Three years more of progress and Stokebridge had become the model village of the Black Country. The chief employer of labour, his manager, the vicar, and schoolmaster all worked together for this end. The library had been a great success, and it was rare, indeed, for a drunken man to be seen in the streets even of a Sat.u.r.day night. Many of the public-houses had closed their doors altogether; and in addition to the library a large and comfortable club-house had been built.
The men of an evening could smoke their pipes, play at bagatelle, chess, draughts, or cards, and take such beer as they required, any man getting drunk or even noisy to be expelled the club. This, however, was a rule never requiring to be called into force. The building was conducted on the principle of a regimental canteen. The beer was good and cheap but not strong, no spirits were sold, but excellent tea, coffee, and chocolate could be had at the lowest prices.
The building was closed during the day, but beer was sent out both for dinners and suppers to those who required it. There was a comfortable room where women could sew, knit, and talk as they pleased, or they could, if they liked, sit in the general room with their husbands.
Entertainments and lectures were of frequent occurrence, and the establishment, supplemented by the library and wash-house, did wonders for Stokebridge.
The promise made by Mr. Brook at the fete had been carried out. A choir-master came over twice a week from Birmingham, and the young people entered into the scheme with such zest that the choir had carried away the prize three years in succession at Birmingham. The night-school was now carried on on a larger scale than ever, and the school for cooking and sewing was so well attended that Mrs. Dodgson had now a second a.s.sistant. To encourage the children and young people an annual show was held at which many prizes were given for gardening, needlework, dressmaking, carpentering, and a variety of other subjects. It was seldom, indeed, that an untidy dress was to be seen, still more uncommon that a foul word was heard in the streets of Stokebridge. Nothing could make the rows of cottages picturesque as are those of a rural village; but from tubs, placed in front, creepers and roses climbed over the houses, while the gardens behind were gay with flowers.
No young woman needed to remain single in Stokebridge longer than she chose, for so noteworthy were they for their housewifely qualities that the young pitmen of the villages round thought themselves fortunate indeed if they could get a wife from Stokebridge. Bill c.u.mmings, Fred Wood, and several others of Jack's boy friends, were viewers or under-managers of the Vaughan, and many had left to take similar situations elsewhere.
Jack Simpson was popular with all cla.s.ses. With the upper cla.s.s his simple straightforwardness, his cheerfulness and good temper, made him a great favourite, although they found it hard to understand how so quiet and una.s.suming a young fellow could be the hero of the two rescues at the Vaughan, for, now when the fact was known, Jack no longer made a secret of his share in the attack by the rioters on the engine-house.
Among the pitmen his popularity was unbounded. Of an evening he would sometimes come down to the club-room and chat as unrestrainedly and intimately as of old with the friends of his boyhood, and he never lost an opportunity of pushing their fortunes.
Once a week he spent the evening with Bill Haden and his wife, who always came up and pa.s.sed Sunday with him when he was at home. At this time all ceremony was dispensed with, the servants were sent out of the room, and when the pitman and his wife became accustomed to their surroundings they were far more at their ease than they had at first thought possible.
On the evenings when he went down to his mother he always dropped in for an hour's talk with his friend Nelly. There was no shadow of change in their relations. Nelly was his friend firm and fast, to whom he told all his thoughts and plans. Harry was a.s.sistant master in a school at Birmingham, and was, as he told Jack, still waiting patiently.
Jack was now often over at Birmingham, and one night he said to Nelly:
"Nelly, I promised you long ago that I would tell you if I ever fell in love."
"And you have come to tell me now?" she asked quietly.
"Yes," he said, "if it can be called falling in love; for it has been so gradual that I don't know how it began. Perhaps three years ago, when she refused another man. I was glad of it, and of course asked myself why I was glad. There came no answer but one--I wanted her myself."
"I suppose it is Alice Merton?" Nelly said as quietly as before.
"Of course," Jack said; "it could be no one else. I suppose I like her because she is the reverse of myself. She is gentle but lively and full of fun, she is made to be the light of a hard working man's home. I am not at all gentle, and I have very little idea of fun. Alice is made to lean on some one. I suppose I am meant to be leant upon. I suppose it is always the case that opposite natures are attracted towards one another, the one forms the complement of the other."
Nelly sat thinking. This then was the reason why she had never attracted Jack. Both their natures were strong and firm. Both had full control over themselves, although both of a pa.s.sionate nature; both had the capability of making great sacrifices, even of life if necessary; both had ambition and a steady power of work. No wonder Jack had thought of her as a comrade rather than as a possible wife; while Harry, gentler and easily led, patient rather than firm, leaned upon her strong nature.
"I think, dear Jack," she said, "that Miss Merton is the very woman to make you happy. You have known each other for twelve years, and can make no mistake. I need not say how truly and sincerely I wish you every happiness." There was a quiver in her voice as she spoke, but her face was as firm and steadfast as ever; and Jack Simpson, as he walked homewards, did not dream that Nelly Hardy was weeping as if her heart would break, over this final downfall of her life's dream. It was not that she had for the last seven years ever thought that Jack would ask her to be his wife, but she would have been content to go on to the end of her life as his first and dearest friend. Then she said at last, "That's done with. Jack and I will always be great friends, but not as we have been. Perhaps it is as well. Better now than ten years on."
Then her thoughts went to Harry, to whom, indeed, during the last few years they had gone oftener than she would have admitted to herself. "He is very faithful and kind and good, and I suppose one of these days I shall have to give in. He will not expect much, but he deserves all I could give him."
In after years, however, Nelly Shepherd learned that she could give her husband very true and earnest love; and the headmaster and mistress of the largest school at Wolverhampton are regarded by all who know them, and by none less than by Jack Simpson and his wife, as a perfectly happy couple.
It is ten years since Jack married Alice Merton, who had loved him for years before he asked her to be his wife. Jack is now part proprietor of the Vaughan pit, and is still its real manager, although he has a nominal manager under him. He cannot, however, be always on the spot, as he lives near Birmingham, and is one of the greatest authorities on mining, and the first consulting engineer, in the Black Country. At Mr.
Brook's death he will be sole proprietor of the Vaughan, that gentleman having at Jack's marriage settled its reversion upon his wife.
Dinner is over, and he is sitting in the garden, surrounded by those he most cares for in the world. It is the 1st of June, a day upon which a small party always a.s.sembles at his house. By his side is his wife, and next to her are Harry Shepherd and Nelly. Between the ladies a warm friendship has sprung up of late years, while that between the three friends has never diminished in the slightest. On Jack's other hand sits an artist, bearing one of the most honoured names in England, whose health Jack always proposes at this dinner as "the founder of his fortune." Next to the artist sits Mr. Brook, and beyond him Mrs.
Simpson's father, a permanent resident in the house now, but some years back a professor of mathematics in Birmingham. Playing in the garden are six children, two of whom call the young Simpsons cousins, although there is no blood relationship between them; and walking with them are an old couple, who live in the pretty cottage just opposite to the entrance of the grounds, and whom Jack Simpson still affectionately calls "dad" and "mother."
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