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
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
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,
"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,
"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
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
"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
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
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