A KNOTTY QUESTION.
t has not been mentioned that at the fête at Mr. Brook’s on the memorable occasion of the Black Feast, Mr. Merton and his daughter were staying as guests with Mr. Brook. Mr. Merton was much struck with the extraordinary improvement which had taken place in the bearing and appearance of the young people.
“Yes,” Mr. Dodgson, whom he congratulated upon the change, said; “it is entirely due to the suggestion which you made upon my arrival here. The night-schools for lads and the sewing and cooking classes for the girls have done wonders, and I have found in the lad you recommended to my attention, Jack Simpson, an invaluable ally. Without him, indeed, I think that our plan would have been a failure. He is a singular young fellow, so quiet yet so determined; the influence he has over the lads of his own age is immense.”
“He is more than singular,” Mr. Merton said warmly; “he is extraordinary. You only see one side of his character, I see both. As a scholar he is altogether remarkable. He could carry off any open scholarship at Cambridge, and could take away the highest honours; he could pass high up among the wranglers even now, and has a broad and solid knowledge of other subjects.”
“Indeed!” Mr. Dodgson said, surprised; “this is quite new to me. I know that he studies hard privately, and that he went over to see you once a month, but I had no idea that his acquirements were anything exceptional, and, indeed, although his speech is often superior to that of the other young fellows, he often makes mistakes in grammar and pronunciation.”
Mr. Merton laughed. “That is one of his peculiarities; he does not wish to be thought above his fellows: look at his dress, now! But if you saw him with me, and heard him talking with the first men of education and science in Birmingham you would share the astonishment they often express to me, and would take him not only for a young gentleman, but for one of singular and exceptionally cultured mind.”
Jack’s attire, indeed—it was after the conclusion of the cricket-match, and he had changed his clothes—was that of the ordinary pitman in his Sunday suit. A black cutaway coat, badly fitting, and made by the village tailor, a black waistcoat and trousers, with thick high-low shoes. His appearance had attracted the attention of Miss Merton, who, as he approached her, held out her hand.
“How are you, Jack? What on earth have you been doing to yourself? You look a complete guy in these clothes. I was half tempted to cut you downright.”
“This is my Sunday suit, Miss Merton, it is just the same as other people’s.”
“Perhaps it is,” the girl said, laughing, and looking round with just a little curl of her lip; “but you know better, Jack: why should you make such a figure of yourself?”
“I dress here like what I am,” Jack said simply, “a pitman. At your house I dress as one of your father’s guests.”
“I suppose you please yourself, and that you always do, Mr. Jack Simpson; you are the most obstinate, incorrigible—”
“Ruffian,” Jack put in laughing.
“Well, I don’t know about ruffian,” the girl said, laughing too; “but, Jack, who is that girl watching us, the quiet-looking girl in a dark brown dress and straw bonnet?”
“That is my friend Nelly Hardy,” Jack said seriously.
“Yes, you have often spoken to me about her and I have wanted to see her; what a nice face she has, and handsome too, with her great dark eyes! Jack, you must introduce me to her, I should like to know her.”
“Certainly,” Jack said with a pleased look; and accompanied by Alice he walked across the lawn towards her.
Nelly turned the instant that they moved, and walking away joined some other girls. Jack, however, followed.
“Nelly,” he said, when he reached her, “this is Miss Merton, who wants to know you. Miss Merton, this is my friend Nelly Hardy.”
Nelly bent her head silently, but Alice held out her hand frankly.
“Jack has told me so much about you,” she said, “that I wanted, above all things, to see you.”
Nelly looked steadily up into her face. It was a face any one might look at with pleasure, frank, joyous, and kindly. It was an earnest face too, less marked and earnest than that now looking at her, but with lines of character and firmness.
Nelly’s expression softened as she gazed.
“You are very good, Miss Merton; I have often heard of you too, and wanted to see you as much as you could have done to see me.”
“I hope you like me now you do see me,” Miss Merton laughed; “you won’t be angry when I say that I like you, though you did turn away when you saw us coming.
“You are accustomed to meet people and be introduced,” Nelly said quietly; “I am not, you see.”
“I don’t think you are shy,” Miss Merton said smiling, “but you had a reason; perhaps some day when we know each other better you will tell me. I have been scolding Jack for making such a figure of himself. You are his friend and should not let him do it.”
Jack laughed, while Nelly looked in surprise at him.
“What is the matter with him?” she asked; “I don’t see that there is anything wrong.”
“Not wrong,” Miss Merton said, “only singular to me. He has got on clothes just like all the rest, which don’t fit him at all, and look as if they had been made to put on to a wooden figure in a shop window, while when we see him he is always properly dressed.”
Nelly flashed a quiet look of inquiry at Jack.
“You never told me, Jack,” she said, with an aggrieved ring in her voice, “that you dressed differently at Birmingham to what you do here.”
“There was nothing to tell really,” he said quietly. “I told you that I had had some clothes made there, and always wore them at Mr. Merton’s; but I don’t know,” and he smiled, “that I did enter into any particulars about their cut, indeed I never thought of this myself.”
“I don’t suppose you did, Jack,” the girl said gently, for she knew how absolutely truthful he was; “but you ought to have told me. But see, they are getting ready to go into the tent, and I must help look after the young ones.”
“What a fine face she has!” Alice said; “but I don’t think she quite likes me, Jack.”
“Not like you!” Jack said astonished, “what makes you think that? she was sure to like you; why, even if nobody else liked you Nelly would, because you have been so kind to me.”
For the next few days the serious events of the night absorbed all thought; indeed, it was not until the following Sunday afternoon that Jack and Nelly Hardy met. Harry Shepherd, who generally accompanied them in their walks upon this day, was still suffering from the effects of the injuries he had received in the riot. Jack and his companion talked over that event until they turned to come back.
Then after a pause the girl asked suddenly, “How do you like Alice Merton, Jack?”
Jack was in no way taken by surprise, but, ignorant that the black eyes were keenly watching him, he replied:
“Oh, I like her very much, I have often told you so, Nelly.”
“Do you like her better than me, Jack?”
Jack looked surprised this time.
“What should put such a thought in your head, lass? You know I like you and Harry better than any one in the world. We are like three brothers. It is not likely I should like Alice Merton, whom I only see once a month, better than you. She is very kind, very pleasant, very bright. She treats me as an equal and I would do anything for her, but she couldn’t be the same as you are, no one can. Perhaps,” he said, “years on—for you know that I have always said that I should not marry till I’m thirty, that’s what my good friend told me more than ten years ago—I shall find some one I shall like as well as you, but that will be in a different way, and you will be married years and years before that. Let me think, you are nearly seventeen, Nelly?” The girl nodded, her face was turned the other way. “Yes, you are above a year younger than I am. Some girls marry by seventeen; I wonder no one has been after you already, Nelly; there is no girl in the village to compare with you.”
But Nelly, without a word, darted away at full speed up the lane towards home, leaving Jack speechless with astonishment. “She hasn’t done that for years,” he said; “it’s just the way she used to do when we were first friends. If she got in a temper about anything she would rush away and hide herself and cry for hours. What could I have said to vex her, about her marrying, or having some one courting her; there couldn’t be anything in that to vex her.” Jack thought for some time, sitting upon a stile the better to give his mind to it. Finally he gave up the problem in despair, grumbling to himself, “One never gets to understand girls; here I’ve known Nelly for the last seven years like a sister, and there she flies away crying—I am sure she was crying, because she always used to cry when she ran away—and what it is about I have not the least idea. Now I mustn’t say anything about it when I meet her next, I know that of old, unless she does first, but as likely as not she will never allude to it.”
In fact no allusion ever was made to the circumstance, for before the following Sunday came round John Hardy had died. He had been sinking for months, and his death had been looked for for some time. It was not a blow to his daughter, and could hardly be a great grief, for he had been a drunken, worthless man, caring nothing for his child, and frequently brutally assaulting her in his drunken fits. She had attended him patiently and assiduously for months, but no word of thanks had ever issued from his lip. His character was so well known that no one regarded his death as an event for which his daughter should be pitied. It would, however, effect a change in her circumstances. Hardy had, ever since the attack upon the Vaughan, received an allowance from the union, as well as from the sick club to which he belonged, but this would now cease; and it was conjectured by the neighbours that “th’ old ooman would have to go into the house, and Nelly would go into a factory at Birmingham or Wolverhampton, or would go into service.” Nelly’s mother was a broken woman; years of intemperance had prematurely aged her, and her enforced temperance during the last few months had apparently broken her spirit altogether, and the coarse, violent woman had almost sunk into quiet imbecility.
mong others who talked over Nelly Hardy’s future were Mr. and Mrs. Dodgson. They were very fond of her, for from the first she had been the steadiest and most industrious of the young girls of the place, and by diligent study had raised herself far in advance of the rest. She had too been always so willing and ready to oblige and help that she was a great favourite with both.
“I have been thinking,” Mrs. Dodgson said to her husband on the evening of the day of John Hardy’s death, “whether, as Miss Bolton, the assistant mistress, is going to leave at the end of the month, to be married, Nelly Hardy would not make an excellent successor for her. There is no doubt she is fully capable of filling the situation; her manners are all that could be wished, and she has great influence with the younger children. The only drawback was her disreputable old father. It would hardly have done for my assistant to appear in school in the morning with a black eye, and for all the children to know that her drunken father had been beating her. Now he is gone that objection is at an end. She and her mother, who has been as bad as the father, but is now, I believe, almost imbecile, could live in the little cottage Miss Bolton occupies.”
“I think it would be an excellent plan, my dear, excellent; we could have no one we should like better, or who could be a more trustworthy and helpful assistant to you. By all means let it be Nelly Hardy. I will go up and speak to Mr. Brook to-morrow. As he is our patron I must consult him, but he will agree to anything we propose. Let us say nothing about it until you tell her yourself after the funeral.”
Mrs. Dodgson saw Nelly Hardy several times in the next few days, and went in and sat with her as she worked at her mourning; but it was not until John Hardy was laid in the churchyard that she opened the subject.
“Come up in the morning, my dear,” she had said that day; “I want to have a talk with you.”
On the following morning Nelly, in her neatly-fitting black mourning dress, made her appearance at the school-house, after breakfast, a quarter of an hour before school began.
“Sit down, my dear,” Mrs. Dodgson said, “I have some news to give you which will, I think, please you. Of course you have been thinking what to do?”
“Yes, ‘m; I have made up my mind to try and get work in a factory.”
“Indeed! Nelly,” Mrs. Dodgson said, surprised; “I should have thought that was the last thing that you would like.”
“It is not what I like,” Nelly said quietly, “but what is best. I would rather go into service, and as I am fond of children and used to them, I might, with your kind recommendation, get a comfortable situation; but in that case mother must go to the house, and I could not bear to think of her there. She is very helpless, and of late she has come to look to me, and would be miserable among strangers. I could earn enough at a factory to keep us both, living very closely.”
“Well, Nelly, your decision does you honour, but I think my plan is better. Have you heard that Miss Bolton is going to leave us?”
“I have heard she was engaged to be married some day, ‘m, but I did not know the time was fixed.”
“She leaves at the end of this month, that is in a fortnight, and her place has already been filled up. Upon the recommendation of myself and Mr. Dodgson, Mr. Brook has appointed Miss Nelly Hardy as her successor.”
“Me!” exclaimed Nelly, rising with a bewildered air. “Oh, Mrs. Dodgson, you cannot mean it?”
“I do, indeed, Nelly. Your conduct here has been most satisfactory in every way, you have a great influence with the children, and your attainments and knowledge are amply sufficient for the post of my assistant. You will, of course, have Miss Bolton’s cottage, and can watch over your mother. You will have opportunities for studying to fit yourself to take another step upwards, and become a head-mistress some day.”
Mrs. Dodgson had continued talking, for she saw that Nelly was too much agitated and overcome to speak.
“Oh, Mrs. Dodgson,” she sobbed, “how can I thank you enough?”
“There are no thanks due, my dear. Of course I want the best assistant I can get, and I know of no one upon whom I can rely more thoroughly than yourself. You have no one but yourself to thank, for it is your good conduct and industry alone which have made you what you are, and that under circumstances of the most unfavourable kind. But there is the bell ringing for school. I suppose I may tell Mr. Brook that you accept the situation; the pay, thirty pounds a year and the cottage, is not larger, perhaps, than you might earn at a factory, but I think—”
“Oh, Mrs. Dodgson,” Nelly said, smiling through her tears, “I accept, I accept. I would rather live on a crust of bread here than work in a factory, and if I had had the choice of everything I should prefer this.”
Mr. Dodgson here came in, shook Nelly’s hand and congratulated her, and with a happy heart the girl took her way home.
Jack, upon his return from the pit, found Nelly awaiting him at the corner where for years she had stood. He had seen her once since her father’s death, and had pressed her hand warmly to express his sympathy, but he was too honest to condole with her on a loss which was, he knew, a relief. He and Harry had in the intervening time talked much of Nelly’s prospects. Jack was averse in the extreme to her going into service, still more averse to her going into a factory, but could suggest no alternative plan.
“If she were a boy,” he said, “it would be easy enough. I am getting eighteen shillings a week now, and could let her have five easily, and she might take in dressmaking. There are plenty of people in the villages round would be glad to get their dresses made; but she would have to live till she got known a bit, and you know she wouldn’t take my five shillings. I wouldn’t dare offer it to her. Now if it was you there would be no trouble at all; you would take it, of course, just as I should take it of you, but she wouldn’t, because she’s a lass—it beats me altogether. I might get mother to offer her the money, but Nelly would know it was me sharp enough, and it would be all the same.”
“I really think that Nelly might do well wi’ dressmaking,” Harry said after a pause. “Here all the lasses ha’ learnt to work, but, as you say, in the other villages they know no more than we did here three years back; if we got some bills printed and sent ’em round, I should say she might do. There are other things you don’t seem to ha’ thought on, Jack,” he said hesitatingly. “You’re only eighteen yet, but you are earning near a pound a week, and in another two or three years will be getting man’s pay, and you are sure to rise. Have you never thought of marrying Nelly?”
Jack jumped as if he had trodden on a snake.
“I marry Nelly!” he said in astonishment. “What! I marry Nelly! are you mad, Harry? You know I have made up my mind not to marry for years, not till I’m thirty and have made my way; and as to Nelly, why I never thought of her, nor of any other lass in that way; her least of all; why, she is like my sister. What ever put such a ridiculous idea in your head? Why, at eighteen boys haven’t left school and are looking forward to going to college; those boy and girl marriages among our class are the cause of half our troubles. Thirty is quite time enough to marry. How Nelly would laugh if she knew what you’d said!”
“I should advise you not to tell her,” Harry said dryly; “I greatly mistake if she would regard it as a laughing matter at all.”
“No, lasses are strange things,” Jack meditated again. “But, Harry, you are as old as I am, and are earning the same wage; why don’t you marry her?”
“I would,” Harry said earnestly, “to-morrow if she’d have me.”
“You would!” Jack exclaimed, as much astonished as by his friend’s first proposition. “To think of that now! Why, you have always been with her just as I have. You have never shown that you cared for her, never given her presents, nor walked with her, nor anything. And do you really care for her, Harry?”
“Aye,” Harry said shortly, “I have cared for her for years.”
“And to think that I have never seen that!” Jack said. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why, you are as difficult to understand as she is, and I thought I knew you so well!”
“What would have been the use?” Harry said. “Nelly likes me as a friend, that’s all.”
“That’s it,” Jack said. “Of course when people are friends they don’t think of each other in any other way. Still, Harry, she may get to in time. Nelly’s pretty well a woman, she’s seventeen now, but she has no one else after her that I know of.”
“Well, Jack, I fancy she could have plenty after her, for she’s the prettiest and best girl o’ the place; but you see, you are always about wi’ her, and I think that most people think it will be a match some day.”
“People are fools,” Jack burst out wrathfully. “Who says so? just tell me who says so?”
“People say so, Jack. When a young chap and a lass walk together people suppose there is something in it, and you and Nelly ha’ been walking together for the last five years.”
“Walking together!” Jack repeated angrily; “we have been going about together of course, and you have generally been with us, and often enough half-a-dozen others; that is not like walking together. Nelly knew, and every one knew, that we agreed to be friends from the day we stood on the edge of the old shaft when you were in the water below, and we have never changed since.”
“I know you have never changed, Jack, never thought of Nelly but as a true friend. I did not know whether now you might think differently. I wanted to hear from your own lips. Now I know you don’t, that you have no thought of ever being more than a true friend to her, I shall try if I cannot win her.”
“Do,” Jack said, shaking his friend’s hand. “I am sure I wish you success. Nothing in the world would please me so much as to see my two friends marry, and though I do think, yes, I really do, Harry, that young marriages are bad, yet I am quite sure that you and Nelly would be happy together anyhow. And when do you mean to ask her?”
“What an impatient fellow you are, Jack!” Harry said smiling. “Nelly has no more idea that I care for her than you had, and I am not going to tell her so all at once. I don’t think,” he said gravely, “mark me, Jack, I don’t think Nelly will ever have me, but if patience and love can win her I shall succeed in the end.”
Jack looked greatly surprised again.
“Don’t say any more about it, Jack,” Harry went on. “It ‘ull be a long job o’ work, but I can bide my time; but above all, if you wish me well, do not even breathe a word to Nelly of what I have said.”
From this interview Jack departed much mystified.
“It seems to me,” he muttered to himself, “lads when they’re in love get to be like lasses, there’s no understanding them. I know nowt of love myself, and what I’ve read in books didn’t seem natural, but I suppose it must be true, for even Harry, who I thought I knew as well as myself, turned as mysterious as—well as a ghost. What does he mean by he’s got to be patient, and to wait, and it will be a long job. If he likes Nelly and Nelly likes him—and why shouldn’t she?—I don’t know why they shouldn’t marry in a year or two, though I do hate young marriages. Anyhow I’ll talk to her about the dressmaking idea. If Harry’s got to make love to her, it will be far better for him to do it here than to have to go walking her out o’ Sundays at Birmingham. If she would but let me help her a bit till she’s got into business it would be as easy as possible.”
Jack, however, soon had the opportunity of laying his scheme fully before Nelly Hardy, and when she had turned off from the road with him she broke out:
“Oh, Jack, I have such a piece of news; but perhaps you know it, do you?” she asked jealously.
“No, I don’t know any particular piece of news.”
“Not anything likely to interest me, Jack?”
“No,” Jack said puzzled.
“Honour, you haven’t the least idea what it is?”
“Honour, I haven’t,” Jack said.
“I’m going to be a schoolmistress in place of Miss Bolton.”
“No!” Jack shouted delightedly; “I am glad, Nelly, I am glad. Why, it is just the thing for you; Harry and I have been puzzling our heads all the week as to what you should do!”
“And what did your united wisdom arrive at?” Nelly laughed.
“We thought you might do here at dressmaking,” Jack said, “after a bit, you know.”
“The thought was not a bad one,” she said; “it never occurred to me, and had this great good fortune not have come to me I might perhaps have tried. It was good of you to think of it. And so you never heard a whisper about the schoolmistress? I thought you might perhaps have suggested it somehow, you know you always do suggest things here.”
“No, indeed, Nelly, I did not hear Miss Bolton was going.”
“I am glad,” the girl said.
“Are you?” Jack replied in surprise. “Why, Nelly, wouldn’t you have liked me to have helped you?”
“Yes and no, Jack; but no more than yes. I do owe everything to you. It was you who made me your friend, you who taught me, you who urged me on, you who have made me what I am. No, Jack, dear,” she said, seeing that Jack looked pained at her thanks; “I have never thanked you before, and I must do it now. I owe everything to you, and in one way I should have been pleased to owe this to you also, but in another way I am pleased not to do so because my gaining it by, if I may say so, my own merits, show that I have done my best to prove worthy of your kindness and friendship.”
Tears of earnestness stood in her eyes, and Jack felt that disclaimer would be ungracious.
“I am glad,” he said again after a pause. “And now, Miss Hardy,” and he touched his hat laughing, “that you have risen in the world, I hope you are not going to take airs upon yourself.”
Nelly laughed. “It is strange,” she said, “that I should be the first to take a step upwards, for Mrs. Dodgson is going to help me to go in and qualify for a head-schoolmistress-ship some day; but, Jack, it is only for a little time. You laugh and call me Miss Hardy to-day, but the time will come when I shall say ‘sir’ to you; you are longer beginning, but you will rise far higher; but we shall always be friends; shall we not, Jack?”
“Always, Nelly,” Jack said earnestly. “Wherever or whatever Jack Simpson may be, he will ever be your true and faithful friend, and nothing which may ever happen to me, no rise I may ever make, will give me the pleasure which this good fortune which has befallen you has done. If I ever rise it will make me happy to help Harry, but I know you would never have let me help you, and this thought would have marred my life. Now that I see you in a position in which I am sure you will be successful, and which is an honourable and pleasant one, I shall the more enjoy my rise when it comes.—Does any one else know of it?” he asked as they went on their way.
“No one,” she said. “Who should know it before you?”
“Harry will be as glad as I am,” he said, remembering his friend’s late assertion.
“Yes, Harry will be very glad too,” Nelly said; but Jack felt that Harry’s opinion was of comparatively little importance in her eyes. “He is a good honest fellow is Harry, and I am sure he will be pleased, and so I hope will everyone.”
Jack felt that the present moment was not a propitious one for putting in a word for his friend.
Harry Shepherd carried out his purpose. For two years he waited, and then told his love to Nelly Hardy, one bright Sunday afternoon when they were walking in the lane.
“No, Harry, no,” she said humbly and sadly; “it can never be, do not ask me, I am so, so sorry.”
“Can it never be?” Harry asked.
“Never,” the girl said; “you know yourself, Harry, it can never be. I have seen this coming on for two years now, and it has grieved me so; but you know, I am sure you know, why it cannot be.”
“I know,” the young fellow said. “I have always known that you cared for Jack a thousand times more than for me, and it’s quite natural, for he is worth a thousand of me; but then, then—” and he hesitated.
“But then,” she went on. “Jack does not love me, and you do. That is so, Harry; but since I was a child I have loved him. I know, none better, that he never thought of me except as a friend, that he scarcely considered me as a girl. I have never thought that it would be otherwise. I could hardly wish that it were. Jack will rise to be a great man, and must marry a lady, but,” she said steadfastly, “I can go on loving him till I die.”
“I have not hoped much, Nelly, but remember always, that I have always cared for you. Since you first became Jack’s friend I have cared for you. If he had loved you I could even stand aside and be glad to see you both happy, but I have known always that this could never be. Jack’s mind was ever so much given up to study, he is not like us, and does not dream of a house and love till he has made his mark in the world. Remember only that I love you as you love Jack, and shall love as faithfully. Some day, perhaps, long hence,” he added as Nelly shook her head, “you may not think differently, but may come to see that it is better to make one man’s life happy than to cling for ever to the remembrance of another. At any rate you will always think of me as your true friend, Nelly, always trust me?”
“Always, Harry, in the future more than lately, for I have seen this coming. Now that we understand each other we can be quite friends again.”