Chapters 15 and 16

THE SEWING CLASS.

Stokebridge contained altogether a population of some three thousand souls, of whom more than half consisted of the men and boys of the Vaughan mine, and the families dependent upon them. It was a place where, except as to accidents at one or other of the pits, news was scarce, and a small thing therefore created much interest. Thus the news that the new schoolmaster had opened a night school, and that some sixteen or eighteen of the lads belonging to the Vaughan had joined it, created quite an excitement. At first the statement was received with positive disbelief. There was no precedent for such a thing, and in its ways at least Stokebridge was strictly conservative.

When the tale was confirmed wonder took the place of unbelief. The women were unanimous in the opinion that if the school only kept the lads from drink it would be a blessing to the place. Drink was indeed the grand test by which they viewed all things. To anything which led lads to avoid this curse of their homes their approval was certain and complete. Whether the acquisition of learning was likely to improve their prospects in life, or to make them better men, was not considered, the great point about the new organization was that it would keep them from the public-houses, the curses of the working men, and still more of the working men’s wives and families, of this country.

Among the men, who were, however, disposed to view the matter as a boys’ fancy which would soon die away, the movement met with slight approval. Newfangled notions were held in but low estimation among the miners of Stokebridge. They had got on wi’out larning, and saw no reason why t’ lads could not do as they had done. “They’ll be a cocking they noses oop aboove their feythers, joost acause they know moore reading and writing, but what good ul it do they I wonder?” an elderly pitman asked a circle of workmen at the “Chequers;” and a general affirmatory grunt betokened assent with the spirit of his words.

Among the young men, those of from eighteen to three or four and twenty, the opposition was still stronger, for here a strong feeling of jealousy was aroused at the thought that their juniors were, as they considered, stealing a march upon them. Gibes and jeers were showered upon the “Bull-dogs,” and two of them were ducked in the canal by a party of five or six of their elders. On scrambling out, however, they ran back to the village, and the rest of the party, headed by Jack, at once started on the war-path. Coming up to the band who had assaulted their comrades they fell upon them with fury, and in spite of the latter’s superior individual strength, thrashed them soundly, and then gave them a ducking in the canal, similar to that which they had inflicted. After that it came to be understood in Stokebridge that it was best to leave the bull-dogs alone, or at least to be content with verbal assaults, at which indeed the lads were able to hold their own.

But it was among the girls of Stokebridge, those of from fourteen to seventeen years old, that this movement upon the part of the boys excited the greatest discussion and the widest divergence of opinion. Up to the time of the strike Jack Simpson had been by no means popular among their class. It was an anomaly in Stokebridge that a lad should have no avowed favourite of his own age among the lasses. These adhesions were not often of a permanent character, although later on sometimes marriages came of them, but for a time, and until the almost inevitable quarrel came, they were regarded as binding. The lad would sometimes buy a ribbon or neckerchief for the lass, and she and two or three others would accompany him as with some of his comrades he strolled in the lanes on Sunday, or would sit by him on a wall or a balk of timber as he smoked and talked with his friends.

Jack’s rigid seclusion after his hour of play was over, his apparent indifference to the lasses of the place, was felt as a general slight, and resented accordingly; although the girls were not insensible to his prowess in battle and in sports, to his quiet steadiness of character, or to the frankness and good temper of his face. The general opinion, therefore, among the young girls of Stokebridge was that he was “stuck up,” although in fact few boys in the place had less of conceit and self-glorification than he had.

“Did ‘ee ever hear of such a tale,” asked one of a group of girls sitting together on a bank, while the little ones, of whom they were supposed to be in charge, played and rolled on the grass, “as for a lot o’ boys to go to school again o’ their own free-will.”

“I don’t see no good in it,” another said, “not for the schooling they’ll get. But if it teaches them to keep out o’ the publics, it will be good for their wives some day.”

“It will that,” put in another earnestly; “my! how feyther did beat mother last night; he were as drunk as could be, and he went on awful.”

“I think sometimes men are worse nor beasts,” another said.

“Do ‘ee know I’ve heard,” Sarah Shepherd said, “that the new schoolmistress be a-going to open a night-school for girls, to teach sewing, and cutting out, and summat o’ cooking.” There was a general exclamation of astonishment, and so strange was the news that it was some time before any one ventured a comment on it.

“What dost think o’t?” Sarah questioned at last.

“Only sewing and cutting out and cooking and such like, and not lessons?” Bess Thompson asked doubtfully.

“Not reg’lar lessons I mean. She’ll read out while the girls work, and perhaps they will read out by turns; not lessons, you know, but stories and tales, and travels, and that kind o’ book. What dost think o’t?”

“‘Twould be a good thing to know how to make dresses,” Fanny Jones, who was fond of finery, remarked.

“And other things too,” put in Peggy Martin, “and to cook too. Mother ain’t a good hand at cooking and it puts feyther in such tempers, and sometimes I hardly wonder. I shall go if some others go. But be’est sure it be true, Sally?”

“Harry told me,” she said, “and I think Jack Simpson told him as the schoolmaster said so.”

The news was too important to be kept to themselves, and there was soon a general move homewards.

There Sally Shepherd’s story received confirmation. The schoolmistress had been going from house to house, asking all the women who had daughters between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, to let them attend a working class in the schoolroom two evenings a week, and the answer she almost always received was, “Well, I ha’ no objection to my lass going if she be willing; and I think it would be very good for her to know how to make her clothes; I can hardly do a stitch myself.”

Mrs. Dodgson had also informed the women that any of them who liked to supply the material for undergarments or for children’s dresses, could have them for the present made up without charge by the class.

“But suppose they spiles ’em?”

“They wont spoil them. The work may not be very neat at first, but the things will be well cut out and strongly put together. I will see to that.”

In a short time the class was opened, and forty girls at once attended. So pleased were these with their teacher, and with the pleasant books that Mr. Dodgson read to them—for his wife was far too much occupied to read, and too wise to give the girls a distaste for the class by asking them to do so—that the number of applicants for admission soon far exceeded the number who could be received.

Mr. Brook heard shortly afterwards from Mr. Dodgson of the success of the scheme and the great benefit which was likely to accrue from it, and at once offered to contribute twenty pounds a year to secure the services of a young woman capable of assisting in the girls’ school by day and of teaching needlework.

Thenceforth the number of class evenings was raised to three a week, and sixty girls in all were admitted. The books chosen for reading were not always tales, but for a portion of each evening books treating on domestic matters, the care of a house, the management of illness, cottage gardening, &c., were read; and these were found greatly to interest the hearers. The book on gardening was a special favourite, and soon the pitmen were astonished to see changes in the tiny plots of ground behind their houses. The men in charge of the pit horses were coaxed for baskets of manure, pennies were saved and devoted to the purchase of seed, and the boys found that the most acceptable present was no longer a gay handkerchief or ribbon, but a pot of flowers.

Revolutions are not made in a day, but as month passed after month the change in Stokebridge became marked. The place assumed a smarter and brighter aspect; it was rare to hear bad language from lads or girls in the streets, for the young ones naturally followed the fashion set by their elder brothers and sisters, and as a foul expression not unfrequently cost its utterer a cuff on the head, they soon became rare.

The girls became more quiet in demeanour, neater in dress, the boys less noisy and aggressive.

The boys’ night-school had increased greatly in number. The Bull-dogs, after much deliberation, had declined to increase their numbers, but at Jack Simpson’s suggestion it had been agreed that any of them might join other similar associations, in order that these might be conducted on the same lines as their own, and the benefits of which they were conscious be thus distributed more widely. Four other “clubs” were in consequence established, all looking upon the Bull-dogs as their central association.

The vicar of the parish aided the efforts of the school master and mistress for the improvement of the rising generation of Stokebridge. Hitherto all efforts that way had failed, but he now got over a magic lantern from Birmingham, hiring sets of slides of scenery in foreign countries, astronomical subjects, &c., and gave lectures once a fortnight. These were well attended, and the quiet attention with which he was listened to by the younger portion of his audience, contrasted so strongly with the indifference or uproar with which a similar attempt had been met some two years before, that he told Mr. Brook something like a miracle was being wrought in the parish.

Mr. Brook warmly congratulated Mr. and Mrs. Dodgson on the change, but these frankly said that although they had done their best, the change was in no slight degree due to the influence of one of the pit lads, with whom Mr. Merton had taken great pains, and who was certainly a remarkable lad.

“Ah, indeed,” Mr. Brook said. “I have a faint recollection of his speaking to me some years ago of one of the boys; and, now I think of it, he is the same boy who behaved so bravely in going down that old shaft to save another boy’s life. The men gave him a gold watch; of course, I remember all about it now. I am glad to hear that he is turning out so well. In a few years I must see what I can do for him.”

Mr. Dodgson would have said much more, but Mr. Merton had impressed upon him that Jack would object, above all things, to be brought forward, and that it was better to let him work his way steadily and bide his time.

It was not for some months after the sewing classes had been instituted that those for cooking were established. The difficulty was not as to the necessary outlay for stoves and utensils, for these Mr. Brook at once offered to provide, but as to the food to be cooked.

The experiments began on a small scale. At first Mrs. Dodgson sent round to say that in all cases of illness, she would have broths, puddings, and cooling drinks prepared at the schools free of charge, upon the necessary materials being sent to her. This was followed by the plan of buying the materials for food for invalids, which was to be supplied at a price that just paid the cost. Then little steak puddings and pies were made, and these commanded a ready sale; excellent soups from cheap materials were also provided, and for this in winter the demand was greater than they could supply; and so the work was extended until the two stoves were fully occupied for three days a week.

Eight girls at a time were instructed in cookery, doing the whole work under the supervision of the mistress. Two fresh hands came as two left each week; thus each received a month’s teaching. On the first week the new-comers simply cleaned and washed the utensils, stoves, &c., during the remaining three weeks they learned to make simple soups, puddings, and pies, to cook meat and vegetables. The time was short for the purpose, but the girls were delighted with their lessons, and took the greatest pride in keeping up the reputation of the school kitchens, and learned at any rate sufficient to enable them to assist their mothers at home with such effect, that the pitmen of Stokebridge were astonished at the variety and improvement of their fare.


A NEW LIFE.

Jack Simpson did not forget the advice Mr. Merton had given him about clothes, and a fortnight after his master had gone to Birmingham Jack went over on Saturday afternoon, and his kind friend accompanied him to one of the leading tailors there, and he was measured for two suits of clothes. He went to other shops and bought such articles as Mr. Merton recommended—hats, gloves, boots, &c. Mr. Merton smiled to himself at the grave attention which Jack paid to all he said upon the subject; but Jack was always earnest in all he undertook, and he had quite appreciated what his friend had told him as to the advantage of being dressed so as to excite no attention upon the part of those whom he would meet at Mr. Merton’s.

The following Saturday he went over again, and went again to the tailor’s to try his things on.

“Do you want a dress suit, sir?” the foreman asked with suppressed merriment.

“What is a dress suit?” Jack said simply. “I am ignorant about these matters.”

“A dress suit,” the foreman said, struck with the young fellow’s freedom from all sort of pretence or assumption, “is the dress gentlemen wear of an evening at dinner parties or other gatherings. This is it,” and he showed Jack an engraving.

Jack looked at it—he had never seen anyone so attired.

“He looks very affected,” he said.

“Oh, that is the fault of the artist,” the foreman answered. “Gentlemen look just as natural in these clothes as in any other. They are quite simple, you see—all black, with open vest, white shirt, white tie and gloves, and patent leather boots.”

A quiet smile stole over Jack’s face. Humour was by no means a strong point in his character, but he was not altogether deficient in it.

“I had better have them,” he said; “it would look strange, I suppose, not to be dressed so when others are?”

“It would be a little marked in the event of a dinner or evening party,” the foreman answered, and so Jack gave the order.

It was two weeks later before he paid his first visit to Mr. Merton; for the pretty little house which the latter had taken a mile out of the town had been in the hands of the workmen and furnishers, Mr. Merton having drawn on his little capital to decorate and fit up the house, so as to be a pretty home for his daughter.

It was, indeed, a larger house than, from the mere salary attached to his post, he could be able to afford, but he reckoned upon considerably increasing this by preparing young men for the university, and he was wise enough to know that a good establishment and a liberal table go very far in establishing and widening a connection, and in rendering people sensible to a man’s merits, either in business or otherwise.

As Mr. Merton, M.A., late of St. John’s, Cambridge, and third wrangler of his year, he had already been received with great cordiality by his colleagues, and at their houses had made the acquaintance of many of the best, if not the wealthiest men in Birmingham, for at Birmingham the terms were by no means more synonymous than they are elsewhere.

Jack had ordered his clothes to be sent to a small hotel near the railway station, and had arranged with the landlord that his portmanteau should be kept there, and a room be placed at his service on Saturday afternoon and Monday morning once a month for him to change his things. He had walked with Mr. Merton and seen the house, and had determined that he would always change before going there on a Saturday, in order to avoid comments by servants and others who might be visiting them.

In thus acting Jack had no personal thoughts in the matter; much as he always shrank from being put for ward as being in any way different from others, he had otherwise no self-consciousness whatever. No lad on the pits thought less of his personal appearance or attire, and his friend Nelly had many times taken him to task for his indifference in this respect. Mr. Merton perceived advantages in Jack’s position in life not being generally known, and Jack at once fell into the arrangement, and carried it out, as described, to the best of his ability. But even he could not help seeing, when he had attired himself for his first visit to Mr. Merton’s house, how complete had been the change in his appearance.

“Who would have thought that just a little difference in the make of a coat would have made such an alteration in one’s look?” he said to himself. “I feel different altogether; but that is nonsense, except that these boots are so much lighter than mine, that it seems as if I were in my stockings. Well, I suppose I shall soon be accustomed to it.”

Packing a black coat and a few other articles in a hand-bag, and locking up the clothes he had taken off in his portmanteau, Jack started for Mr. Merton’s. He was dressed in a well-fitting suit of dark tweed, with a claret-coloured neckerchief with plain gold scarf-ring. Jack’s life of exercise had given him the free use of his limbs—he walked erect, and his head was well set back on his shoulders; altogether, with his crisp short waving hair, his good-humoured but resolute face, and his steadfast look, he was, although not handsome, yet a very pleasant-looking young fellow.

He soon forgot the fact of his new clothes, except that he was conscious of walking with a lightness and elasticity strange to him, and in half an hour rang at the visitors’ bell of Mr. Merton’s villa.

“A visitor, papa,” said Alice, who was sitting near the window of the drawing-room. “How tiresome, just as we were expecting Jack Simpson. It is a gentleman. Why, papa!” and she clapped her hands, “it is Jack himself. I did not know him at first, he looks like a gentleman.”

“He is a gentleman,” Mr. Merton said; “a true gentleman in thought, feeling, and speech, and will soon adapt himself to the society he will meet here. Do not remark upon his dress unless he says something about it himself.”

“Oh, papa, I should not think of such a thing. I am not so thoughtless as that.”

The door was opened and Jack was shown in.

“How are you, Jack? I am glad to see you.”

“Thank you, sir, I am always well,” Jack said. Then turning to Miss Merton he asked her how she liked Birmingham. He had seen her often since the time when he first met her at the commencement of the strike, as he had helped them in their preparations for removing from Stokebridge, and had entirely got over the embarrassment which he had felt on the first evening spent there.

After talking for a few minutes, Jack said gravely to Mr. Merton, “I hope that these clothes will do, Mr. Merton?”

“Excellently well, Jack,” he answered smiling; “they have made just the difference I expected; my daughter hardly knew you when you rang at the bell.”

“I hardly knew myself when I saw myself in a glass,” Jack said. “Now, on what principle do you explain the fact that a slight alteration in the cutting and sewing together of pieces of cloth should make such a difference?”

“I do not know that I ever gave the philosophy of the question a moment’s thought, Jack,” said Mr. Merton smiling. “I can only explain it by the remark that the better cut clothes set off the natural curve of the neck, shoulders, and figure generally, and in the second place, being associated in our minds with the peculiar garb worn by gentlemen, they give what, for want of a better word, I may call style. A high black hat is the ugliest, most shapeless, and most unnatural article ever invented, but still a high hat, good and of the shape in vogue, certainly has a more gentlemanly effect, to use a word I hate, than any other. And now, my boy, you I know dined early, so did we. We shall have tea at seven, so we have three hours for work, and there are nearly six weeks’ arrears, so do not let us waste any more time.”

After this first visit Jack went out regularly once every four weeks. He fell very naturally into the ways of the house, and although his manner often amused Alice Merton greatly, and caused even her father to smile, he was never awkward or boorish.

As Alice came to know him more thoroughly, and their conversations ceased to be of a formal character, she surprised and sometimes quite puzzled him. The girl was full of fun and had a keen sense of humour, and her playful attacks upon his earnestness, her light way of parrying the problems which Jack, ever on the alert for information, was constantly putting, and the cheerful tone which her talk imparted to the general conversation when she was present, were all wholly new to the lad. Often he did not know whether she was in earnest or not, and was sometimes so overwhelmed by her light attacks as to be unable to answer.

Mr. Merton looked on, amused at their wordy conflicts; he knew that nothing does a boy so much good and so softens his manner as friendly intercourse with a well-read girl of about his own age, and undoubtedly Alice did almost as much towards preparing Jack’s manner for his future career as her father had done towards preparing his mind.

As time went on Jack often met Mr. Merton’s colleagues, and other gentlemen who came in in the evening. He was always introduced as “my young friend Simpson,” with the aside, “a remarkably clever young fellow,” and most of those who met him supposed him to be a pupil of the professor’s.

Mr. Merton had, within a few months of his arrival at Birmingham, five or six young men to prepare for Cambridge. None of them resided in the house, but after Jack had become thoroughly accustomed to the position, Mr. Merton invited them, as well as a party of ladies and gentlemen, to the house on one of Jack’s Saturday evenings.

Jack, upon hearing that a number of friends were coming in the evening, made an excuse to go into the town, and took his black bag with him.

Alice had already wondered over the matter.

“They will all be in dress, papa. Jack will feel awkward among them.”

“He is only eighteen, my dear, and it will not matter his not being in evening dress. Jack will not feel awkward.”

Alice, was, however, very pleased as well as surprised when, upon coming down dressed into the drawing-room, she found him in full evening dress chatting quietly with her father and two newly arrived guests. Jack would not have been awkward, but he would certainly have been uncomfortable had he not been dressed as were the others, for of all things he hated being different to other people.

He looked at Alice in a pretty pink muslin dress of fashionable make with a surprise as great as that with which she had glanced at him, for he had never before seen a lady in full evening dress.

Presently he said to her quietly, “I know I never say the right thing, Miss Merton, and I daresay it is quite wrong for me to express any personal opinions, but you do look—”

“No, Jack; that is quite the wrong thing to say. You may say, Miss Merton, your dress is a most becoming one, although even that you could not be allowed to say except to some one with whom you are very intimate. There are as many various shades of compliment as there are of intimacy. A brother may say to a sister, You look stunning to-night—that is a very slang word, Jack—and she will like it. A stranger or a new acquaintance may not say a word which would show that he observes a lady is not attired in a black walking dress.”

“And what is the exact degree of intimacy in which one may say as you denoted, ‘Miss Merton, your dress is a most becoming one?'”

“I should say,” the girl said gravely, “it might be used by a cousin or by an old gentleman, a friend of the family.”

Then with a laugh she went off to receive the guests, now beginning to arrive in earnest.

After this Mr. Merton made a point of having an “at home” every fourth Saturday, and these soon became known as among the most pleasant and sociable gatherings in the literary and scientific world of Birmingham.

So young Jack Simpson led a dual life, spending twenty-six days of each month as a pit lad, speaking a dialect nearly as broad as that of his fellows, and two as a quiet and unobtrusive young student in the pleasant home of Mr. Merton.

Before a year had passed the one life seemed as natural to him as the other. Even with his friends he kept them separate, seldom speaking of Stokebridge when at Birmingham, save to answer Mr. Merton’s questions as to old pupils; and giving accounts, which to Nelly Hardy appeared ridiculously meagre, of his Birmingham experience to his friends at home.

This was not from any desire to be reticent, but simply because the details appeared to him to be altogether uninteresting to his friends.

“You need not trouble to tell me any more, Jack,” Nelly Hardy said indignantly. “I know it all by heart. You worked three hours with Mr. Merton; dinner at six; some people came at eight, no one in particular; they talked, and there was some playing on the piano; they went away at twelve. Next morning after breakfast you went to church, had dinner at two, took a walk afterwards, had tea at half-past six, supper at nine, then to bed. I won’t ask you any more questions, Jack; if anything out of the way takes place you will tell me, no doubt.”