An Every-Day Hero.

Tell us,” the children to their grandsire said,1
Some wondrous story ! tell us of the wars,2
Or one of those old ballads that you know3
About the seven famous champions,4
St. George, St. Denis, and the rest of them.5
We have delight in those heroic stories,6
And often tell them over to ourselves7
And wish that there were heroes now-a-days.”8
The old man smoked his pipe ; the children
More eagerly their wish, athirst to know10
Something about the great men of old times,11
Deploring still that these degenerate days12
Produced no heroes, and that now no poets13
Made ballads that were worth the listening to.14
The old man smiled and laid aside his pipe ;15
Then, gazing tenderly into their faces,16
Said he would tell them of as great a hero17
As any which the ballads chronicled—18
The good old ballads which they loved so well.19
Once on a time,” said he, “there was a lad,20
Whose name was John ; his father was a gardener.21
He had great skill in flowers even when a child ;22
And when his father died, he carried on23
The gardener’s trade. One autumn night he found24
A young man hiding in his garden-shed,25
Haggard and foot-sore, wanting bread to eat ;26
A fugitive who had escaped the law,27
And being now discovered, prayed for mercy,28
And told his tale so very touchingly29
That the young gardener promised him a refuge,30
And strictest secresy. For weeks and months31
The stranger worked with him, receiving wages32
As a hired labourer. Both were fine young men,33
Well-grown, broad-chested, full of strength and
mettle ;
In outward seeming equal to each other,35
But inwardly the two were different.36
The stranger, George, had not a gardening turn,37
He was book-learned, and had a gift for figures,38
And could talk well, which in itself was good ;39
But he was double-faced, and false as Judas,40
Who did betray the Saviour with a kiss.41
He Had wronged his trusting master, and had fled,42
As I have said, from the pursuit of law.43
Of this, however, John knew not a word,44
Knew only that he had been in sore trouble,45
And, for that cause, he strove to do him good ;46
And when he found him useless in his trade,47
He introduced him to the Squire’s bailiff,48
Whose daughter he had courted many a year.49
This bailiff was a simple, honest man,50
Who not designing evil, none suspected.51
He found the stranger, clever, quick at reckoning,52
Smart with his pen ; a likely man of business ;53
And, therefore, on a luckless day for him,54
Brought him before the Squire. Ere long he had55
A place appointed him which gave him access56
To the Squire daily ; principles of honour57
Were all unknown to him ; all means allowable58
Which served his ends. He gained a great ascen-
Over the Squire, and ere four years were passed,60
He was appointed bailiff.
The old bailiff61
Was sent adrift, and the kind, worthy, Squire,62
His thirty years’ employer, turned against him !63
It was a villain’s act, first, to traduce,64
And then supplant—it was a Judas-trick !65
The gardener John, who wooed the bailiff’s
Had married her before this plotter’s work67
Was come to light ; and they, poor, simple folk,68
Invited him among their wedding-company,69
And he, with his black plots hatching within him,70
Came, full of smiles, and ate and drank with them ;71
The double-facéd villain !  The old bailiff72
Was turned adrift, as I have said already,73
And his dismissal looked like a disgrace,74
Although the Squire brought not a charge against
Except that he was old, and younger men76
Could better carry out his modern plans !77
And modern plans, God knows, they had enough !78
Old tenants were removed ; and soon a notice79
Came to the gardener, John, that he must quit ;80
Must quit the little spot he loved so well,81
And where the poor, heart-broken bailiff, found82
A home in his distress. It mattered not83
Their likings or convenience, go they must ;84
The Squire was laying out his place afresh—85
Or the new bailiff, rather ; and John’s garden86
Was wanted for the fine new pleasure-grounds !87
The man of work—the man who toils to live,88
Must still be up and doing ; ’tis his privilege89
That he has little time to wring his hands,90
And hang his head because his fate is cruel.91
John was a man of action, so, to London92
Came he, and, ere a twelvemonth had gone round,93
Had taken service as a city fireman.94
It was an arduous life ; a different life95
To that of gardening, of rearing pinks,96
Budding the dainty rose, and giving heed97
To the unclosing of the tulip’s leaf.98
But he was one of those who fear not hardship ;99
And when he saw his little fortunes wrecked100
By the smooth villain whom he had befriended,101
He left his native place with wife and children,102
Mostly because it galled his soul to meet103
The man who had so much abused his goodness,104
And, in the wide and busy world of London,105
Where, as ’tis said, is room for every man,106
He came to try his luck. He was strong-limbed,107
Active and agile as a mountain goat,108
Fearless of danger, hardy, brave, and full109
Of pity as is every noble nature.110
He was the boldest of the London firemen.111
Clothed in his iron mail like an old warrior,112
He rushed on danger, his true heart his shield ;113
Fear he had none whene’er his duty called.114
Oft clomb he to the roofs of burning houses ;115
Sprang here and there, and bore off human
Frantic with terror, or with terror dumb,117
Saving their lives at peril of his own.118
Such men as these are heroes !
One dark night,119
A stormy winter’s night, a fire broke out120
Somewhere by Rotherhithe—a dreadful fire—121
In midst of narrow streets where the tall houses122
Were habited by poor and squalid wretches,123
Together packed like sheep within their pens,124
And who, unlike the rich, had nought to offer125
For their lives’ rescue. Here the fire broke out,126
And raged with fury ; here the fireman, John,127
’Mid falling roofs, on dizzy walls aloft,128
Through raging flames, and black, confounding
And noise and tumult as of hell broke loose,130
Rushed on, and ever saved some sinking wretch.131
Many had thus been saved by his one arm,132
When some one said, that in a certain chamber,133
High up amid the burning roofs, still lay134
A sick man and his child, who, yesternight,135
Had hither come as strangers. They were left,136
By all forgotten, and must perish there.137
Whilst yet they spoke, upon a roof’s high ridge,138
Amid the eddying smoke and growing flame,139
The miserable man was seen to stand,140
Stretching his arms for aid in frantic terror.141
Without a moment’s pause, amid the fire,142
Six stories high, sprang John, who caught the word143
That still a human being had been left.144
Quick as a thought o’er red-hot floors he leapt,145
Through what seemed gulfs of fire, on to the roof146
Where stood the frantic man. The crowds below147
Looked on and scarcely breathed. They saw him
The yet unperished roof-tree—saw him pause—149
Saw the two men start back, as from each other.150
They raised a cry to urge him on. They knew not151
That here he met his former enemy—152
The man who had returned him evil for good !153
And who had lost his place for breach of trust154
Some twelve months past, and now had come to
The flames approached the roof. A cry burst
Again from the great crowd, and women fainted.157
And what did John, think you—this city fireman158
—He looked upon the abject wretch before him,159
Who fell into a swoon at sight of him,160
So sensitive is even an evil conscience,161
And, speaking not a word, lifted him up162
And bore him safely down into the street—163
Then shook him from him like a noisome thing !164
Anon the man revived, and with quick terror165
Asked for his child—his little four years’ son—166
But he had been forgotten—still was left167
Within the house to perish. Who would save
him !
Grovelling before his feet the father lay,169
Of all forgetful but of his dear child,170
And prayed the injured man who had saved his life171
To save the boy ! ‘Why spake ye not of him ?172
He was more worthy saving of the two !’173
Said John, abrupt and brief—and straight was
Once more he scaled the roof. The crowd was
Into deep silence : it had but one heart,176
Had but one breath, intense anxiety177
For that brave man who put again his life178
In such dire jeopardy. None spoke,179
But many a prayer was breathed. Along the roof180
Anon they saw him hurrying with the child.181
The red flames met him, hemmed him round about !182
Escape was not ! The women sobbed and moaned183
Down in the crowd below ; men gazed and
And wild suggestions ran throughout the mass185
Of how he might be saved. But all were vain,186
Help was there none ! Amid the roaring flames187
His voice was heard ; he spake, they knew not
what ;
They hurried to and fro ; the engines drenched189
The burning pile. He made another sign !190
Oh, God ! could they but know what was his wish !191
—They knew it not ! The fierce flame mastered
The roof fell in—the child—the man was lost !”193
The grandsire paused a moment, then went on ;194
Yes, in our common life of every day195
There are true heroes, truer, many a one,196
Than they whose deeds are blazoned forth on brass !197
—Now leave me to myself ; give me my pipe—198
You’ve had your will ; I’ve told you of a hero,199
One of God’s making—and he was your own
father !”