I take the
children out. And there’s Sunday.”

The eldest child was about five years old, the others three and
a twelvemonth, respectively. Their ailments gave a good deal of
trouble, and it often happened that Mrs. Halliday was awake with
one of them the greater part of the night. For children Rosa-
mund had no natural tenderness ; to endure the constant sound
of their voices proved, in the beginning, her hardest trial ; but


                        30 The Foolish Virgin

the resolve to school herself in every particular soon enabled her
to tend the little ones with much patience, and insensibly she grew
fond of them. Until she had overcome her awkwardness in every
task, it cost her no little effort to get through the day ; at bedtim
e she ached in every joint, and morning oppressed her with a sick
lassitude. Conscious however, of Mrs. Halliday’s forbearance,
she would not spare herself, and it soon surprised her to discover
that the rigid performance of what seemed an ignoble task
brought its reward. Her first success in polishing a grate gave her
more delight than she had known since childhood. She summoned
her friend to look, to admire, to praise.

” Haven’t I done it well ? Could you do it better yourself ?

” Admirable ! “

Rosamund waved her black-lead brush and tasted victory.

The process of acclimatisation naturally affected her health.
In a month’s time she began to fear that she must break down ;
she suffered painful disorders, crept out of sight to moan and shed
a tear. Always faint, she had no appetite for wholesome food.
Tossing on her bed at night she said to herself a thousand times :
” I must go on even if I die ! ” Her religion took the form of
asceticism and bade her rejoice in her miseries ; she prayed
constantly and at times knew the solace of an infinite self-glorifica-
tion. In such a mood she once said to Mrs. Halliday :

” Don’t you think I deserve some praise for the step I took ? “

” You certainly deserve both praise and thanks from me.”

” But I mean—it isn’t every one who could have done it ? I’ve
a right to feel myself superior to the ordinary run of girls ? :

The other gave her an embarrassed look, and murmured a few
satisfying words. Later in the same day she talked to Rosamund
about her health and insisted on making certain changes which
allowed her to take more open-air exercise. The result of this


                        By George Gissing 31

was a marked improvement ; at the end of the second month
Rosamund began to feel and look better than she had done for
several years. Work no longer exhausted her. And the labour
in itself seemed to diminish, a natural consequence of perfect
co-operation between the two women. Mrs. Halliday declared
that life had never been so easy for her as now ; she knew the
delight of rest in which there was no self-reproach. But for
sufficient reasons she did not venture to express to Rosamund all
the gratitude that was due.

About Christmas a letter from Forest Hill arrived at Ted-
dington ; this time it did not forbid a reply. It spoke of struggles
sufferings, achievements. ” Do I not deserve a word of praise ?
Have I not done something, as you said, towards solving the
great question ? Don t you believe in me a little ? ” Four
more weeks went by, and brought no answer. Then, one
evening, in a mood of bitterness, Rosamund took a singular step ;
she wrote to Mr. Cheeseman. She had heard nothing of him, had
utterly lost sight of the world in which they met ; but his place
of business was known to her, and thither she addressed the note.
A few lines only : ” You are a very strange person, and I really
take no interest whatever in you. But I have sometimes thought
you would like to ask my forgiveness. If so, write to the above
address—my sister’s. I am living in London, and enjoying
myself, but I don’t choose to let you know where.” Having an
opportunity on the morrow, Sunday, she posted this in a remote

The next day, a letter arrived for her from Canada. Here
was the explanation of Geoffrey s silence. His words could
hardly have been more cordial, but there were so few of them.
On nourishment such as this no illusion could support itself ; for
the moment Rosamund renounced every hope. Well, she was no


                        32 The Foolish Virgin

worse off than before the renewal of their friendship. But could
it be called friendship ? Geoffrey’s mother and sisters paid no
heed to her ; they doubtless considered that she had finally sunk
below their horizon ; and Geoffrey himself, for all his fine words,
most likely thought the same at heart. Of course they would
never meet again. And for the rest of her life she would be
nothing more than a domestic servant in genteel disguise—
happy were the disguise preserved.

However, she had provided a distraction for her gloomy
thoughts. With no more delay than was due to its transmission
by way of Glasgow, there came a reply from Mr. Cheeseman :
two sheets of notepaper. The writer prostrated himself ; he had
been guilty of shameful behaviour ; even Miss Jewell, with all her
sweet womanliness, must find it hard to think of him with
charity. But let her remember what ” the poets ” had written
about Remorse, and apply to him the most harrowing of their
descriptions. He would be frank with her ; he would “a plain,
unvarnished tale unfold.” Whilst away for his holiday he by
chance encountered one with whom, in days gone by, he had held
tender relations. She was a young widow ; his foolish heart was
touched ; he sacrificed honour to the passing emotion. Their
marriage would be delayed, for his affairs were just now any-
thing but flourishing. ” Dear Miss Jewell, will you not be my
friend, my sister ? Alas, I am not a happy man ; but it is too
late to lament.” And so on to the squeezed signature at the
bottom of the last page.

Rosamund allowed a fortnight to pass—not before writing, but
before her letter was posted. She used a tone of condescension,
mingled with airy banter. ” From my heart I feel for you, but,
as you say, there is no help. I am afraid you are very impulsive
—yet I thought that was a fault of youth. Do not give way to


                        By George Gissing 33

despair. I really don’t know whether I shall feel it right to let
you hear again, but if it soothes you I don’t think there would be
any harm in your letting me know the cause of your troubles.”

This odd correspondence, sometimes with intervals of three
weeks, went on until late summer. Rosamund would soon
have been a year with Mrs. Halliday. Her enthusiasm had long
since burnt itself out ; she was often a prey to vapours, to cheer-
less lassitude, even to the spirit of revolt against things in general,
but on the whole she remained a thoroughly useful member of the
household ; the great experiment might fairly be called successful.
At the end of August it was decided that the children must have
sea air ; their parents would take them away for a fortnight.
When the project began to be talked of, Rosamund, perceiving
a domestic difficulty, removed it by asking whether she would be
at liberty to visit her sister in Scotland. Thus were things

Some days before that appointed for the general departure.
Halliday received a letter which supplied him with a subject of
conversation at breakfast.

” Hunt is going to be married,” he remarked to his wife,
just as Rosamund was bringing in the children s porridge.

Mrs. Halliday looked at her helper—for no more special reason
than the fact of Rosamund’s acquaintance with the Hunt family ;
she perceived a change of expression, an emotional play of feature,
and at once averted her eyes.

” Where ? In Canada ? ” she asked, off-hand.

” No, he’s in England. But the lady is a Canadian.—I
wonder he troubles to tell me. Hunt’s a queer fellow. When
we meet, once in two years, he treats me like a long-lost brother ;
but I don’t think he’d care a bit if he never saw me or heard of
me again.”

                                                ” It’s

                        34 The Foolish Virgin

” It’s a family characteristic,” interposed Rosamund with a dry

That day she moved about with the gait and the eyes of a som-
nambulist. She broke a piece of crockery, and became hysterical
over it. Her afternoon leisure she spent in the bedroom, and at
night she professed a headache which obliged her to retire early.

A passion of wrath inflamed her ; as vehement—though so
utterly unreasonable—as in the moment when she learnt the
perfidy of Mr. Cheeseman. She raged at her folly in having
submitted to social degradation on the mere hint of a man
who uttered it in a spirit purely contemptuous. The whole
hateful world had conspired against her. She banned her kins-
folk and all her acquaintances, especially the Hunts ; she felt
bitter even against the Hallidays—unsympathetic, selfish people,
utterly indifferent to her private griefs, regarding her as a mere
domestic machine. She would write to Geoffrey Hunt, and let
him know very plainly what she thought of his behaviour in
urging her to become a servant. Would such a thought have
ever occurred to a gentleman ! And her poor life was wasted, oh !
oh ! She would soon be thirty—thirty ! The glass mocked her
with savage truth. And she had not even a decent dress to put
on. Self-neglect had made her appearance vulgar ; her manners,
her speech, doubtless, had lost their note of social superiority. Oh,
it was hard ! She wished for death, cried for divine justice in a
better world.

On the morning of release, she travelled to London Bridge,
ostensibly en route for the north. But, on alighting, she had her
luggage taken to the cloak-room, and herself went by omnibus to
the West-end. By noon she had engaged a lodging, one room in a
street where she had never yet lived. And hither before night
was transferred her property.


                        By George Gissing 35

The next day she spent about half of her ready-money in the
purchase of clothing—cheap, but such as the self-respect of a
” lady ” imperatively demands. She bought cosmetics ; she set to
work at removing from her hands the traces of ignoble occupation.
On the day that followed—Sunday—early in the afternoon, she
repaired to a certain corner of Kensington Gardens, where she
came face to face with Mr. Cheeseman.

” I have come,” said Rosamund, in a voice of nervous exhilara-
tion which tried to subdue itself. ” Please to consider that it is
more than you could expect.”

” It is ! A thousand times more ! You are goodness itself.”

In Rosamund’s eyes the man had not improved since a year ago.
The growth of a beard made him look older, and he seemed in
indifferent health ; but his tremulous delight, his excessive homage,
atoned for the defect. She, on the other hand, was so greatly
changed for the better that Cheeseman beheld her with no less
wonder than admiration. Her brisk step, her upright bearing,
her clear eye, and pure-toned skin contrasted remarkably with the
lassitude and sallowness he remembered ; at this moment, too, she
had a pleasant rosiness of cheek which made her girlish, virginal.
All was set off by the new drapery and millinery, which threw a
shade upon Cheeseman’s very respectable but somewhat time-
honoured, Sunday costume.

They spent several hours together, Cheeseman talking of his
faults, his virtues, his calamities, and his hopes, like the impul-
sive, well-meaning, but nerveless fellow that he was. Rosamund
gathered from it all, as she had vaguely learnt from his recent
correspondence, that the alluring widow no longer claimed him ;
but he did not enter into details on this delicate subject. They
had tea at a restaurant by Netting Hill Gate ; then, Miss Jewell
appearing indefatigable, they again strolled in unfrequented ways.

The Yellow Book—Vol. VIII. C


                        36 The Foolish Virgin

At length was uttered the question for which Rosamund had long
ago prepared her reply.

” You cannot expect me,” she said sweetly, ” to answer at once.”

” Of course not ! I shouldn’t have dared to hope—”

He choked and swallowed ; a few beads of perspiration shining
on his troubled face.

” You have my address ; most likely I shall spend a week or two
there. Of course you may write. I shall probably go to my
sister’s in Scotland, for the autumn—”

” Oh ! don’t say that—don’t. To lose you again—so soon—”

” I only said, ‘probably ‘—”

” Oh, thank you !—To go so far away—And the autumn ;
just when I have a little freedom ; the very best time—if I
dared to hope such a thing—”

Rosamund graciously allowed him to bear her company as far
as to the street in which she lived.

A few days later she wrote to Mrs. Halliday, heading her
letter with the Glasgow address. She lamented the sudden im-
possibility of returning to her domestic duties. Something had
happened. “In short, dear Mrs. Halliday, I am going to be
married. I could not give you warning of this, it has come so
unexpectedly. Do forgive me ! I so earnestly hope that you will
find some one to take my place, some one better and more of a help
to you. I know I haven t been much use. Do write home at
Glasgow and say I may still regard you as a dear friend.”

This having been dispatched, she sat musing over her prospects.
Mr. Cheeseman had honestly confessed the smallness of his income ;
he could barely count upon a hundred and fifty a year ; but things
might improve. She did not dislike him—no, she did not dislike
him. He would be a very tractable husband. Compared, of
course, with—

                                                A letter

                        By George Gissing 37

A letter was brought up to her room. She knew the flowing
commercial hand, and broke the envelope without emotion. Two
sheets—three sheets—and a half. But what was all this ?
” Despair . . . thoughts of self-destruction . . . ignoble pub-
licity . . . practical ruin . . . impossible . . . despise and
forget . . . Dante’s hell . . . deeper than ever plummet
sounded . . . forever !….” So again he had deceived her ! He
must have known that the widow was dangerous ; his reticence was
mere shuffling. His behaviour to that other woman had perhaps
exceeded in baseness his treatment of herself ; else, how could he
be so sure that a jury would give her ” ruinous damages ” ? Or was
it all a mere illustration of a man s villainy ? Why should not she
also sue for damages ? Why not ? Why not ?

The three months that followed were a time of graver peril, of
darker crisis, than Rosamund, with all her slip-slop experiences,
had ever known. An observer adequately supplied with facts,
psychological and material, would more than once have felt that
it depended on the mere toss of a coin whether she kept or lost
her social respectability. She sounded all the depths possible to
such a mind and heart—save only that from which there could
have been no redemption. A saving memory lived within her,
and at length, in the yellow gloom of a November morning—her
tarnished, draggle-tailed finery thrown aside for the garb she had
worn in lowliness—Rosamund betook herself to Forest Hill. The
house of the Hallidays looked just as usual. She slunk up to the door,
rang the bell, and waited in fear of a strange face. There appeared
Mrs. Halliday herself. The surprised but friendly smile at once
proved her forgiveness of Rosamund’s desertion. She had written,
indeed, with calm good sense, hoping only that all would be well.
” Let me see you alone, Mrs. Halliday.—How glad I am to sit
in this room again ! Who is helping you now ? ”

                                                ” No

                        38 The Foolish Virgin

” No one. Help such as I want is not easy to find.”

” Oh, let me come back !—I am not married.—No, no, there is
nothing to be ashamed of. I am no worse than I ever was. I ll
tell you everything—the whole silly, wretched story.”

She told it, blurring only her existence of the past three

” I would have come before, but I was so bitterly ashamed. I
ran away so disgracefully. Now I’m penniless—all but suffering
hunger. Will you have me again, Mrs. Halliday ? I’ve been a
horrid fool, but—I do believe—for the last time in my life. Try
me again, dear Mrs. Halliday ! ”

There was no need of the miserable tears, the impassioned
pleading. Her home received her as though she had been absent
but for an hour. That night she knelt again by her bedside in
the little room, and at seven o’clock next morning she was light-
ing fires, sweeping floors, mute in thankfulness.

Halliday heard the story from his wife, and shook a dreamy,
compassionate head.

” For goodness’ sake,” urged the practical woman, ” don’t let
her think she’s a martyr.”

” No, no ; but the poor girl should have her taste of happi-

” Of course I’m sorry for her, but there are plenty of people
more to be pitied. Work she must, and there’s only one kind of
work she’s fit for. It’s no small thing to find your vocation—is it ?
Thousands of such women—all meant by nature to scrub and
cook—live and die miserably because they think themselves too
good for it.”

” The whole social structure is rotten ! ”

” It’ll last our time,” rejoined Mrs. Halliday, as she gave a little
laugh and stretched her weary arms.

MLA citation:

Gissing, George. “The Foolish Virgin.” The Yellow Book, vol. 8, January 1896, pp. 11-38. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010- 2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.