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   Chapter 6 MY BALLOON HUNT

John Gayther's Garden and the Stories Told Therein By Frank Richard Stockton Characters: 29585

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The next morning, after breakfast, the Mistress of the House and John Gayther were walking through the garden together, for her quick eye had detected much that needed attention. Some things she had already decided upon, but there were others in which she thought it best to ask John's advice. They did not always agree; in fact, they were seldom in exact accord: but both were sensible, and he reasoned that, as mistress, she ought to do as she pleased; and she reasoned that, as he had learned the business and she had not, it was just to him and to herself that he should, on many points, be allowed his own way.

The orchard was really a continuation of the lower terrace of the garden, but the Mistress had not been there for some time. "A great many pears, John," she commented as they strolled under the trees; "a fair show of apples: but there are no plums at all."

"Plums have their seasons," said John, sententiously. "They are not always falling in one's way; and these are choice plums and don't come promiscuous-sorter scattered like."

"I wonder if John means that for philosophy," thought the Mistress. Then aloud: "My daughter brought me a luscious one yesterday, and, really, it looks as if she had gathered the only one."

"Bless her heart!" said John, fervently, "I hope she's goin' to pick them up all along the way she goes."

"That is too much to hope for any one, John," said the Mistress, as they turned to go up into the garden; but in her heart she had the very same hope.

They walked through two terraces filled with luxuriant vegetables and bordered by small fruits, now out of season; then on to the third terrace, bordered by currant-bushes, beautiful now to look upon, hung as they were with a profusion of red tassels. And here there came to them an almost overpowering fragrance; for on the terrace above were great beds of lilies, now in their glory-lilies from many climes, lilies of many hues: great white spikes, small pink clusters, spotted, striped, variegated, white with borders of all colors, even black (or purple so dark it looked black), all standing proudly in the sunshine, and sending to heaven their incense of gratitude.

It was a gorgeous sight, and the two looked at it with delight and a good deal of pride, for it was the design and the handiwork of both.

Then they saw, behind all this glory, a group of people disposed in various comfortable positions about the little summer-house on the upper terrace, where the view was finest.

There was the Master of the House in the big garden-chair; there was the Frenchman, seated on a low grassy knoll; there was the Daughter of the House on the bench she liked; and beside her was the Next Neighbor, who was an intimate friend of the Daughter of the House, and, therefore, a frequent visitor. The nearest house was not in sight, but it could be reached in a moderate walk. Its mistress was a young married woman, very pretty to look at and of a lively turn of mind. She waved her hand to the Mistress, while the Master called out: "Come up here, you two! We are waiting for you." When the two complied with the command, the Master continued: "Now make yourselves comfortable and listen to a story our guest has promised us."

The Mistress of the House willingly took the rustic chair the Frenchman brought forward, but John Gayther had no wish to hear the Frenchman's story. He had no fancy for the man, and he did not believe he would fancy his story. "Excuse me," he said to the Master of the House, "but I see that boy Jacob coming through the gate, and I must go with him to weed the melon-bed."

"You will do nothing of the kind," said the Master of the House; "let the boy weed it alone."

"Never!" cried John, in horror. "He will trample on all the vines!"

"Then tell him to do something else." And, without waiting for John to give the order, he called out: "Ahoy, there, boy! Clear out of this garden!"

The boy vanished with celerity, and John Gayther sank upon his stool with an air of resignation. But no sooner had the Frenchman uttered a few sentences than he brightened up, and not only listened attentively but put aside the disagreeable feeling he had had for him. The beginning of the narrative lifted a load from his mind.

The Frenchman, having again betaken himself to the grassy mound, began in an easy, airy way:

"I am a sportsman as well as a Frenchman. It seems hardly necessary to mention both of these things at once, for in my mind they naturally go together. I am expert in many kinds of sports, and it pleases me much, when engaged in such recreations, to employ my mind as well as my body, and in so doing I frequently devise methods of pursuing my favorite sports which are never made use of by ordinary and unimaginative persons.

"My Irene-she is my wife-is also addicted to sport. It was partly for this reason that I married her. It is not always by sharing my dangers and my glories that my dear Irene shows her passion for the outdoor sports which are so fascinating to me; it is often that she does this merely by sympathy. She can remain at home and think of me in the field or on the stream, and be happy. When I return she welcomes, she appreciates. If I overstay my time I do not give myself worry-I know that she will understand that there are contingencies. When she greets me there are no reproaches. She is the wife for a sportsman!

"But it is not always that I rely simply upon the sympathy of my Irene. It was not so when I went in a balloon to hunt tigers. She was then at my side, for there was no other place where she would have been satisfied, or where I would have had her. There are vicissitudes which should be faced together by those who love.

"I had long wished to hunt tigers, and it had come into my head that it would be a grand and novel idea, and also extremely practicable, to shoot at these savage creatures from a balloon. This would be an exhilarating sensation, and it would be safe. In no other way would I take my Irene with me when tiger-hunting; and in no other way, I freely admit, would I be very desirous of going myself.

"I have heard that one of my countrymen had himself shut up in a stout cage and conveyed to a region infested by tigers. There, with his rifle, he sat comfortably in a chair, with a lantern on a table near by. When, at night, the tigers crowded round his cage, he shot them. But this would not have suited me. Suppose a bar of the cage should have been broken!

"But in a balloon it would be different. Poised in the air a moderate distance above the ground, I could shoot at tigers beneath me and laugh at their efforts to reach my height. Therefore it was that I determined to hunt my tigers in a balloon. Irene screamed when I mentioned this plan, but she did not refuse to go with me. She had been in balloons, but she had never seen an unrestricted tiger. Now she could enjoy these two pleasures at once, and be with me.

"This happened in French Tonkin. We were in a little outlying town where there was a garrison, and some engineers who made military observations in a balloon. This was a captive balloon not employed for independent ascensions, and from some of the officers, who were my friends, I procured it for my projected tiger hunt. They were all much interested in my expedition, for if it succeeded there would be a new variety of sport in this monotonous region.

"The balloon was supplied with gas sufficient to carry myself and my Irene, with rifles, provisions, and various necessities, and its lifting power was so proportioned to the weight it carried as to keep it at the height of an ordinary church steeple above the earth.

"About ten miles from the town there was a long stretch of desert and barren land, extending for about a quarter of a mile from a jungle and forest to a river; and here, I was told, tigers were often to be found, sometimes crossing the open country to slake their thirst at the stream, but more frequently to prevent antelopes and other tender animals from slaking their thirst. There could be no better spot than this for my experiment.

"Our journey to the hunting-ground was most delightful. Seating ourselves in the commodious car which hung beneath the balloon, we rose to the height of the rope which restrained its ascent. The lower end of this rope was then seized by natives, active and strong, who ran along, pulling the balloon above them. It was the most comfortable method of progression that I had ever known. There were no jars, scarcely any sense of motion. The great overhanging balloon sheltered us from the sun; we leaned over the side of the car, surveyed the landscape, and breathed the fresh morning air. Then we breakfasted and smoked our cigarettes. I was happy; my Irene was happy. We could have journeyed thus for days.

"But when we came to the appointed place we prepared for business. We had with us a machine for anchoring the balloon, and the natives immediately went to work to drive this deeply into the soil, about half-way between the water and the jungle, so that we might be moored at a proper distance above the ground. There was no wind; the balloon hung almost motionless. It had been arranged that when it should be properly attached the natives should leave us, and return in the evening to pull us back to the town, and to carry away the skins of the tigers we had killed.

"It was truly luxurious hunting! The rifle of my Irene was light and suitable for a lady; mine was of the most improved pattern. We had another one in case of emergencies. We sat and looked down upon the men, urging them to hasten their work and be gone; we were longing for our sport.

"Suddenly there was a cry from one of the natives. Gazing toward the jungle, he yelled: 'A tiger! a tiger!' Instantly our hearts stopped beating and our eyes were turned toward the jungle. There, against the matted leaves and stalks, was a mass of yellow and black-half a tiger. In the bright sunlight we could see it plainly. It had been roused by the noise of the pounding, and was gazing out to see what was the matter. With one united scream, the natives shot away. They scattered; they disappeared utterly and at once. Where they went I know not. We never saw them again. We did not even think of them. Our eyes were set fast upon the black and yellow stripes and the great head. Without volition I grasped my rifle. Irene put her hand upon her weapon, but I whispered to her not to move.

"The tiger came slowly out of the jungle so that we could see him clearly; then he walked toward us. I clutched my rifle still more tightly.

"Suddenly Irene whispered to me: 'We are not fastened; those men did not attach the rope; and we may drift away from him, perhaps across the river, and so lose him. Is it too far for a shot?'

"'Entirely, entirely,' I answered; 'we must wait: and if we do drift across the river we may find some other game there. Be quiet!'

"So we both were quiet; but the balloon did not drift: there was no wind.

"The tiger moved gently toward us; it was dreadful to remain thus motionless and see him come on. He had paid no attention to the escaping natives: he was giving his mind entirely to our balloon. He looked up at us, and he looked down at the end of the rope, a yard or two of which was moving about like a snake as the balloon veered a little this way and that.

"This seemed to interest the tiger. He stopped for a few moments and looked at it. He was now near enough for us to observe him closely. We did so with breathless interest. He was a long tiger, and very thin; his flabby flanks seemed to indicate that he was hungry. Suddenly he gave a quick bound; he ceased to regard the balloon; his eyes were fixed upon the end of the rope. With great leaps he reached it. He arched his back and looked at it as it moved, then he put one paw upon it. We leaned over the edge of the car and watched him.

"The rope was so attached that by putting out her arm Irene could reach it. She seized it and made the lower end of it move more quickly on the ground. The tiger gave a jump, with his eyes on the rope. Then he leaped forward, and over and over again he put his foot upon it and quickly jerked it away.

"'What are you doing?' I whispered. 'Are you mad? You may enrage him. Do not touch the rope! Do not touch it again!' Oh, the recklessness, the unthinking playfulness of woman! How can we guard against it? How can we be safe from it?

"The rope was now still for a moment. It ceased to interest the tiger, and he looked upward. Suddenly an idea came into his head. He seized the rope in his great jaws, and gave a powerful jump backward. Oh, what a jerk, what a shock! It was worse than an earthquake. It was like a great throb from the heart of the tiger to the heart of the man. I must have turned pale. Did he intend to haul us down? This fearsome thought vented itself in smothered ejaculations, and Irene turned to me and spoke in her usual voice:

"'He cannot do that, for it is impossible for him to haul us down hand over hand or paw over paw. He is only playing. The rope amuses him. And we need not speak in whispers; even if he hears us he cannot understand us. Is it not time to shoot?'

"She is so precipitate, my Irene. I love her, but she lacks that prudent hesitancy which so often gives a man his power over circumstances.

"Still I considered the case: if I were going to shoot at all, this was surely a good time. Everything had come so suddenly that I had not had time to collect myself, to prepare for action.

"I looked steadfastly down at the beast, and so did my Irene. I was becoming calmer. He looked up at us with an air of concentration; he paid no more attention to the rope.

"I lifted my rifle; I scrutinized its every portion; it was in order. Then I leaned over the edge of the car and pointed it downward. I aimed it between his great, earnest eyes, into the very middle of his thoughtful and observant countenance. I pulled the trigger; the explosion shook the car.

"Up from the ground there came a sudden, startling roar. At first I could not see the tiger, but when the smoke moved away I found myself gazing down into his savage, blazing eyes. Roar after roar came up; he sprang from side to side; his tail stiffened and curled, and when he opened his vast mouth, showing the cavern of his throat, his red tongue, and his long white teeth, a shiver ran through me. Instinctively I grasped my Irene by the arm.

"'I do not believe you hit him,' said she. 'See how he bounds! He cannot be hurt. It must be difficult to aim directly downward, but let me try.'

"I did not forbid her. Even by chance she might strike that awful beast in some vital part. She took

a long, deliberate aim, and as she fired the tiger gave a veritable scream.

"'Ah, ha!' I cried, 'you hit him. Truly, my Irene, you hit him.'

"'But it was only in the toe,' she said. 'See how he has stopped to lick it with his tongue. I think it is his littlest toe. It is not much.'

"Large toe or small one, that tiger was now an angry beast. Hopping backward a little way, he now crouched to the ground, and then gave a wild spring upward. It was heart-sickening as his great form, with its yellow skin and black stripes, his blazing eyes, his flashing teeth, and his outspread claws, rose toward us through the air. Of course he could not hurt us; we were too high up. Irene's face flushed. 'That was a great leap,' she said.

"I took up my rifle again. It comforted me to see what a small jump the beast had made compared to our distance from the ground. Again I fired, and this time also I did not hit him. I had never practised shooting at things almost beneath me; the slightest motion of Irene disturbed my aim. The report seemed to infuriate the tiger until he was on the verge of madness. He jumped from side to side, he roared, he gnashed his teeth, and it seemed to me that I could smell his horrid breath coming up toward us.

"Suddenly he ceased all motion; he crouched upon the ground; he made no sound; he shut his mouth; he partly shut his eyes, but they were fixed upon me immovably, and they were green as emerald.

"'Now,' said Irene, 'is a good time to take another shot. Shall I try?'

"I raised my hand that she might not move. There was a change coming over the sun. At first I thought my sight was affected and I did not see well, but it was not that. Instinctively I gazed upward. A wandering cloud was slowly moving under the sun. Then I looked down. The tiger's yellow was not so bright, his black stripes were not so clear and sharp-cut, and, more than that, he was coming nearer. The balloon was slowly descending. The truth flashed upon me. Deprived of the direct rays of the sun, the gas was condensing. We were going down, down, slowly but surely down!

"A chill ran through me, an awful premonitory chill. I knew what to do, but there was little I could do. We carried no ballast, for this was a captive balloon. What could I throw out? The extra rifle! Out it went, and fell not far from the tiger; but he did not move; with his green eyes fixed upon the car, he watched it slowly descend. The rifle had relieved it of a little of its weight, but the middle of the cloud was thicker than its edge. The gas was still condensing, the balloon was slowly descending. I became almost frantic. If my Irene had been any one else I believe I would have thrown her out. But I could not throw out my Irene. Besides, she was so vigorous.

"It was awful, this steady, this merciless descent. It was like entering a tomb with a red tongue and flashing teeth waiting within. The green eyes gleamed with the malice of a waiting devil biding his time and knowing that it was drawing near.

"Down, down we went, and the smell of his horrid breath came up like the forerunner of a cruel death. Now a tremor ran through the whole body of the crouching beast; even his tail trembled like a feather in the wind. He seemed to press himself nearer and nearer to the earth. His eyes were fixed steadily upon the car.

"I knew what this meant. He was about to spring. The moment that we should descend sufficiently low, he would hurl himself into the car; he would not wait for it to touch the ground.

"My thoughts raced through my brain. If anything could be done, it must be done in the next half-minute. I spoke quickly to Irene.

"'Do not lose a second,' I said. 'Get out on the outside of the car; rest lightly upon its edge; hold by the ropes. I will do the same. At the moment I give the word you must jump. Both together; do not hesitate. It will not be much of a fall. We cannot stay here and have him-'

"At this instant the tiger gave a tremendous bound upward, his fore paws, bristling with claws, stretched over the edge of the car. In that instant I jumped!

"It was a great leap, and as my feet struck the ground and my eyes glanced rapidly about me a feeling of great joy filled my breast. I was on the earth again, master of myself, and the tiger was not there. I looked upward. The great beast was drawing up his hind legs and was climbing into the car, and there was Irene, my Irene, outside of the car, sitting on the edge and holding on to the ropes. I had forgotten to give her the word! How my heart sank! It was terrible!

"I now perceived something that almost paralyzed my every faculty. That balloon was rising. I was a large man and I was heavier than the tiger; with its reduced weight the balloon was slowly going upward. I clasped my hands, I gasped for breath. If I should call to Irene to jump now she would be dashed to pieces, the car was already so high. And then the great truth flashed upon me: 'What matters it? If she leaps she will be killed; if she does not leap-' I could not think of it!

"To be sure, I might seize the rope and pull her down low enough so that she might safely drop; but if I did that the tiger might also jump. Oh, what a position to be in, for one who loves!

"It was now absolutely impossible for either of them safely to leap from the car unless I pulled it down, and my mind was not capable of even considering such an alternative. To meet him here upon the ground, in this awful solitude! To die together, but not in each other's arms; to perish from this bright earth; to reach out to my Irene; to call to her as she reached out and called to me, when the terrible monster- It was too much!

"But even in my despair I remembered to be humane. I seized the end of the rope. I would not let my Irene float away altogether. I could not. The soul of the husband asserted itself. The cloud had now passed from the face of the sun. The balloon was rising with considerable force, but I could hold it; I was very heavy. I would not desert my Irene.

"As I stood thus, looking upward and holding fast to all that was dear to me in life, I saw Irene, still sitting on the edge of the car, raise one hand and put it to her head. I could see that she was feeling faint; the strain of her position was beginning to tell upon her; at any moment she might fall. Then my quick glance sought the tiger. He was in the car, his great head and two front paws hanging over the edge; his green eyes were steadily fixed on me. Just then Irene, evidently unable to hold any longer to the ropes, gave herself a dexterous twist, and in an instant she was inside the car, her head sinking down out of sight. Oh, noble, most beloved Irene! Sooner than let herself drop and fall at my feet a mangled corpse, she would do anything. She well understood my too sensitive soul, this dear Irene!

"In spite of my emotion I still held firmly to the rope, and the tiger still glared down upon me. It was too far for him to jump; he knew that if he did he would be dashed to pieces. This gave me strength and courage.

"Irene now raised herself and looked over the edge of the car; the tiger by her side did not regard her. I have often read of wild animals, of different kinds and degrees of fierceness, who, having fallen into a pit together, did not attack each other, but remained as gentle as sheep, being cowed by their fear. Plainly this tiger was cowed. He had never been so far above the earth; he knew that he would die if he leaped; but he kept his sinister green eyes steadily fixed on me.

The great beast was drawing up his hind legs and was climbing into the car.

"Now Irene called down to me. I could not hear what she said, I was in such terrible agitation. And besides, I think she was afraid to speak too loudly, for fear she might startle the black-and-yellow beast. How I longed to hear her dear words, perhaps her last! Mayhap she was bidding me a fond farewell; perhaps she was trying to encourage me and uphold my heart in this terrible trial. It would be like her; she knows my love for her, my dear Irene!

"And then, ah yes! it might be that she was asking my permission to throw herself from the car: that she was beseeching me to turn away my head that she might leap to the ground, and thus end her anxieties and her miseries-I might say our miseries; for if the tiger should follow her he, too, would be killed. I should be left to weep over my dearest, the joy of my life and my heart. The tiger would be dead. In her last breath Irene would know that I was safe. That would be like Irene, my dear Irene! But I would not suffer it. I could not speak, but I shook my head.

"She did not try to say anything more, but she looked down upon me, and so did the tiger. The two heads were not far from each other; they were both regarding me. I grew almost crazy. Never was man placed in more terrible straits than this.

"Suddenly a thought struck me. I seized more tightly the end of the rope, and I ran. I ran to the river. I plunged, I bounded, I made such great haste that sometimes I stumbled over obstacles, and sometimes the balloon seemed to lift me from the ground; but on, on I went, on to the river!

"When I reached the edge of the water I took courage to stop and look up. They were both still gazing over the edge of the car, both with their eyes strained upon me.

"Then boldly and fearlessly I walked into the river. I walked until the water was up to my knees; until it reached my waist. I walked until the surface of the water lapped my shoulders. I was not afraid; I am a good swimmer. Irene now called down to me. It was plain she was becoming reckless; she would know what I was going to do, no matter what effect her words would have upon the tiger. If she thought I was about to commit suicide, not daring to bear up under her coming fate, she would dissuade me. It would be like her, that dear Irene!

"'What are you going to do?' she cried. And as I looked upward her eyes and those of the tiger were steadily fixed on me.

"'You must get on the outside of the car again,' I cried. 'Do it quickly, without disturbing him. Then I will pull you down, down, a little at a time. When you are far enough down-and I will be the judge of that-I will give you the word; then you must jump. It will not hurt you; the water will break your fall, and I will save you. Think of nothing else but your trust in me, and jump. The moment you leave the car I let go the rope; then it will instantly be too far for him to jump. Quick! Be ready when I give the word.' And as I spoke I hauled steadily upon the rope.

"Irene looked at me for an instant, and then she stood up in the car. I saw her put one foot upon the seat which surrounds it; then quickly appeared the other foot upon the edge of the car. She raised both arms and joined her hands above her head; she pushed herself between the ropes and leaped. It was all the work of a second.

"She came down beautifully, head foremost. It was a splendid dive. Relieved of her weight, the balloon gave a great jerk, and I let go the rope.

"Irene went down into the water as cleanly and smoothly as if she had been a diving duck. She scarcely made a splash. She was a magnificent swimmer.

"As my dear Irene disappeared beneath the surface of the water I made use of the rapid moments in which I could not expect to see her in glancing upward. The tiger was rising rapidly. His head was stretched out over the edge of the car; I could see his wild and frightened eyes. He was afraid to jump.

"Then I turned to the water. The head of Irene had risen above it; she was striking out bravely for the shore. She did not need my help. She is a grand woman! In a few moments we stood beside each other on the shore. I would have thrown myself into her arms; I would have embraced this dear one, now my own again: but she was so wet; I was so wet. We seized each other by the hands. It is impossible to say whether she wept or not, her face was so wet.

"Then by a sudden instinct we looked upward. The balloon was high above us, rising steadily. We could see the head of the tiger projecting from the car-now such a little head, but I knew that he was gazing at me. Then we heard a sound which came down from above. It was the tiger's roar, but it was such a little roar! I clasped more tightly the hand of my Irene; we did not speak, but gazed steadily upward at the balloon, which had reached a current of air which was carrying it across the country. The sun was now very hot; the gas was expanding; the balloon was rising higher and higher and higher.

"We stood holding each other's hands and gazing. At last there was but a little black spot in the sky; then it faded and shivered, and was gone. Side by side we moved away. We were very wet, but the sun was hot.

"Suddenly I spoke. I could not restrain my burning desire to look deep into the soul of Irene. I owed it to my love of her to know the extent of her love for me. Those words which she called down from the car, which might have been her last words on earth, what were they? I asked her.

"'I said,' she answered, 'that if you would pick up that rifle you threw out, and stand ready, I would jerk open the safety-valve. I would then take up my rifle, and when the car came down we would both shoot him. But you shook your head, and I said no more.'

"I did not answer, but in my heart I said: 'O woman! What art thou, and of what strange feelings art thou made! Thou hast the beauty of the flower and the intellect of the leaf. To let that awful black-and-yellow fiend descend to the earth! To call up to a cruel death and ask it to come down-stairs and meet you on the lowest step! Skies! How can the mind of man conceive of it?'

"And leaving the shores of the river, we toiled homeward over the dreary wastes."

The company were all much interested in this narrative-almost painfully interested. They said as much to the Frenchman, and he was pleased at the impression he had felt sure he would make, and which he always did make, when he told that story. They talked of hunts and wild beasts, but there were no comments upon the story itself. Each one had his or her own thought, however. The Master of the House thought: "What a clever woman!" The Mistress of the House thought: "Just like a Frenchman!" The Next Neighbor wished she had been in the balloon to pitch the tiger on him. The Daughter of the House was fascinated at the idea of the vicinity of the beautiful, ferocious tiger. And John Gayther thought, as he looked wistfully at the Daughter of the House: "I am glad he has a wife!"






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