The Flowering of the Strange Orchid, by H. G.
Bacillus and Other Incidents
The buying of orchids always has in it a certain speculative flavour.
You have before you the brown shrivelled lump of tissue, and for
the rest you must trust your judgment, or the auctioneer, or your
good-luck, as your taste may incline. The plant may be moribund or
dead, or it may be just a respectable purchase, fair value for your
money, or perhaps—for the thing has happened again and again—there
slowly unfolds before the delighted eyes of the happy purchaser, day
after day, some new variety, some novel richness, a strange twist
of the labellum, or some subtler colouration or unexpected mimicry.
Pride, beauty, and profit blossom together on one delicate green
spike, and, it may be, even immortality. For the new miracle of Nature
may stand in need of a new specific name, and what so convenient as
that of its discoverer? "Johnsmithia"! There have been worse names.
It was perhaps the hope of some such happy discovery that made
Winter-Wedderburn such a frequent attendant at these sales—that hope,
and also, maybe, the fact that he had nothing else of the slightest
interest to do in the world. He was a shy, lonely, rather ineffectual
man, provided with just enough income to keep off the spur of
necessity, and not enough nervous energy to make him seek any exacting
employments. He might have collected stamps or coins, or translated
Horace, or bound books, or invented new species of diatoms. But, as it
happened, he grew orchids, and had one ambitious little hothouse.
"I have a fancy," he said over his coffee, "that something is going to
happen to me to-day." He spoke—as he moved and thought—slowly.
"Oh, don't say that!" said his housekeeper—who was also his remote
cousin. For "something happening" was a euphemism that meant only one
thing to her.
"You misunderstand me. I mean nothing unpleasant … though what I do
mean I scarcely know.
"To-day," he continued, after a pause, "Peters' are going to sell a
batch of plants from the Andamans and the Indies. I shall go up and
see what they have. It may be I shall buy something good, unawares.
That may be it."
He passed his cup for his second cupful of coffee.
"Are these the things collected by that poor young fellow you told me
of the other day?" asked his cousin as she filled his cup.
"Yes," he said, and became meditative over a piece of toast.
"Nothing ever does happen to me," he remarked presently, beginning
to think aloud. "I wonder why? Things enough happen to other people.
There is Harvey. Only the other week; on Monday he picked up sixpence,
on Wednesday his chicks all had the staggers, on Friday his cousin
came home from Australia, and on Saturday he broke his ankle. What a
whirl of excitement!—compared to me."
"I think I would rather be without so much excitement," said his
housekeeper. "It can't be good for you."
"I suppose it's troublesome. Still … you see, nothing ever happens
to me. When I was a little boy I never had accidents. I never fell in
love as I grew up. Never married…. I wonder how it feels to have
something happen to you, something really remarkable.
"That orchid-collector was only thirty-six—twenty years younger than
myself—when he died. And he had been married twice and divorced once;
he had had malarial fever four times, and once he broke his thigh. He
killed a Malay once, and once he was wounded by a poisoned dart. And in
the end he was killed by jungle-leeches. It must have all been
very troublesome, but then it must have been very interesting, you
know—except, perhaps, the leeches."
"I am sure it was not good for him," said the lady, with conviction.
"Perhaps not." And then Wedderburn looked at his watch. "Twenty-three
minutes past eight. I am going up by the quarter to twelve train,
so that there is plenty of time. I think I shall wear my alpaca
jacket—it is quite warm enough—and my grey felt hat and brown shoes.
He glanced out of the window at the serene sky and sunlit garden, and
then nervously at his cousin's face.
"I think you had better take an umbrella if you are going to London,"
she said in a voice that admitted of no denial. "There's all between
here and the station coming back."
When he returned he was in a state of mild excitement. He had made a
purchase. It was rare that he could make up his mind quickly enough to
buy, but this time he had done so.
"There are Vandas," he said, "and a Dendrobe and some Palaeonophis."
He surveyed his purchases lovingly as he consumed his soup. They were
laid out on the spotless tablecloth before him, and he was telling his
cousin all about them as he slowly meandered through his dinner. It
was his custom to live all his visits to London over again in the
evening for her and his own entertainment.
"I knew something would happen to-day. And I have bought all these.
Some of them—some of them—I feel sure, do you know, that some of
them will be remarkable. I don't know how it is, but I feel just
as sure as if someone had told me that some of these will turn out
"That one"—he pointed to a shrivelled rhizome—"was not identified.
It may be a Palaeonophis—or it may not. It may be a new species,
or even a new genus. And it was the last that poor Batten ever
"I don't like the look of it," said his housekeeper. "It's such an
"To me it scarcely seems to have a shape."
"I don't like those things that stick out," said his housekeeper.
"It shall be put away in a pot to-morrow."
"It looks," said the housekeeper, "like a spider shamming dead."
Wedderburn smiled and surveyed the root with his head on one side. "It
is certainly not a pretty lump of stuff. But you can never judge of
these things from their dry appearance. It may turn out to be a very
beautiful orchid indeed. How busy I shall be to-morrow! I must see
to-night just exactly what to do with these things, and to-morrow I
shall set to work."
"They found poor Batten lying dead, or dying, in a mangrove swamp—I
forget which," he began again presently, "with one of these very
orchids crushed up under his body. He had been unwell for some days
with some kind of native fever, and I suppose he fainted. These
mangrove swamps are very unwholesome. Every drop of blood, they say,
was taken out of him by the jungle-leeches. It may be that very plant
that cost him his life to obtain."
"I think none the better of it for that."
"Men must work though women may weep," said Wedderburn with profound
"Fancy dying away from every comfort in a nasty swamp! Fancy being ill
of fever with nothing to take but chlorodyne and quinine—if men were
left to themselves they would live on chlorodyne and quinine—and no
one round you but horrible natives! They say the Andaman islanders are
most disgusting wretches—and, anyhow, they can scarcely make good
nurses, not having the necessary training. And just for people in
England to have orchids!"
"I don't suppose it was comfortable, but some men seem to enjoy that
kind of thing," said Wedderburn. "Anyhow, the natives of his party
were sufficiently civilised to take care of all his collection until
his colleague, who was an ornithologist, came back again from the
interior; though they could not tell the species of the orchid and had
let it wither. And it makes these things more interesting."
"It makes them disgusting. I should be afraid of some of the malaria
clinging to them. And just think, there has been a dead body lying
across that ugly thing! I never thought of that before. There! I
declare I cannot eat another mouthful of dinner."
"I will take them off the table if you like, and put them in the
window-seat. I can see them just as well there."
The next few days he was indeed singularly busy in his steamy little
hothouse, fussing about with charcoal, lumps of teak, moss, and all
the other mysteries of the orchid cultivator. He considered he was
having a wonderfully eventful time. In the evening he would talk about
these new orchids to his friends, and over and over again he reverted
to his expectation of something strange.
Several of the Vandas and the Dendrobium died under his care, but
presently the strange orchid began to show signs of life. He was
delighted and took his housekeeper right away from jam-making to see
it at once, directly he made the discovery.
"That is a bud," he said, "and presently there will be a lot of leaves
there, and those little things coming out here are aërial rootlets."
"They look to me like little white fingers poking out of the brown,"
said his housekeeper. "I don't like them."
"I don't know. They look like fingers trying to get at you. I can't
help my likes and dislikes."
"I don't know for certain, but I don't think there are any orchids I
know that have aërial rootlets quite like that. It may be my fancy, of
course. You see they are a little flattened at the ends."
"I don't like 'em," said his housekeeper, suddenly shivering and
turning away. "I know it's very silly of me—and I'm very sorry,
particularly as you like the thing so much. But I can't help thinking
of that corpse."
"But it may not be that particular plant. That was merely a guess of
His housekeeper shrugged her shoulders. "Anyhow I don't like it," she
Wedderburn felt a little hurt at her dislike to the plant. But that
did not prevent his talking to her about orchids generally, and this
orchid in particular, whenever he felt inclined.
"There are such queer things about orchids," he said one day;
"such possibilities of surprises. You know, Darwin studied their
fertilisation, and showed that the whole structure of an ordinary
orchid-flower was contrived in order that moths might carry the pollen
from plant to plant. Well, it seems that there are lots of orchids
known the flower of which cannot possibly be used for fertilisation in
that way. Some of the Cypripediums, for instance; there are no insects
known that can possibly fertilise them, and some of them have never be
found with seed."
"But how do they form new plants?"
"By runners and tubers, and that kind of outgrowth. That is easily
explained. The puzzle is, what are the flowers for?
"Very likely," he added, "my orchid may be something extraordinary
in that way. If so I shall study it. I have often thought of making
researches as Darwin did. But hitherto I have not found the time, or
something else has happened to prevent it. The leaves are beginning to
unfold now. I do wish you would come and see them!"
But she said that the orchid-house was so hot it gave her the
headache. She had seen the plant once again, and the aërial rootlets,
which were now some of them more than a foot long, had unfortunately
reminded her of tentacles reaching out after something; and they got
into her dreams, growing after her with incredible rapidity. So that
she had settled to her entire satisfaction that she would not see that
plant again, and Wedderburn had to admire its leaves alone. They were
of the ordinary broad form, and a deep glossy green, with splashes and
dots of deep red towards the base. He knew of no other leaves quite
like them. The plant was placed on a low bench near the thermometer,
and close by was a simple arrangement by which a tap dripped on the
hot-water pipes and kept the air steamy. And he spent his afternoons
now with some regularity meditating on the approaching flowering of
this strange plant.
And at last the great thing happened. Directly he entered the little
glass house he knew that the spike had burst out, although his great
Palaeonophis Lowii hid the corner where his new darling stood.
There was a new odour in the air, a rich, intensely sweet scent, that
overpowered every other in that crowded, steaming little greenhouse.
Directly he noticed this he hurried down to the strange orchid. And,
behold! the trailing green spikes bore now three great splashes of
blossom, from which this overpowering sweetness proceeded. He stopped
before them in an ecstasy of admiration.
The flowers were white, with streaks of golden orange upon the petals;
the heavy labellum was coiled into an intricate projection, and a
wonderful bluish purple mingled there with the gold. He could see at
once that the genus was altogether a new one. And the insufferable
scent! How hot the place was! The blossoms swam before his eyes.
He would see if the temperature was right. He made a step towards the
thermometer. Suddenly everything appeared unsteady. The bricks on the
floor were dancing up and down. Then the white blossoms, the green
leaves behind them, the whole greenhouse, seemed to sweep sideways,
and then in a curve upward.
* * * * *
At half-past four his cousin made the tea, according to their
invariable custom. But Wedderburn did not come in for his tea.
"He is worshipping that horrid orchid," she told herself, and waited
ten minutes. "His watch must have stopped. I will go and call him."
She went straight to the hothouse, and, opening the door, called his
name. There was no reply. She noticed that the air was very close, and
loaded with an intense perfume. Then she saw something lying on the
bricks between the hot-water pipes.
For a minute, perhaps, she stood motionless.
He was lying, face upward, at the foot of the strange orchid. The
tentacle-like aërial rootlets no longer swayed freely in the air, but
were crowded together, a tangle of grey ropes, and stretched tight
with their ends closely applied to his chin and neck and hands.
She did not understand. Then she saw from under one of the exultant
tentacles upon his cheek there trickled a little thread of blood.
With an inarticulate cry she ran towards him, and tried to pull him
away from the leech-like suckers. She snapped two of these tentacles,
and their sap dripped red.
Then the overpowering scent of the blossom began to make her head
reel. How they clung to him! She tore at the tough ropes, and he and
the white inflorescence swam about her. She felt she was fainting,
knew she must not. She left him and hastily opened the nearest door,
and, after she had panted for a moment in the fresh air, she had a
brilliant inspiration. She caught up a flower-pot and smashed in the
windows at the end of the green-house. Then she re-entered. She tugged
now with renewed strength at Wedderburn's motionless body, and brought
the strange orchid crashing to the floor. It still clung with the
grimmest tenacity to its victim. In a frenzy, she lugged it and him
into the open air.
Then she thought of tearing through the sucker rootlets one by one,
and in another minute she had released him and was dragging him away
from the horror.
He was white and bleeding from a dozen circular patches.
The odd-job man was coming up the garden, amazed at the smashing of
glass, and saw her emerge, hauling the inanimate body with red-stained
hands. For a moment he thought impossible things.
"Bring some water!" she cried, and her voice dispelled his fancies.
When, with unnatural alacrity, he returned with the water, he found
her weeping with excitement, and with Wedderburn's head upon her knee,
wiping the blood from his face.
"What's the matter?" said Wedderburn, opening his eyes feebly, and
closing them again at once.
"Go and tell Annie to come out here to me, and then go for Doctor
Haddon at once," she said to the odd-job man so soon as he brought the
water; and added, seeing he hesitated, "I will tell you all about it
when you come back."
Presently Wedderburn opened his eyes again, and, seeing that he was
troubled by the puzzle of his position, she explained to him, "You
fainted in the hothouse."
"And the orchid?"
"I will see to that," she said.
Wedderburn had lost a good deal of blood, but beyond that he had
suffered no very great injury. They gave him brandy mixed with some
pink extract of meat, and carried him upstairs to bed. His housekeeper
told her incredible story in fragments to Dr Haddon. "Come to the
orchid-house and see," she said.
The cold outer air was blowing in through the open door, and the
sickly perfume was almost dispelled. Most of the torn aërial rootlets
lay already withered amidst a number of dark stains upon the bricks.
The stem of the inflorescence was broken by the fall of the plant, and
the flowers were growing limp and brown at the edges of the petals.
The doctor stooped towards it, then saw that one of the aërial
rootlets still stirred feebly, and hesitated.
The next morning the strange orchid still lay there, black now and
putrescent. The door banged intermittently in the morning breeze, and
all the array of Wedderburn's orchids was shrivelled and prostrate.
But Wedderburn himself was bright and garrulous upstairs in the glory
of his strange adventure.