The Descent of Reginald Hampton by Halliwell Sutcliffe

Illustrated by W. Rainey, R.I.

Reginald Hampton, the distinguished aeronaut, was at the mercy of any wind that chose to do him an ill turn. He had entirely lost control of his balloon—of which he was the only occupant—and, so far as he could see, the odds were fairly even as to whether he would find a watery grave in the English Channel, or a rocky one on the Kentish mainland. First came a kind of gentlemen-at-large breeze, which took him seawards; then a rival gust drove him back; finally the balloon stopped for a couple of minutes to think out the situation. Reginald Hampton, being by nature a fatalist and by training an aeronaut, awaited the decision without any appearance of impatience or anxiety; when his vehicle was ready to move on, he would try to fall on his feet if possible, but not for the world would he wish to hasten the departure.

"IN THE HAMMOCK REPOSED A MAIDEN." "IN THE HAMMOCK REPOSED A MAIDEN."

The balloon, after profound meditation, decided in favour of land, and in no long time she began to settle quietly down, with the gentleness of a snow-flake, and finally sank gracefully into the arms of a huge pear tree, white with blossom; whereupon the aeronaut grappled her to the tree, filled and lit a comfortable-looking pipe, and leaned carelessly over the edge of the car, to spy out the nakedness of this foster land. It was against his principles to seem otherwise than dispassioned on these occasions.

"HE TOOK A CONTENTED SURVEY OF HIS FRUIT TREES." "HE TOOK A CONTENTED SURVEY OF HIS FRUIT TREES."

Below him he saw a big garden, full of yews, box, fruit trees, and spring flowers, all hobnobbing with one another in the cheeriest manner imaginable. At the far end of the garden stood a house, of ruddy complexion, prosperous bulk, and Queen Anne architecture. Immediately beneath him—the branches diverged considerately, so as to allow his vision free play—a hammock was swinging gently from side to side, and in the hammock reposed a maiden. Now the prospect of a speedy demise did not excite Reginald Hampton, but a suggestion of feminine beauty had never been known to fail in this. He nearly fell out of the car in his eagerness to distinguish the details of the girl's appearance. A girl in a hammock, he reflected, ought always to be pretty, and artistic propriety demanded that she should be a veritable Peri when he had taken the trouble to save his neck by falling into the very tree to which her hammock was attached.

So eager was he, indeed, that his teeth lost their hold of the big briar, which cannoned from branch to branch, and dropped, somewhat forcibly, into the girl's hand. The prospective Peri was naturally a little startled, and more than a little angry, because the pipe had hurt her considerably. She slipped out of the hammock and stood looking about her with an air of enraged bewilderment. And from the clouds there came, as it were, a voice independent of any human tabernacle, a vox et preterea nihil.

"I'm awfully sorry—upon my word, most careless of me—may I come down and make my apologies in proper form?"

"Please, where are you?" demanded the girl. The tree was so constructed that Hampton could more easily see her than she him; and moreover it is one of the most difficult things in the world to locate an unexpected sound.

"I'm tree'd," laughed the voice, "straight above your head."

"That sounds odd," returned the other, beginning to enter into the spirit of the situation; "how on earth did you get there, and who are you?"

"An aeronaut. If you will leave the shelter of this particularly fine tree and look up above, you will see a balloon; attached to the balloon is a car, and attached to the car is myself."

"And do you propose to stay up there indefinitely? It isn't very amusing, is it?"

"Not particularly. If you can suggest a method of escape, I shall be only too happy to descend."

"Climb out of the car, and then down the tree-trunk. Nothing could be simpler."

"Pardon me, but have you ever tried that particular form of gymnastic exercise? Directly I begin to get out of the car, she will topple over, and I wouldn't for the world give you the trouble of collecting my fragments at the bottom."

"Please don't. It would be like making one of those wretched toy-houses out of bricks, and I know I should never fit in the pieces properly. Still, you can't stay up there for ever, can you, now?"

"Not possibly. For one thing, I have not tasted food for twelve hours, and I shall expire if I don't get some presently."

"I might bring you a sandwich, if you have got a piece of string you can let down," said the girl, with the easy badinage of an old friend. It is not every day that one is privileged to encounter a tree'd balloonist, and she felt that the proprieties were not particularly at home in such an al fresco environment.

"Thanks," responded the aerial voice, "but I prefer to reach firm ground, if it can any way be managed. I say, could you get me a ladder?"

"Yes. I'll hunt up the gardener, and tell him to bring one. You think you can get down that way?"

"'WHAT THE MISCHIEF ARE YOU DOING IN MY PEAR TREE?'" "'WHAT THE MISCHIEF ARE YOU DOING IN MY PEAR TREE?'"

"I think so. If the gardener holds the ladder tight against my car, it should fix it pretty firmly, and then I can climb on to the ladder. By the way, you are awfully good to take all this trouble on behalf of an entire stranger. I forgot to make the observation earlier, because, you see, we grow accustomed to finding ourselves uninvited guests. I once dropped into the middle of a Royal Garden Party."

"Did you, really? Tell me all about it," said the girl, forgetting her errand of mercy.

"Oh, they thought at first I was a Nihilist or a Fenian or something, come to blow up the whole Royal Family. I escaped finally by explaining that the Prince of Wales—who was fortunately absent—had hired me to make the descent by way of affording a little relief to the tedium of the gathering. Incidentally, may I ask into what particular garden I have had the good luck to fall?"

"This is Caviare Court, Fullerton, Kent."

"No? You don't mean it?"

"Why, yes. Why shouldn't I mean it?"

"That really is odd. Then your father is Colonel Currie?"

"Yes. How ever do you come to know that?"

"Because he happens to be my mother's brother. My name is Hampton—Reginald Hampton."

There was silence for some time; then—

"You should have told me that before," said the girl, in an aggrieved tone.

"I don't see that we are responsible for parental quarrels," responded the other, warmly. "My mother married the wrong man, from Colonel Currie's point of view, and they have sworn eternal enmity. But how should that affect us? By Jove, we're cousins! To think that I have to thank the friskiness of my balloon for getting to know you."

Another silence.

"I hope father won't come home while you're here," cried the girl, suddenly. "He's never seen you, but you may be like the family, and it is not a likeness one can easily mistake. Have you a peculiar little dent in the middle of an otherwise straight nose?"

The query was advanced with an eagerness ludicrously at variance with the difference of their respective situations. It seemed—as Charles Lamb said of humorous letters to distant lands—as though eagerness must grow so stale before it reached the summit of this big pear tree.

"Yes, I have," answered Hampton, laughing.

"Then your fate is sealed. Father may return at any moment, and you really musn't come down into the garden."

"But I'm awfully hungry," said Mr. Hampton, plaintively.

"I'll send you up something to eat, as I suggested at first."

"I have no string, or rope, or anything I can let down."

This was scarcely accurate, but Reginald Hampton saw too many capabilities in the situation, to let it go readily. Finally, he overcame the girl's scruples, and she departed in quest of a ladder.

As his daughter disappeared at the rear of the house, Colonel Currie came round the front. He was smoking a cheroot, the slowly curling smoke from which, as also his whole gait and mien, was suggestive of peaceful proprietorship. He paused to examine his bed of spring wallflowers, stooped to uproot an impertinent dandelion which had taken root in his otherwise irreproachable turf, gathered a fine auricula and placed it in his button-hole. Then he took a contented survey of his fruit trees, until his eyes finally rested upon the white-robed bower of the balloon. A change came o'er the spirit of the Colonel's pastoral dream. His ruddy gills assumed a purplish hue, his grizzled hair stood up in fighting attitude. He advanced to the foot of the tree and peered upwards. His inability to see the occupant of the balloon called to battle the last drop of the plentiful supply of choler wherewith Indian heats had endowed him.

"What the mischief are you doing in my pear tree?" thundered the Colonel.

His voice was suggestive of heavy artillery at short range; but masculine anger was not one of the things that ruffled the balloonist's equanimity.

"I'm sitting tight until your gardener is kind enough to bring me a ladder," he responded, imperturbably.

"Eh? What? Well, upon my soul, sir! Do you know that this is my very finest pear-tree—jargonelles, sir, I tell you, jargonelles? You and your impudent machine have ruined the crop. It's just the spirit of this confounded age—anarchy, disruption, red riot—no man's house safe—his garden a refuge for any air-climbing rascal who cares to take up his quarters in it."

The Colonel, from this point onwards, seemed to imagine that he was talking at a coolie; coolie intercourse cultivates the faculty of expression wonderfully, and Reginald Hampton's host entertained that amused aeronaut for fully ten minutes with a wealth of epithet—very old in bottle, and of a fine tawny flavour. Hampton took advantage of the panting calm that followed the outburst to put in a plea for himself.

"'THERE IS A GENTLEMAN AT THE VERY TOP OF THE TREE DYING
FOR WANT OF FOOD.'" "'THERE IS A GENTLEMAN AT THE VERY TOP OF THE TREE DYING FOR WANT OF FOOD.'"

"I can only say, sir, that I regret this contretemps as much as yourself. The fact is, I had no choice in the matter; the wind got the better of me, and took me just where it pleased."

"P—r—r—rh—Humph, humph!" sputtered the old gentleman. "Serves you right for getting inside such a flimsy contrivance. Can't understand how any man can be fool enough to want to career through the air when heaven has blessed him with a pair of sound legs. Perhaps you have no legs, though, for I'm hanged if I can see you," he concluded, irately, returning to his pet grievance.

"Yes, I have legs—rather long ones," returned the aeronaut, genially. "As to ballooning, it is a matter of personal taste, of course. We needn't quarrel about that, need we, Colonel Currie?"

"Eh, eh? How do you come to know my name?"

Reginald Hampton, in the privacy of his retreat, smiled beautifully to himself. He had watched the old gentleman's progress through the garden, and had guessed that he was tremendously proud of his flowers, his trees, his lawn; and an inspiration had come to this light-hearted trifler with another man's pear blossom.

"I guessed it, sir," he responded, very suavely. "I knew I had dropped somewhere in Kent, and a glance at that well-kept grass of yours, at the rare profusion of early flowers, at the extreme fulness—er—profligacy—of your fruit-blossom, told me in a moment that the garden could belong to only one man in the county. Do you suppose I have been a horticultural enthusiast all these years without knowing Colonel Currie by name? Why, the—the dahlias you exhibit are alone sufficient to make your name cling to one's memory. Sir, I am deeply sorry that I have injured your crop of jargonelles, but I cannot regret that I have been privileged to meet you."

Reginald Hampton had a cheery way of emerging with safety from any embarrassment in which he happened to find himself. His haphazard assumption of enthusiasm for the one subject on earth of which he knew least might so easily have led him astray; yet in the very nick of time that word dahlia crept into his consciousness and won the day. It chanced that dahlia-cultivation was the Colonel's most absorbing hobby. The old gentleman's anger had already begun to cool, under the influence of his enemy's persistent politeness, and this liberal application of the flattery-trowel at once set up a counter-current of positive cordiality.

"I apologise, sir, I apologise for the—ah—breadth of my language. These little accidents will happen, of course—do happen, doubtless, every day—and I had no idea that you were a grower of dahlias. Now, what soil do you consider the most suitable for the Cactus varieties?" Thus the Colonel, in tones of peace.

"WHY, WHATEVER IS THE MATTER?' SHE CRIED." "WHY, WHATEVER IS THE MATTER?' SHE CRIED."

There was stillness in the flowery region just above the Colonel's head. A perplexed balloonist was at one and the same time suppressing an outburst of hysterical laughter, and encouraging coy soil-theories to evolve themselves from the blank chambers of his brain.

"It is difficult to say off-hand," he began. "Every grower, you see, has his own views."

"So he has, so he has—and he likes to hear other people's views, if only for the sake of abusing them. What is your own candid opinion on the subject?"

"Well, as you ask me, I should say—use pretty much the same soil as you would for the other varieties. Er—ah—a suspicion of loam, not too dry, and fairly well matured, sprinkled over the surface, is not inadvisable."

"You don't say so? For my part, I stick to the old-established methods, but no doubt modern enterprise has done something in the way of development. Loam, you say, sprinkled over the surface? I must try it."

"But be careful that it just hits the happy mean in the matter of moisture. If you keep it too dry, the plant runs to leaf instead of flower; if too wet, the colour is apt to—to run a little."

The balloonist, having fairly spread the wings of his imagination, was by this time quite prepared to fly into fresh difficulties. He was enjoying himself tremendously, and had even forgotten that his prospective rescuer was rather late in coming to his aid.

"But," objected the Colonel, omitting to notice a slight horticultural mistake of the aeronaut's, "but how do you manage about the watering? The loam must be wet at some times and comparatively dry at others."

"My dear sir, you mistake; the latest method is to carefully remove the surface loam before watering, and then to replace it, moistened to the proper degree."

"This is all very interesting," quoth the Colonel. "How it does one good to talk with a genuine enthusiast on these delightful subjects! You are trying for the blue dahlia, of course?"

"I've got it, sir," responded the balloonist, with triumphant emphasis. He was now prepared to go any lengths, trusting that Fate would see the thing through satisfactorily.

The Colonel skipped about in the wildest excitement.

"Got the blue dahlia? Why, I have only got half way to it, and I thought I was farther than most men. You know, of course, that there is a prize of a thousand pounds offered for that unique production? Have you claimed it?"

"I didn't care to," said Hampton, carelessly. "Frankly, there are so many poor men trying for the prize—praiseworthy toilers who finish a hard day's work by an evening's tending of some cottage garden—that I could not bear to step in and take the prize. I have quite enough money, too; I should scarcely know what to do with more."

The airy invisibility of the stranger, the unwontedness of the scene, must have played havoc with the Colonel's credulity. He absorbed everything, as a dry sponge sucks up water. The aeronaut's car was shaking visibly.

"But that is not all," said the latter recklessly. "I promptly set to work on a new colour, and I produced——"

"Yes, yes—you produced——"

"A pea-green dahlia, twelve inches in diameter."

"My dear, my very dear sir," cried the Colonel, well-nigh hysterical with wonder and delight, "I insist on your coming down at once from that tree and partaking of luncheon with me. I have some excellent '49 port, and we'll discuss the two subjects together. Really, it is very remiss of me not to have suggested your coming down sooner; the situation is not well adapted to conversation, and doubtless you are far from comfortable."

"No apology necessary, I assure you. I took the liberty, some time ago, of requesting your daugh—your gardener to bring me a ladder. He will appear presently, I have no doubt—in fact, I see him coming at this moment."

Now Miss Currie, though apparently she had forgotten the very existence of Reginald Hampton, had in point of fact followed his fortunes with an interest bordering on trepidation. Having run the gardener to earth, she was informed by that functionary that there was not a ladder about the place sufficiently long to reach to the top of the pear tree; the Colonel's longest ladder had been broken a week ago, and of the others not one was half the necessary size.

"But you must find one somewhere," insisted the girl, with the pretty imperiousness of feminine youth; "there is a gentleman at the very top of the tree, and he is at this moment dying for want of food. What a pity the pears are not ripe! Can't you think of someone who would lend you a ladder?"

The gardener scratched his head and pondered. There was one at Langbridge Farm, a good mile away, but it was a powerful hot morning to walk a mile with a heavy ladder on one's shoulder. Still, Missy seemed anxious, and Missy had had a right to have her own way ever since she was as high as one of his dwarf rose trees.

"THE COLONEL GREW PURPLE, THEN WHITE, AND BEAT UPON THE
TABLE WITH HIS FINGERS." "THE COLONEL GREW PURPLE, THEN WHITE, AND BEAT UPON THE TABLE WITH HIS FINGERS."

So the gardener had departed to Langbridge Farm, and Miss Currie had peeped round the corner of the house, to see how it was faring with the balloonist. She found her worst fears confirmed; her father was standing under the pear tree and abusing the poor man like a pickpocket. The girl, realising how futile it would be for her to put in an appearance and add to the already deafening hurly-burly, quietly secreted herself in a lilac-bush, and listened to what was going on. She began to laugh as the aeronaut unwound his imaginative threads; then she grew angry with him for his recklessness; then she laughed again at the astounding coolness of the man, and the skilful manner in which he avoided all difficulties in his path. Finally, at the end of what seemed to her an eternity and a half, the gardener appeared with his borrowed ladder, and proceeded in the direction of the pear tree. Miss Currie watched the old man place the ladder against the tree, under the combined directions of her father and the unconcerned occupant of the balloon-car, and then she thought the time was ripe for her to stroll up in a negligent manner.

"Why, whatever is the matter?" she cried, with innocent surprise.

"Nothing, my dear, nothing," responded the Colonel, beamingly. "A very worthy gentleman and a magnificent florist has, by good fortune, become my guest, and he is coming down in order to partake of luncheon."

"But where is he, and how did he come there?" she went on, deeming it highly prudent to disown any previous knowledge of the matter.

The old gardener looked at her with an intelligent grin, inwardly remarking that Missy was a deep one, she was. The aeronaut laughed with incontinent heartiness. The Colonel explained to her how the accident had occurred. After which Reginald Hampton climbed out of his nest, reached terra firma, and found himself entirely satisfied with the slim beauty of his rescuer.

The moment might have been an embarrassing one for the average man; it was, however, precisely the kind of situation that Reginald Hampton most enjoyed.

"Delighted to make your acquaintance at closer quarters," he remarked, first raising his cap to the Colonel, and then extending his hand. "Your daughter, I presume?" he added, turning to Violet Currie. "I am glad, by the way, she did not happen to be occupying the hammock there, or my abrupt descent might have startled her somewhat."

"So it might, so it might," responded his host, urbanely. "Now, let us go indoors; you must be positively famishing, and that port of mine is itching, I know, to see the light of day."

"What a time you are going to have!" whispered the girl, as they took their places at table.

He and she managed to stave off the evil day until lunch was half over; but procrastination was not nearly as wholesale a thief of time as they wished him to be.

"Now, about those two unique dahlias of yours," began the Colonel; "you really must allow me to come and see them."

"Delighted, sir. Any time that may be convenient to you. Come and spend a week with me."

"You are very kind. I should say to-morrow if, literally, any time would do," laughed the Colonel; "but I think even you cannot induce dahlias to flower before July."

"Well, no. Of course, my 'anytime' presupposed these natural limits," said the aeronaut, aloud.

"I fancied they were spring flowers," said the aeronaut in a stage-aside. "So I can go scot-free until July. I must marry her before then."

Colonel Currie was on the point of launching well out into his favourite waters—in which case the Providence of so fatuous a trifler as Reginald Hampton must surely have deserted him—when a certain peculiarity in his guest's face arrested his attention. He gazed fixedly at him for a few moments, then frowned ominously.

"I beg your pardon, sir, but you have the family nose. I have never seen that peculiar dent in the middle in any but a Currie nose. Is it possible—"

"I also beg your pardon, Colonel," responded the balloonist, following a sudden inspiration; "but before answering your question, may I ask if you are really as devoted to flowers as you seem to be?"

"I am indeed. They are the passion of my life," said Colonel Currie, still gazing perplexedly at his companion's nasal hallmark.

"For my part, I can never forgive a florist—a true florist—who can find it in his heart to put other—other considerations first. If a man told me that he possessed a blue dahlia, for instance, I would go and see that man in the teeth of gatling guns."

"So would I. Grape-shot is a matter of no consequence by comparison."

"If the man had relations in the house whom it made my head ache to meet, I would still go. Nothing in the world, sir, ought to stand in the way of a blue dahlia."

"Nothing," responded the Colonel, forgetting everything else in a sudden fervour of sympathetic enthusiasm.

"You are quite convinced of that?"

"Quite. How can you doubt me?"

The aeronaut paused, and then planted this shot squarely in the Colonel's astonished person.

"Then, uncle, you won't mind my saying that I am Reginald Hampton, and that it will be necessary for you to see the blue dahlia and your sister in conjunction."

The Colonel grew purple, then white; he stammered, and beat upon the table with his fingers, and talked in strange languages. But he had the good sense to see that he was cornered. Besides, what had his nephew ever done to him, and how could he help being proud of so unique an horticulturist?

Finally, the Colonel reached out his hand across the table.

"Confound you, boy, you've conquered me! I must see that dahlia!" he cried.

"How to arrange matters floral when the merry month of July comes round, I can't guess," mused Reginald Hampton, as he lit a Manilla. "But sufficient for the day is the evil thereof, and my bounden duty is to marry the little girl in June."

Which he did.