The Heroine

Miss Flora Belle Wickles was stenographer at Whiteside & Johnson’s, the wholesale grocers; and her father was hostler at the Bon Ton Livery Stables; and Joe Kinney, who desired to marry her, and had been refused, worked in a repair shop, and his fingers were almost always black, and he was very “ uncultured.”

And as if here were not quite enough to crush out the hope Miss Wickles cherished of one day being a personage, an unkindly fate had denied her even the compensating charm of rare beauty. Flora Belle, or Florabel, or Flo Rabelle, or Flor-Abelle — you could find the name written in any of these ways, and I do not know how many besides, on the odd scraps of paper that floated about her desk — was short and squarish; she had freckles, and, much against her will, she had to wear glasses, black-rimmed and bowed. But an unconquerable soul, such as Flora Belle’s, may triumph over many obstacles.

Flora Belle had a way of telling herself, with a certain grim satisfaction, that if things had been different, she would not have had to be a stenographer at Whiteside & Johnson’s. She was an unusual girl, and knew it. In school she had taken prizes over and over again for excellence in declamation; and that she had considerable dramatic talent had been made clear to every one when her graduating class in the Grammar School had presented The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare. To Flora Belle had been assigned a merely supernumerary part (just because she wore glasses — she knew it perfectly well — and her father was a hostler); but at the last minute the pink and white ninny who had studied the rôle of Portia was seized by a fit of nervous hysterics, and the whole performance was careening toward disaster. Then who but Flora Belle Wickles should step forth!

“ I have got every line of the part,” she announced simply, “ and have often rehearsed it at home, just for my own pleasure.”

Of course they let her try it; and she went through without a single slip; and afterwards several of those girls had kissed her; and the English teacher had said to her, —

“ Miss Wickles, we shall hear from you again, some day, I am sure. You are truly gifted.”

And Flora Belle had gone home to the tenement she lived in, over the livery stable, sternly resolved to be somebody some day.

But how? Six years had passed, and the question was still unanswered. Whiteside & Johnson’s received her every morning, and every night she returnee 1 with a dull discontent to the tenement over the livery stable; and however eagerly she might peer into the future, she did not see anything ahead but the same stupid round, over and over. How was one to become a personage on such a pitiful stage as that? To be sure, there was Joe Kinney; but the very thought of marrying a repairist distressed her. Joe was allowed to come round to see her, and take her out for little times now and then, but only on the explicit understanding that his suit was hopeless.

To those who are well-read in such matters, that would have been one indication of the highly-colored imaginings that possessed her soul; and there was another, too: an inveterate habit she had of devoting herself, during every leisure minute of her office-day, to the creation of some article or other of personal adornment. When spring was coming on, for example, it was likeliest to be an elaborate embroidery hat, kept by in a spare drawer of her desk, and brought out at the first moment of relaxation. The embroidery hat was far from becoming to Flora Belle. Indeed, it did but add a grim irony to the plainness of her features; and the same criticism must be passed upon her habit of wearing collars that were too high, belts that were too tight, shoes that were too small. By such means, the gracelessness of her stocky person was only enhanced.

Even that stupid, uncultured Joe Kinney had got some notion of this truth; and once he so little qualified his valor with discretion as to bring it to her notice. They had been starting out together, one summerlike Sunday afternoon in May, for a trip to Magnolia Park, a few miles outside the city.

“ I dunno as I’m so turrible hot for it,” observed the repairist dubiously. He gave a dogged shake to his head, and wrinkled up one side of his face, as he looked at her.

“ Hot for what ? ” returned Flora Belle, somewhat superciliously, and by her tone providing the phrase with quotation marks of scorn, — for she did not approve of street-slang.

But she knew what he meant, and gave him no chance to answer her.

“Is it anybody’s business what I choose to wear ? ” she demanded sharply. “ Who’s going to find fault? ”

“ Sure — that’s all right,” agreed Joe bluntly. “ It’s your own funeral.”

“ Look here, Joe Kinney,” she directed. “ I suppose it’s my hat.”

Joe nodded stolidly.

“ Well, what’s the matter with it? ”

There were no disguises in Joe’s habits of utterance. “ Oh, there ain’t nothing the matter with the hat, as I can see,” he said, — “ only I don’t think you’re made for them kind. You see — it ain’t as if you was exactly — ”

She cut him off with a whirlwind of bitterness. “ Oh, I know. You need n’t trouble yourself to explain. You mean I’m not pretty, like some of your wax dolls that don’t know enough to put on rubbers when it’s wet. Well, if you prefer them so much, why don’t you go and chase them ? It won’t offend me in the least, Mr. Kinney; and you need n’t bother to come back again, — do you understand ? ”

That was a very unreasonable and illtempered speech, certainly, to have come from the lips of our Flora Belle, especially when it was clear that Joe had meant nothing but friendliness; but you see she had been touched in an excessively tender spot. For some reason or other, she could not bear to admit that she was plain-looking. Her glass was her most detested counselor; and she was always contriving to study her reflection there under special conditions, such as a subdued light, or an exceptionally favorable angle; and by these means she had almost cheated herself into the belief that Flo Rabelle was not altogether the baseless fabric of a vision.

Flo Rabelle — it was thus that she most commonly denominated her alter ego — was, indeed, strikingly beautiful. She was brilliant and witty; rapt circles of intelligent faces hung upon her words. And she was a performer of many startling and picturesque deeds of bravery.

Flo Rabelle was concerned almost daily with such scenes as the following:

“ Suppose all of a sudden the cry, ‘Fire, Fire!’ should be heard — what would you do?” — And Miss Wickles would proceed to figure out a complete schedule of action. In imagination she even heard people telling about it later: “ Then, in the midst of all the panic, the clear, low, self-contained voice of Flo Rabelle was heard, commanding order. The effect was electrical. Every one turned to her for directions. ‘ You attend to this,’ she ordered, calm as a general, ‘ you, that.' A magnificent display of courage and brains! ”

Or again, it would be a child caught from the very muzzle of a runaway auto, and returned to its amazed and grateful parents. “ Who was that striking-looking young girl,” they would ask breathlessly, “ that risked her life for our little one, and then disappeared, as mysteriously as she came? ” — and the answer would be heard: “ That is Flo Rabelle.” — “ What,” they would exclaim, “ the famous Flo Rabelle, who has done so many acts of daring! God bless her! ’ — And later —

Well, Miss Wickles had plenty of dreams, as you see, of a career brilliantly dramatic; and though there seemed small enough likelihood of their ever coming true, she cherished them jealously ; and her picture hats, and her tight belts, and her despite for the crude overtures of that Joe Kinney, and her experiments in name-mintage were all of a piece.

Now it happened that on this very afternoon of the final rupture (as she termed it) with the uncultured repairist, she decided to take two of her small sisters for a little jaunt in the country — in fact, out to Magnolia Park. I think it was only benevolence that prompted her to this act. Probably the thought never occurred to her that perhaps she might encounter Joe there in the company of one of those wax dolls, and that this would be one way of letting him see for himself that she did not care. It does not matter greatly anyway, since, as the issue will show, Flora Belle was destined never to reach the park that day.

It was the first afternoon of real summer heat — one of those premature July days that come sometimes in mid-May, almost before the leaves are fully out, and which are the hardest of all to bear because no one is yet prepared for them. Crowds were fleeing out of the city. The trolley-cars were packed to capacity; and so suddenly had come the heat, that more than half the available traction was still by the regulation closed cars of winter.

It was in one of these latter that Flora Belle had secured a place, close to the front window, with a small sister on either hand. Though not excessively crowded, the car was frightfully uncomfortable: the upholstered seats, the low ceiling, the limited apertures, seemed to shut in the heat about one, oppressive, stifling beyond endurance. The majority of the passengers were women, and their gayly-decked, broad-brimmed hats were oddly out of keeping with the flaccid, heat-wilted faces underneath.

Flora Belle was listlessly observing the motorman through the dirty front glass. His face was very red, except for a mottling of white at the temple and behind his ear; and the sweat was running in little streams down his neck and cheeks.

“ What if suddenly he should be overcome ? ” mused she; and at once she was all alertness and attention. A thrilling scene presented itself! Quick as thought she would be upon her feet, and with a gesture of confidence quiet the frenzied passengers; then she would step over the prostrate form of the motorman, and seizing the crank —

But the conductor!—She looked at him. No, he would jump. He was a soft, lily-faced thing.

She began to study the manner in which the motorman managed the car, — how the left-hand crank controlled the power: round to the right, clockwise, full current; to the left, shut off. Yes, she could do that. She watched the application of the brake, and the rapping of the gong with the right foot. The whole episode was taking substance in her imagination.

They were just reaching the first downward slope of a long hill at the foot of which was a railroad crossing at grade; and at this very instant a freight train of some sixty or more cars was crawling into sight from the west. It would be at the crossing in a few seconds.

Her heart gave a wild leap. The story was complete — if only — and she looked almost vindictively at the motorman, who was standing there so imperturbably at his post, just as if he were not, by that very fact, shutting out Flo Rabelle from the chance of a lifetime.

And then — even as she looked — the thing she was dreaming of came suddenly to pass. Without a hint of a warning, without a turn of the head or a gesture or a cry, the motorman crumpled down, and lay in an unconscious heap on the floor of the car.

There was a shrill scream of fright from the passengers. The conductor dis - appeared. The car gave a reeling lurch as it took the slight turn at the head of the second incline; leaped forward; plunged down the hill at a speed that was appalling. Terror took hold of the occupants. A few started blindly to their feet, and staggered toward the rear door. Some covered their eyes.

The story had come true. Flora Belle Wickles gave one incredulous glance about her, scarce able to accept the evidence of her senses. But yes — it had come true. It was acting itself out — here — in real life. She was a part of it. She was the heroine.

The heroine leaped to her feet.

“ Silence! ” was the command, cutting, relentless, as a knife. “ Keep your seats! ”

The next instant, with the self-possession of life-long practice, she was at the front of the car — one hand on the powerlever, the other grasping the brake. The broad roadway flew toward her; on each side the fences slid past like thin strips of tape, dizzily unreeling. Below — still distant — she saw the grade crossing, which the engine had just reached.

But Flo Rabelle knew no fear. She was certain of her ability to stop the car; and she desired that no dramatic aspect of the situation be neglected.

Her first act was calmly to throw off the power. That was easily done — accomplished precisely as her observations had instructed her. It was almost too easy. Even at that moment of supreme action, Flo Rabelle longed for a greater task than merely to shove a crank in an anti-clockwise direction.

Then — not too violently — she gave a turn to the brake. She felt its first bite on the spinning wheels underneath. She did not hurry. There was still plenty of distance between her and the crossing. She would not jar or upset her human freight, — would not act clumsily. She pushed the thing through another wide arc. The car was slowing down comfortably. She remembered about the gong and put her foot to it. It made a magnificent clangor — over and over again — announcing to all the world that a control sure and efficient was at the helm.

The rest was only child’s play. At a distance of some forty yards from the crossing — where the lazy freight was still trailing its slow length — the car came to a full stop.

Flo Rabelle meditated whether to turn and make a bow, or merely to stand quietly, unassumingly, where she was. But she had no chance to decide the matter, for at the same instant eager arms clutched her from every direction; she was pulled and patted and embraced and kissed and wept over. While three or four men removed the unconscious motorman to a neighboring shed, Flo Rabelle was dragged by a clamorous mob into the middle of the road.

“ Who is she ? ” — “ How did you do it?” — “Oh, you brave girlie! — you brave girlie! ” — “ How can we ever thank you ? ” — “ Oh, was n’t she simply wonderful ? ” — “ What presence of mind!” — “Oh, the dear, brave little creature!” — “Who is she, anyway? Does nobody know ? ” —

Surely nothing could be more handsomely real than that; and yet it was just at this moment that, for the first time, there came to her a shock of unreality. What was it all about, anyway? She stared at the freight train, dragging its caboose across the highway. She stared at the motionless car in front of her, emptied now of all its human cargo. Something unbelievable, preposterous, nonsensical about the whole situation thrust itself into her mind, and she laughed outright — inappropriately enough, for that matter — in the face of her insatiate admirers.

Ah, but you should have seen the newspaper accounts that followed! The Citizen gave it a whole half-page, the next morning, with a four-by-five cut of the “ Plucky Little Stenographer ” who had saved fifty-five lives from annihilation. — “ Thrilling Act of Heroism” blazoned the headlines. —Amazing Coolness and Self-Command”—“Grateful Three-Score Raise Handsome Purse. ” — "’T will Educate Two Tiny Sisters,’ Says Pretty Flora Belle Wickles.”

The four-by-five cut was masterly. The likeness was idealized just enough for effective journalistic presentation. It included the embroidery hat. It excluded the black-bowed glasses. It penciled the eyebrows; arched the line of the mouth. It supplied a grace here, reduced a defect there, — offered, in short, a perfect portrait of Flo Rabelle.

The Wickleses, big and little, especially the Tiny Two, reveled in the sudden glory that had come upon their house. The story was repeated, and copies of the Citizen and the News brought forth for display a dozen times an afternoon. At Whiteside & Johnson’s Flora Belle heard nothing else talked of for days. A reporter from the News came there to interview her, and the two were closeted together for a long time in Mr. Whiteside’s private office, — while heads wagged on all sides.

Miss Miggs, whose desk was next to Miss Wickles, asserted that Flora Belle was receiving love-letters and offers in marriage every day from all over the country. She managed to read a part of one, she said, without Miss Wickles knowing she was looking, and it was just the most adorable thing you ever saw. It was from a palmist, and his picture was at the top; and he was the handsomest man! —“ Though for that matter, I don’t know as I’d want to marry a palmist, would you ? — And Flora Belle would n’t either, I guess, because she just tore it up, like she was mad, and threw it in the waste-basket.

“ ' What you so huffed about, Miss Wickles?’ says I; and she says, ‘The slush some people can write! ' and not another word could I get out of her.”

Miss Miggs thought Miss Wickles a little queer anyway, most girls that had a set of brains like hers were more or less that way. “ I don’t know ’s I envy the man that marries her,” said Miss Miggs. “ Her ideas are so absolutely different from most folks’.”

As for Flora Belle herself, she was involved, during these famous days, in a psychological maze of the most intricate and baffling nature. She could not possibly have explained to you the singular processes that were going forward steadily, silently, irresistibly, in the depths of her soul. She was not in control of them; they went of themselves, and brought her to the most unexpected of issues.

For a few hours — days, perhaps — she had stood on a pinnacle of dizzy joy. She had demonstrated Flo Rabelle. The confidence she had so long and so ardently cherished that there was something more in her than a mere office-drudge — it had been no delusion. She had become a personage.

But, oddly enough, that joy supported her only a brief time. She felt it begin to slip from her — struggled to hold it — and failed. The more people talked, gaped, and admired, the less she seemed to relish it. After all — she kept asking herself — what had she really done ? Endowed with what Miss Miggs had termed “ a set of brains,” she was compelled to use them; and she could not help perceiving a discrepancy, and a rather disturbing one, between the actual occurrence and the newspaper romancing that had grown up about it in a night.

For hours, in the silence of her bedroom, after the little Wickleses were all asleep, she had pored over the four-byfive portrait — first with intense, unreasoning gratification; finally with a sort of fierce resentment. That was not her. It looked no more like her than it did like the Duchess of Marlborough. They had not even had the decency to leave her her glasses. Not that she had any fancy for the abominable things; but for all that, they were a part of her. She was not good enough for them to present as she was. They must make her different; work her over; improve her.

How utterly foolish most people were, anyway, mused Flora Belle, as her cynicism grew more pronounced. Just because she had happened actually to do a thing she had always been perfectly capable of doing, now they would begin to cackle about her, and pat her on the back, and raise a purse, and send her slushy letters. As if she were not the identical Flora Belle of the older obscure days, no better, no worse, than when nobody had even so much as asked her name. Well, their notice had come too late to hoodwink or mislead her now!

Thus, long before the Wickleses had ceased to bring out copies of the Citizen, or the gossip at Whiteside & Johnson’s had subsided, Flora Belle was stricken with a disenchantment such as she had never known before. Life had quite lost its zest for her. She wished that she had never done that thing; that she were still the simple, blithe-hearted, unknown girl she had always been until that accursed day. Once — long ago — friendship — admiration — love — had meant something.

Staunch, faithful Joe! She found herself thinking of him now with an odd tenderness, almost longing! How frank he had been; how outspoken; how honest, — taking her for what she was; not afraid to speak openly of her faults — and they were faults. She knew it; down in her heart of hearts she had always known it.

Ten days must have passed since the hideous Rescue of Three-Score; and she had not seen Joe once in all that time; and, what was more, she felt almost positive that she should never see him again unless she sent for him; for it was clear that he had taken what she had said about a final rupture just as she had said it, — and she had not really meant it quite that way; at least — all she had meant was —

Impulsively, without stopping to find a justification for such precipitate action, — could it be some vague, inarticulate fear lest Joe be already casting his affections upon a wax doll ? — she dashed him off a note: —

Would you feel like walking home with me to-night at half-past five?

F. B. W.

gave it into the custody of a special messenger, and waited, in a tumult of expectancy, for the close of the day.

Joe was there at the door. She gave her hand to him. Looking down with a kind of lurking defiance into her eyes, he squeezed it. She withdrew it with a clinging reluctance that tallied strangely with her rather non-committal “ Goodevening— Mr. Kinney.”

They turned down a quiet side street. There was a silence of perhaps a minute’s duration. Flora Belle, who had rarely been embarrassed in her life, was painfully so just now. Joe appeared to be waiting for an explanation of her note; and she had none that she could offer with a very good grace. She had not supposed that it would be necessary to explain it. She had imagined he would be only too glad to come. But he was striding along with a stolid, almost sullen gait, his eyes directly ahead of him, his lips set in determined inexpressiveness. She gave him an inquiring glance; but he avoided it, and with increasing disquietude — even a little frightened, though she could not say why — she speechlessly kept pace with him.

Finally, with something like savage abruptness, he turned upon her.

“ I read about what you done,” he announced bluntly.

Flora Belle made no comment. She tried to smile, but failed utterly. Her features seemed fixed, as if cast in a mould. All she could do was to wait helplessly for Joe to go on.

“ I seen all about the fuss they made, too,” he resumed.

Flora Belle nodded mechanically. She felt accused, somehow, and guilty. She counted the flagstones under her feet — twenty-two — till he spoke again.

“ Of course they’d go an’ do that,” said Joe. “People are such blamed fools.”

He gave her a look of dogged defiance, and brought out the thing he had been trying to prepare the way for. “I don’t see as you done anything so wonderful.”

Flora Belle experienced a sudden feeling of release, of expansion, of wild, uplifting joy. She breathed again — for the first time, it seemed to her, in years.

“ Oh, Joe,” she said shyly, “ it’s so nice of you to say that.”

His face lifted with amazement. “ Why! ” he said. “ I thought you’d be sore’s a goat. Only all it was, I did n’t want you to go an’ think I was that perticular kind of a fool.”

“ You’re just splendid, Joe,” she murmured.

“ Pooh! ” asserted Joe protectingly, “ you could a’ done those sort o’ things every day o’ your life if you only wunst got the chance. Anybody who knowed you would a’ knowed that.”

Upon a quick impulse of gratitude, she rested her fingers lightly on his coatsleeve; and he clapped his big left hand — black-stained for all its scrubbing — over them, with rude tenderness, and held it there an instant.

“ Joe,” she said softly, “ I’m sorry about that other thing. I did n’t mean it. I know I’m not so very pretty — at least not in a certain way — and I’m not sure embroidery hats are so awfully becoming to me; and perhaps I won’t wear them very often, if you’d rather I would n’t.”

Joe patted her hand affectionately. “ Now that’s what I call a plucky little girl,” he said; “ but you can wear ’em as often as you want to, for all o’ me.”

There did not seem to be any need of saying very much more just then.