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The Foolish Virgin
by [?]

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 followed, 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 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 reply.

“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, looking 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 walked to the piano, selected a sheet of music, and sat down to play.

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 kindliness on her flabby lips, “all I can say is that it’s shameful–shameful!”

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 familiar 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 Glasgow.