A Modern hero by Marion Harland

It was a very humble house. Only a flat of three rooms on the third floor of a tall tenement-house in a back street near the river. A bedroom, a tiny parlor and a kitchen, which was also an eating-room, made up the suite. The Briggses did all their daylight living in the last-named apartment. The floor was painted yellow; the walls were whitewashed; the furniture was homely, substantial and well-kept.

Everything was shining clean, and both windows were full of plants, many of them in flower. Mrs. Briggs was fully persuaded in her own mind that no other woman in the city had such a tale of daily mercies as herself. Among them were the southern exposure of those windows and the circumstance that a gap in the buildings back of them let in the sunshine freely. Her nasturtiums blossomed there all winter; from a pot she had suspended by strings from the top of the casing, sweet alysseum flowed downward like a fountain of soft green waters tipped with white; scarlet geraniums shot up rank shoots that had to be pruned into reasonableness, and as to Christmas roses—"But there!" the worthy soul would assure her acquaintances, "they do beat everything!"

This winter the calla was about to bloom. A kind lady had given the bulb to Mrs. Briggs's son, and there was no telling the store he set by it.

Topliffe Briggs—alias, Top, Senior—was an engineer on the great North, East, West and South Railway. He sat at the tea-table with his wife and son at five-thirty one cloudy February afternoon. His next train went out at six-forty-five. He had run "Her" into the station at four, and his house was but two blocks away. Mrs. Briggs could see from those unparalleled kitchen-windows the bridge by which the track crossed the river separating the town from the marshes, and could calculate to a minute when the familiar step would be heard on the stairs.

"You see we live by railroad time," was her modest boast. "And my husband always comes straight home." She did not emphasize the "my," knowing in her compassionate heart what other husbands were prone to lag by the way until they came home late and crookedly.

Top, Senior, was on time to-day. "I ken trust Her with Bartlett, you see," he remarked to his wife. "He won't leave tel she's all trig an' tidy for the next trip. I wisht I could be as sure o' Stokes!"

Mrs. Briggs looked up inquiringly.

"Stokes is a clever fellow," pursued Top Senior regretfully, slicing vigorously into the cold corned beef, for he was hungry. "Smart as a steel trap, and onderstan's his business. I never see a fireman what hed a better chance o' risin' to an ingineer. He knows Her pretty nigh's well ez I do. I've took real comfort in learning him all I could. But I'm afeerd, sometimes, he's on a down-grade and the brakes don't work."

"You mean that he drinks, don't you, father?" asked the sharp-eyed boy at his elbow.

"There, father!" interjected the mother. "You might 'a' known he'd onderstan', no matter how you put it!"

"I ain't afeered o' my boy blabbin'!" The brawny hand stroked the thin light hair of his only child. "An' I want he should learn to hate the stuff. It's the devil's best drivin' wheel—liquor is. I'd ruther lay you with my own han's 'cross the rails this very night, an' drive Her right over you, than to know that you'd grow up a drunkard. Never do you forget them words, Junior! I mean every one o' them!"

The boy started at the earnestness of the exhortation, winked hard to keep his eyes dry, and changed the subject. "Hev you noticed my lily to-day, mother? I guess it'll be wide open by the time you get in to-night, father."

They all turned to look at the tall stem, crowned by the unfolding calyx. "Junior's goin' to be a master-hand with flowers," observed the mother. "He saves me pretty nigh all the trouble o' takin' keer of 'em. I've been thinkin' that might be a good business for him when he grows up."

She was always forecasting his future with more anxiety than generally enters into maternal hopes and fears. When but a year old, he had fallen from the arms of a neighbor who had caught him up from the floor in a fit of tipsy fondness. The child's back and hip were severely injured. He had not walked a step until he was five years of age, and would be lame always. He was now twelve—a dwarf in statue, hump-backed, weazen-faced and shrill-voiced, unsightly in all eyes but those of his parents. To them he was a miracle of precocity and beauty. His mother took in fine ironing to pay for his private tuition from a public school-teacher who lived in the neighborhood. He learned fast and eagerly. His father, at the teacher's suggestion, subscribed to a circulating library and the same kind friend selected books for the cripple's reading. There was a hundred dollars in the savings bank, against the name of "Topliffe Briggs, Junior," deposited, dollar by dollar, and representing countless acts of self-denial on the part of the industrious couple, and his possible profession was a favorite theme of family converse.

"For that matter, there's lot o' things a scholard like him ken do," rejoined Top, Senior, with affectionate confidence in his heir's talents and acquirements. "'Tain't like 'twould be with a feller like me whose arms an' legs is his hull stock in trade. Why, I min' seein' a leetle rat of a man come on board one time 'scorted by a dozen 'o the biggest bugs in the city, an' people a-stretchin' their necks out o' j'int to ketch a look of him. Sech a mealy-faced, weak-lookin' atomy he was! But millions o' people was a-readin' that very day a big speech he'd made in Washin'ton, an' he'd saved the country from trouble more 'n once. He mought 'a' been President ef he had chose to run. That's the good o' hevin' a tiptop head-piece."

"I've made up my mind!" said Top, Junior, with an air. "I'm goin' to be a Hero! Like Julius Cæsar an' Alexander an' William Tell an' Captain John Smith, an' other men I've read about. I wish you would be a Hero, father! It's ever so much nicer than runnin' an engine. Won't you—please! You are strong enough and good enough for anything, an' you know a great deal about things!"

The blue eyes were bright and wistful, his hand stole up to the bushy whiskers, ginger-colored from exposure to the air and boiler-heat.

"Me, a hero! Haw! haw!" roared the engineer, letting fall his knife and fork in his merriment. "I'd cut a figger at the head of an army, or speakin' in Congress, or a-setten' on a gold throne, wouldn't I? No! no! my man!" sobering down suddenly, into a sort of sad dignity. "Yer father ain't got the brains nor the eddication for nothin' of that kind! All he ken do is to live clean an' honest in the sight o' the Lord, an' to run his ingine 'cordin' to the best o' his lights."

"The Lord's too reasonable to expect more of you'n to do your duty in the place where's He's put you," said the wife gently.

"I hope he is, Mother! Ef he looked for more—or for any big thing 's fur as that goes, the chances are He'd be disapp'inted. I hev plenty o' time fur thinkin' while we're scootin' 'cross the level country an' creepin' up steep grades, an' I've worked it out to my own satisfaction that somethin' else I've got to be thankful fur, is that my way in life's been marked down so plain. 'Seems if I he'd been sot onto rails pretty much's She is, an' 's long ez I do my level best on that 'ar line, why, it's all I ken do. That's the hull of it! I ain't no speechifier, you see, Junior"—with an embarrassed laugh at the boy's evident discontent—"I'll hev to depen' on you fur to say it—or maybe, write done ship-shape, some o' these notions o' mine, some day. I'd git better holt o' them myself ef I was to hear somebody what knowed how to put things go over 'em. Mother! eddication wouldn't learn no woman how to make better bread'n yourn. Fact is, there's nothin' ekal to home, an home-vittles an' home-folks! With such a livin' ez I've took in, I sha'n't need a bite at the Agapolis deepo. We're half an hour there, but I hate the very smell o' them eatin' houses! An' please God! I'll bring Her in at twelve—sharp!"

He pulled on his overcoat and felt in the pocket for his gloves. "I'm main proud o' them fellers!" he said, fitting one to a hand half the size of a leg-of-mutton and not unlike it in shape.

He had said the same thing every time he put them on since Christmas. They were a holiday gift from the conductors on the line between the two cities which was his semi-daily beat.

"I take a world o' comfort in them, this freezin' weather. Fact is, Mother, this world's been pretty full o' comfort, all the way through, for us—a nice easy grade—ef yer father ain't a Hero, Junior! Six-twenty! I mus' be off! I like to be there in time to see thet Stokes is on han' an' all right. Ef you don't min', Mother, we'll hev him to dinner nex' Sunday. I want to do somethin' t'wards savin' Stokes. 'Specially ez he's on my line!"

At six-fifty, Top, Junior, from his post at the calla-window, saw the long line of cars, spaced by dots of murkey red, the luminous plume of smoke trailing, comet-wise, above them, slowly pass over the bridge. It was a cloudy evening and the marsh-mists swallowed up the blinking windows as soon as the train gained the other shore. Junior loved his mother, but his father seemed to take most of the life and cheer out of the room when he went. Existence stagnated for the boy who had no mates of his own age.

"I wish he didn't hev to run in bad weather and nights!" he said, fretfully.

"It's his business, child, an' your father ain't one to dodge his duty."

"I hate the word!" retorted the petted cripple. "When I'm a man I'll be my own master, and switch Duty off the track."

The obnoxious word came up again in the course of the evening. In reading aloud to his teacher they happened upon this definition of "a hero," given by one of the characters in the story under his eyes: "One who, in a noble work or enterprise, does more than his duty."

Junior looked up disappointed. "Is that the meaning of hero?" he said, intensely chagrined.

"That is one way of stating it. I doubt, myself, if we can do more than our duty. What do you think, Mrs. Briggs?" asked the young woman. She esteemed the honest couple for their sterling worth and sense, and liked to draw them out.

"A person ken ondertake more, I 'spose. Ef they don't carry it through, it's a sign 'twas meant fur them to go jest that fur, an' no further. 'Twon't do fur us to be skeery 'bout layin' holt of the handle the Good Lord puts nighest to us, fur fear it's too big a thing fur us to manage. That's what my husband says. An' if ever a man lived up to it, he does."

Top, Junior, looked sober and mortified. The heroism of common life does not commend itself to the youthful imagination. When his lesson was finished it was time for him to go to bed. "Wake me when father comes in!" was the formula without which he never closed his eyes.

His mother never failed to do it, but he wanted to make sure of it. She put on a lump of coal, just enough to keep the fire "in," and sat down to the weekly mending. At eleven-forty, she would open the draughts and cook the sausages ready-laid in the pan on the table. Top, Senior, liked "something hot and hearty," after his midnight run, and this dispatched, smoked the nightcap pipe of peace, Junior, rolled in a shawl, on his knee. The wife's face and heart were calm with thankful content as the hours moved on. She was rosy and plump, with pleasant blue eyes and brown hair, a wholesome presence at the hearthstone, in her gown of clean chocolate calico with her linen collar and scarlet cravat. Top, Senior, had noticed and praised the new red ribbon. He comprehended that it was put on to please him and Junior, both of whom liked to see "Mother fixed up." In this life, they were her all, and she accounted that life full and rich.

As she served, she heard the slow patter of February rain on the shelf outside of the window, where her flowers stood in summer. The great city was sinking into such half-sleep as it took between midnight and dawn; the shriek and rush of incoming and outgoing trains grew less frequent. She did not fret over the disagreeable weather. Top, Senior, had often said that such made home and fire and supper more welcome.

At Junior's bed-time, he was eighty miles away, walking up and down the muddy platform of the principal station of Agapolis, stamping his feet at each turn in his promenade to restore the circulation. His was a fast Express train, and he stood during most of the run, on the alert to guard against accident. There was no more careful engineer on the road. Fireman and brakeman were off for supper in or near the station. He slouched as he walked, his hands thrust deep into his pockets; his overcoat was heavy and too loose even for his bulky figure. He had "taken it off the hands" of an engineer's widow whose husband was dragged from under a wrecked train one night last summer. "Mother" used to look grave when Top, Senior, began to wear it, but she was not a mite notional—Mother wasn't, and she was glad now that poor Mrs. Wilson had the money and he had the beaver-cloth coat. His face was begrimed with smoke, his beard clogged with cinders and vapor. A lady, travelling alone, hesitated visibly before she asked a question, looked surprised when he touched his hat and turned to go half the length of the platform that he might point out the parlor-car. He observed and interpreted hesitation and surprise, and was good-humoredly amused.

"I s'pose I don't look much like what Junior calls 'a hero,'" he meditated with a broader gleam. "What a cute young one he is! Please God! he'll make a better figure in the world 'n his father hes done. I hope that lily-flower o' hisn will be open in the mornin'. 'Seems if I got softer-hearted 'bout hevin thet boy disapp'inted every day I live. Come summer, he shell hev a run or two on Her every week. Mother 'n me hes got to make up to him for what he loses in not bein' strong an' like other chillren. Mother—she's disposed to spile him jest a leetle. But dear me! what a fustrate fault that is in a woman! She did look good in that ere red neck-tie, to-night, an' she was always pretty."

The rain was fine and close, like a slanting mist that pierced the pores, when the Express drew out of the station, and as it fell, it froze. Stokes growled that "the track would be one glare of ice before they got Her in." He was inclined to be surly to-night, an uncommon circumstance with the young fellow, and after several attempts to enliven him, Top, Senior, let him alone. He was not in a talkative mood himself. The tea-table chat ran in his head and set him to dreaming and calculating. In five years Junior would be seventeen—old enough, even for a lad who was "not strong," to earn his living. If all went well, there ought to be a hundred and fifty dollars in the bank by then. There might be something in Mother's idea of setting him up as a florist. And Mother could help with the flowers.

"Hello! ole feller! look out!"

Stokes had stumbled over the fuel in the tender, in replenishing the boiler-fires. He recovered himself with an oath at the "slippery rubbish." Something had upset his temper, but he neither spoke nor looked like a man who had been drinking. The teazing, chilling drizzle continued. The headlight of the locomotive glanced sharply from glazed rails and embankments; the long barrel-back of the engine shone as with fresh varnish.

"D'ye know that on a night like this She beats out the tune o' Home, Sweet Home, 's plain as ever you heerd a band play it?" said Top, Senior, cheerily out of the thickening damps. "It makes me see Mother 'n the boy clear 's ken be. It's a great thing fur a man to hev a comfortable home, 'n a good woman in it!"

Stokes burst out vehemently at that: "This is worse than a dog's life! We—you 'n me—are no more to them selfish creturs in there"—nodding backwards at the passenger cars—"then the ingine that draws 'em. I'm sick o' freezin' an' slavin' an' bein' despised by men no better 'n I be! How a man of any sperrit 'n' ambition ken stan' it fur twenty years as you hev, beats my onderstandin'."

He will always remember the pause that prefaced the reply, and how Top, Senior, patted the polished lever under his hand as he spoke: "She's a pretty respectable cretur, take Her all in all. When you 'n I run into the las' dark deepo that's waitin' fur us at the end, I hope we'll be able to show's good stiffikits as hern. Here's the bridge! Will be soon home, now."

It was a long bridge, built far out to be above high tides. As they touched it the furnace-door flew open. Some said, afterwards, that the door was not properly secured, others spoke of a "back-draught," others suspected that the fire was over-fed. The volume of flame that leaped out licked the very faces of the two men. They recoiled with a bound and made a simultaneous rush for the air-brake in the forward passenger-car to stop the train and check the backward sweep of the blaze. The passengers, seeing the flash and hearing the whistle and shouts of "Down brakes!" pressed against the front windows and a dense living mass blocked the door against which Topliffe Briggs flung all his weight.

HE HELD FAST!

HE HELD FAST!

"Git in ef you ken," he said to the fireman. "I'll try Her!" He fastened the shaggy great-coat up to his chin as he faced the pursuing fires, walked forward to the stand where lapped and curled the fiercest flames, laid hold of steam-brake and the lever by which he "drove" the engine. His fur-lined gauntlets scorched and shrivelled as he grasped the bar; the fire seized upon his hair and garments with an exultant roar. He held fast. He must get the passengers off the floorless bridge that might ignite at any moment. He must check the engine as soon as he cleared the last pier, or the cars would take fire before they could be uncoupled. He shut his eyes from the maddening heat and glare, and drove straight on. Not so fast as to hurry the greedy flames that were doing their worst upon him, but at a rate that ran them over the river and upon solid earth as the fuel in the tender burst into a blaze and the forward car began to crackle and smoke in the hot draught. At that point steam and air-brakes did their work in effecting a safe halt.

"The fireman was badly scorched," reported the press next day, "but train and passengers were saved by the heroism of the engineer."

The words flashed along the wires over land and ocean; were set up in startling type in hundreds of newspaper offices while he who did not know heroism by name was breathing his last on a mattress laid on the yellow-painted floor of the room he had seen so "clear" when the engine-throb and piston-beat played Home, Sweet Home. The sunshine that had followed the rain touched the white cheek of the opened lily before falling on his sightless eyes and charred right hand.

When they brought him in he knew whose silent tears dropped so fast upon his face, and the poor burned lips moved in a husky whisper. The wife put her ear close to his mouth not to lose his dying words:

"I was afraid you'd see that we was a-fire. From the winder. I hope you—didn't—wake Junior!" The boy who had begged his father to be a hero!