elly Hardy had been unfortunate in her parents, for both drank, and she had grown up without care or supervision. She had neither brother nor sister. At school she was always either at the top or bottom of her class according as a fit of diligence or idleness seized her. She was a wild passionate child, feeling bitterly the neglect with which she was treated, her ragged clothes, her unkempt appearance. She was feared and yet liked by the girls of her own age, for she was generous, always ready to do a service, and good-tempered except when excited to passion. She was fonder of joining with the boys, when they would let her, in their games, and, when angered, was ready to hold her own against them with tooth and nail.
So wild were her bursts of passion that they were sources of amusement to some of the boys, until Jack upon one occasion took her part, and fought and conquered the boy who had excited her. This was on the Saturday before the accident had taken place.
For some days after the presentation no one saw her; she kept herself shut up in the house or wandered far away.
Then she appeared suddenly before Jack Simpson and Harry Shepherd as they were out together.
“I hate you, Jack Simpson,” she said, “I hate you, I hate you;” and then dashed through the gap in the hedge by which she had come.
“Well,” Harry exclaimed in astonishment, “only to think!”
“It be nat’ral enough,” Jack said, “and I bain’t surprised one bit. I orter ha’ known better. I had only to ha’ joodged her by myself and I should ha’ seen it. I hated being dragged forward and talked at; it was bad enough though I had been made decent and clean scrubbed all over, and got my Soonday clothes on, but of course it would be worse for a lass anyway, and she was all anyhow, not expecting it. I ought to ha’ known better; I thawt only o’ my own feelings and not o’ hers, and I’d beg her pardon a hundred times, but ‘taint likely she’d forgive me. What is she a doing now?”
The lads peered through the hedge. Far across the field, on the bank, the other side, lay what looked like a bundle of clothes.
“She be a crying, I expect,” Jack said remorsefully. “I do wish some big chap would a come along and give I a hiding; I wouldn’t fight, or kick, or do nowt, I would just take it, it would serve me roight. I wonder whether it would do her any good to let her thrash me. If it would she’d be welcome. Look here, Harry, she bain’t angry wi’ you. Do thou go across to her and tell her how main sorry I be, and that I know I am a selfish brute and thought o’ myself and not o’ her, and say that if she likes I will cut her a stick any size she likes and let her welt me just as long as she likes wi’out saying a word.”
Harry was rather loath to go on such an errand, but being imperatively ordered by Jack he, as usual, did as his comrade wished. When he approached Nelly Hardy he saw that the girl was crying bitterly, her sobs shaking her whole body.
“I be coom wi’ a message,” he began in a tone of apprehension, for he regarded Nelly as resembling a wild cat in her dangerous and unexpected attacks.
The girl leapt to her feet and turned her flushed tear-stained cheeks and eyes, flashing with anger through the tears, upon him.
“What dost want, Harry Shepherd? Get thee gone, or I’ll tear the eyes from thy head.”
“I doan’t coom o’ my own accord,” Harry said steadily, though he recoiled a little before her fierce outburst. “I came on the part o’ Jack Simpson, and I’ve got to gi’ you his message even if you do fly at me. I’ve got to tell you that he be main sorry, and that he feels he were a selfish brute in a thinking o’ his own feelings instead o’ thine. He says he be so sorry that if ‘ee like he’ll cut a stick o’ any size you choose and ull let you welt him as long as you like wi’out saying a word. And when Jack says a thing he means it, so if you wants to wop him, come on.”
To Harry’s intense surprise the girl’s mood changed. She dropped on the ground again, and again began to cry.
After standing still for some time and seeing no abatement in her sobs, or any sign of her carrying out the invitation of which he had been the bearer, Jack’s emissary returned to him.
“I guv her your message, Jack, and she said nowt, but there she be a crying still.”
“Perhaps she didn’t believe you,” Jack said; “I’d best go myself.”
First, with great deliberation, Jack chose a hazel stick from the hedge and tried it critically. When fully assured that it was at once lissom and tough, and admirably adapted for his purpose, he told Harry to go on home.
“Maybe,” Jack said, “she mayn’t loike to use it and you a looking on. Doan’t ‘ee say a word to no un. If she likes to boast as she ha’ welted me she ha’ a roight to do so, but doan’t you say nowt.”
Jack walked slowly across the field till he was close to the figure on the ground. Then he quietly removed his jacket and waistcoat and laid them down. Then he said:
“Now, Nelly, I be ready for a welting, I ha’ deserved it if ever a chap did, and I’ll take it. Here’s the stick, and he’s a good un and will sting rare, I warrant.”
The girl sat up and looked at him through her tears.
“Oh, Jack, and didst really think I wanted to welt thee?”
“I didn’t know whether thou didst or no, Nelly, but thou said thou hate’st me, and wi’ good reason, so if thou likest to welt me here’s the stick.”
The girl laughed through her tears. “Ah! Jack, thou must think that I am a wild cat, as John Dobson called me t’other day. Throw away that stick, Jack. I would rather a thousand times that thou laidst it on my shoulders than I on thine.”
Jack threw away the stick, put on his coat and waistcoat, and sat down on the bank.
“What is it then, lass? I know I were cruel to have thee called forward, but I didn’t think o’t; but I had rather that thou beat me as I orter be beaten, than that thou should go on hating me.”
“I doan’t hate thee, Jack, though I said so; I hate myself; but I like thee better nor all, thou art so brave and good.”
“No braver than thou, Nelly,” Jack said earnestly; “I doan’t understand why thou should first say thou hates me and then that thou doan’t; but if thou are in earnest, that thou likest me, we’ll be friends. I don’t mean that we go for walks together, and such like, as some boys and girls do, for I ha’ no time for such things, and I shouldn’t like it even if I had; but I’ll take thy part if anyone says owt to thee, and thou shalt tell me when thou art very bad at hoam”—for the failings of Nelly’s parents were public property. “Thou shalt be a friend to me, not as a lass would be, but as Harry is, and thou woan’t mind if I blow thee up, and tells ‘ee of things. Thou stook to me by the side o’ the shaft, and I’ll stick to thee.”
“I’ll do that,” the girl said, laying her hand in his. “I’ll be thy friend if thou’lt let me, not as lasses are, but as lads.”
And so the friendship was ratified, and they walked back together to the village. When he came to think it over, Jack was inclined to repent his bargain, for he feared that she would attach herself to him, and that he would have much laughter to endure, and many battles to fight. To his surprise Nelly did nothing of the sort. She would be at her door every morning as he went by to the pit and give him a nod, and again as he returned. Whenever other girls and boys were playing or sitting together, Nelly would make one of the group. If he said, as he often did say, “You, Nell Hardy come and sit by me,” she came gladly, but she never claimed the place. She was ready to come or to go, to run messages and to do him good in any way.
Jack had promised she should be his friend as Harry was, and as he got to like her more he would ask her or tell her to accompany them in their walks, or to sit on a low wall in some quiet corner and talk. Harry, stirred by his friend’s example, had begun to spend half an hour a day over his old school-books.
“Why dost like larning so much, Jack?” Nelly asked, as Jack was severely reproaching his friend with not having looked at a book for some days; “what good do it do?”
“It raises folk in the world, Nell, helps ’em make their way up.”
“And dost thou mean to get oop i’ the world?”
“Ay, lass,” Jack said, “if hard work can do it, I will; but it does more nor that. If a man knows things and loves reading it makes him different like, he’s got summat to think about and talk about and care for beside public-houses and dorgs. Canst read, Nell?”
“No, Jack,” she said, colouring. “It bain’t my fault; mother never had the pence to spare for schooling, and I was kept at hoam to help.”
Jack sat thoughtful for some time.
“Wouldst like to learn?”
“Well, I’ll teach thee.”
“Oh, Jack!” and she leapt up with flashing eyes; “how good thou be’est!”
“Doan’t,” Jack said crossly; “what be there good in teaching a lass to spell? There’s twopence, run down to the corner shop and buy a spelling-book; we’ll begin at once.”
And so Nelly had her first lesson.
After that, every afternoon, as Jack came home from work, the girl would meet him in a quiet corner off the general line, and for five minutes he would teach her, not hearing her say what she had learned, but telling her fresh sounds and combinations of letters. Five or six times he would go over them, and expected—for Jack was tyrannical in his ways—that she would carry them away with her and learn them by heart, and go through them again and again, so that when he questioned her during their longer talks she would be perfect.
Then, the five minutes over, Jack would run on to make up for lost time, and be in as soon as Bill Haden.
But however accurately Jack expected his pupil to learn, his expectations were surpassed. The girl beyond clearing up the room had nothing to do, and she devoted herself with enthusiasm to this work. Once she had mastered simple words and felt her own progress, her shyness as to her ignorance left her. She always carried her book in her pocket, and took to asking girls the pronunciation of larger words, and begging them to read a few lines to her; and sitting on the door-step poring over her book, she would salute any passer-by with: “Please tell us what is that word.” When she could read easily, which she learned to do in two or three months, she borrowed left-off school-books from the girls, and worked slowly on, and two years later had made up for all her early deficiencies, and knew as much as any of those who had passed through the school.
From the day of her compact of friendship with Jack her appearance and demeanour had been gradually changing. From the first her wild unkempt hair had been smoothly combed and braided, though none but herself knew what hours of pain and trouble it took her with a bit of a comb with three teeth alone remaining, to reduce the tangled mass of hair to order.
Her companions stared indeed with wonder on the first afternoon, when, thus transformed and with clean face, she came among them, with a new feeling of shyness.
“Why, it be Nelly Hardy!” “Why, Nell, what ha’ done to t’yself? I shouldn’t ha’ known ye.” “Well, ye be cleaned up surely.”
The girl was half inclined to flame out at their greetings, but she knew that the surprise was natural, and laughed good-humouredly. She was rewarded for her pains when Jack and some other boys, passing on their way to play, Jack stopped a moment and said to her quietly, “Well done, lass, thou lookst rarely, who’d ha’ thought thou wert so comely!”
As time went on Nelly Hardy grew altogether out of her old self. Sometimes, indeed, bursts of temper, such as those which had gained her the name of the “Wild Cat,” would flare out, but these were very rare now. She was still very poorly dressed, for her house was as wretched as of old, but there was an attempt at tidiness. Her manner, too, was softer, and it became more and more quiet as things went on, and her playmates wondered again and again what had come over Nell Hardy; she had got to be as quiet as a mouse.
The boys at first were disposed to joke Jack upon this strange friendship, but Jack soon let it be understood that upon that subject joking was unacceptable.
“She stood by me,” he said, “and I’m a-going to stand by her. She ain’t got no friends, and I’m going to be her friend. She’s quiet enough and doan’t bother, no more nor if she were a dorg. She doan’t get in no one’s way, she doan’t want to play, and sits quiet and looks on, so if any of you doan’t like her near ye, you can go away to t’ other side o’ field. I wish she’d been a boy, ‘twould ha’ been fitter all ways, but she can’t help that. She’s got the sense o’ one. and the pluck, and I like her. There!”
“less me, lad, another poond o’ candles! I never did hear o’ sich waste,” Mrs. Haden exclaimed as Jack entered the cottage on a winter’s afternoon, two years and a half after he had gone into the pit. “Another poond o’ candles, and it was only last Monday as you bought the last—nigh two candles a night. Thou wilt kill thyself sitting up reading o’ nights, and thy eyes will sink i’ thy head, and thou’lt be as blind as a bat afore thou’rt forty.”
“I only read up to eleven, mother, that gives me six hours abed, and as thou know, six for a man, seven for a woman, is all that is needful; and as to the expense, as dad lets me keep all my earnings save five bob a week—and very good o’ him it is; I doan’t know no man in the pit as does as much—why, I ha’ plenty o’ money for my candles and books, and to lay by summat for a rainy day.”
“Aye, aye, lad, I know thou be’st not wasteful save in candles; it’s thy health I thinks o’.”
“Health!” Jack laughed; “why, there ain’t a lad in the pit as strong as I am of my age, and I ha’ never ailed a day yet, and doan’t mean to.”
“What ha’ ye been doing all the arternoon, Jack?”
“I ha’ been sliding in the big pond wi’ Harry Shepherd and a lot o’ others. Then Dick Somers, he knocked down Harry’s little sister Fan, as she came running across th’ ice, and larfed out when she cried—a great brute—so I licked he till he couldn’t see out o’ his eyes.”
“He’s bigger nor thee, too,” Mrs. Haden said admiringly.
“Aye, he’s bigger,” Jack said carelessly, “but he ain’t game, Dick ain’t; loses his temper, he does, and a chap as does that when he’s fighting ain’t o’ no account. But I must not stand a clappeting here; it’s past six, and six is my time.”
“Have your tea first, Jack, it’s a’ ready; but I do believe thou’dst go wi’out eating wi’out noticing it, when thou’st got thy books in thy head.”
Jack sat down and drank the tea his mother poured out for him, and devoured bread and butter with a zest that showed that his appetite was unimpaired by study. As soon as he had finished he caught up his candle, and with a nod to Mrs. Haden ran upstairs to his room.
Jack Simpson’s craze for learning, as it was regarded by the other lads of Stokebridge, was the subject of much joking and chaff among them. Had he been a shy and retiring boy, holding himself aloof from the sports of his mates, ridicule would have taken the place of joking, and persecution of chaff. But Jack was so much one of themselves, a leader in their games, a good fellow all round, equally ready to play or to fight, that the fact that after six o’clock he shut himself up in his room and studied, was regarded as something in the nature of a humorous joke.
When he had first begun, his comrades all predicted that the fit would not last, and that a few weeks would see the end of it; but weeks and months and years had gone by, and Jack kept on steadily at the work he had set himself to do. Amusement had long died away, and there grew up an unspoken respect for their comrade.
“He be a rum ‘un, be Jack,” they would say; “he looves games, and can lick any chap his age anywhere round, and yet he shoots himself oop and reads and reads hours and hours every day, and he knows a heap, Bull-dog does.” Not that Jack was in the habit of parading his acquirements; indeed he took the greatest pains to conceal them and to show that in no respect did he differ from his playfellows.
The two hours which he now spent twice a week with Mr. Merton, and his extensive reading, had modified his rough Staffordshire dialect, and when with his master he spoke correct English almost free of provincialisms, although with his comrades of the pit he spoke as they spoke, and never introduced any allusion to his studies. All questions as to his object in spending his evenings with his books were turned aside with joking answers, but his comrades had accidentally discovered that he possessed extraordinary powers of calculation. One of the lads had vaguely said that he wondered how many buckets of water there were in the canal between Stokebridge and Birmingham, a distance of eighteen miles, and Jack, without seeming to think of what he was doing, almost instantaneously gave the answer to the question. For a moment all were silent with surprise.
“I suppose that be a guess, Jack, eh?” Fred Orme asked.
“Noa,” Jack said, “that’s aboot roight, though I be sorry I said it; I joost reckoned it in my head.”
“But how didst do that, Jack?” his questioner asked, astonished, while the boys standing round stared in silent wonder.
“Oh! in my head,” Jack said carelessly; “it be easy enough to reckon in your head if you practise a little.”
“And canst do any sum in thy head, Jack, as quick as that?”
“Not any sum, but anything easy, say up to the multiplication or division by eight figures.”
“Let’s try him,” one boy said.
“All right, try away,” Jack said. “Do it first on a bit of paper, and then ask me.”
The boys drew off in a body, and a sum was fixed upon and worked out with a great deal of discussion.
At last, after a quarter of an hour’s work, when all had gone through it and agreed that it was correct, they returned and said to him, “Multiply 324,683 by 459,852.” Jack thought for a few seconds and then taking the pencil and paper wrote down the answer: 149,306,126,916.
“Why, Jack, thou be’est a conjurer,” one exclaimed, while the others broke out into a shout of astonishment.
From that time it became an acknowledged fact that Jack Simpson was a wonder, and that there was some use in studying after all; and after their games were over they would sit round and ask him questions which they had laboriously prepared, and the speed and accuracy of his answers were a never-failing source of wonder to them.
As to his other studies they never inquired; it was enough for them that he could do this, and the fact that he could do it made them proud of him in a way, and when put upon by the pitmen it became a common retort among them, “Don’t thou talk, there’s Jack Simpson, he knows as much as thee and thy mates put together. Why, he can do a soom as long as a slaate as quick as thou’d ask it.”
Jack himself laughed at his calculating powers, and told the boys that they could do the same if they would practise, believing what he said; but in point of fact this was not so, for the lad had an extraordinary natural faculty for calculation, and his schoolmaster was often astonished by the rapidity with which he could prepare in his brain long and complex calculations, and that in a space of time little beyond that which it would take to write the question upon paper.
So abnormal altogether was his power in this respect that Mr. Merton begged him to discontinue the practice of difficult calculation when at work.
“It is a bad thing, Jack, to give undue prominence to one description of mental labour, and I fear that you will injure your brain if you are always exercising it in one direction. Therefore when in the pit think over other subjects, history, geography, what you will, but leave calculations alone except when you have your books before you.”