The impetus toward discovery is a key feature of human nature, and it has spawned many a great invention and many a new and innovative usage of older inventions. Without those first tentative steps from the depths of the cave and into a new world of perhaps questionable provenance, where would humankind be now? Still in what is somewhat inaccurately known as the Stone Age. Nevertheless, as one would say of a secondary computer program, “concurrently running” is the conservative and opposite function of drawing back and using fear of difference as a guide to behavior, and each of these two impulses has its place in guiding human behavior; each is appropriate and necessary for human survival in a world which at times is placid and forgiving, at times inimical and hostile. As you will see, one without the other can be downright dangerous and spooky, in this Halloween celebration of one of the lesser-known tales of H. G. Wells, “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid.”
T he principle of discovery and the delight one may take in it are articulated in the first paragraph of the story, written at a time when some parts of the globe were still largely foreign and shrouded in mystery: “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 just be 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 coloration or unexpeccted mimicry. Pride, beauty, and profit blossom together on one delicate green spike, and, as 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.” This is the elevated perspective of Winter-Wedderburn, 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 employment.” This is his hobby, his main enthusiasm, his love.
Speaking on the other side of the question is his housekeeper, who is also a distant female cousin. Every time he enthuses about orchids or discoverers of orchids who have risked life and limb in jungles and swamps to search for the strange blooms, she promptly puts him down. And every time he longs for something new and different to happen in his life, she applies the breaks of reason, and assures him that such thoughts are perilous, controversial, and undesirable. He doesn’t listen, however, but keeps wishing for an eventful life, totally opposed to the efforts he actually puts forth to get one: “‘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.'” His housekeeper, feeling perhaps that he is heading for disaster (as in fact he is, by wishing for a life which is basically opposed in action, even if whimsically, to his own), responds: “‘I think I would rather be without so much excitement….It can’t be good for you.'”
He continues, without hearing her caution, to mull over the even more adventurous life, recently ended, of an orchid collector: “‘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 been all very troublesome, but then it must have been very interesting, you know–except, perhaps, the leeches.” The housekeeper, however, also sticks to her convervational guns: “‘I am sure it was not good for him….'” He prepares to go to another orchid sale, she, once again protectively, makes sure he has his umbrella, and he heads straight for the adventure he has been longing to have. As this story among many shows, the old adage “Be careful what you ask the gods for, for you shall surely receive it,” is spot on the money.
He comes back with a selection of orchids of various kinds, some of which are recognizable and one of which is not identified. He is very excited by it (it is described as “a shrivelled rhizome),” but his housekeeper in immediate answer takes what seems like an unreasonable dislike to it. “‘I don’t like the look of it….It’s such an ugly shape….I don’t like those things that stick out….It looks…like a spider shamming dead.'”
He addresses her concern by answering with something which is not, in fact, any further recommendation to her, but to him and his perspective: “‘They found poor Batten lying dead, or dying, in a mangrove swamp–I forget which…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’ [says the housekeeper].'” Remarks this ludicrous little Walter Mitty-ish hero, “‘Men must work though women may weep,'” thus partaking in the glory of one of his own supposed role models. But he is in for more than he bargained for.
As the orchid grows and develops, Wedderburn becomes more and more protective of it, adjusting everything in his small hothouse to suit it. The housekeeper maintains her prejudice, however, and the aerial rootlets, reaching forth like so many fingers, do not increase her confidence in it. She refuses to go to the orchid-house until the day when Wedderburn is extremely late for tea, given his usual punctual habits. This is the same day when he first notices the “new odour in the air, a rich, intensely sweet scent,” and sees to his delighted surprise that the orchid has blossomed. “…[B]ehold, 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.”
When the housekeeper finally reaches the hothouse, an eerie sight greets her: “He was lying, face upward, at the foot of the strange orchid. The tentacle-like aërial rootlets…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.” At first, she approaches and tries to tear the tentacles off, but the scent of the orchid begins to overpower her as well, so she masters her main force and drags both man and orchid with a crash into the open air. There she is able to tear away the rootlets, where she can see that he is “white and bleeding from a dozen circular patches.” She calls the odd-job man, and Annie, the housemaid, and sends for Doctor Haddon. Wedderburn’s life is saved, and the others go to the orchid house later and see that the odd orchid is in a stage of decay, though when the doctor steps too near, one of the aerial roots still stirs upward briefly.
The next day, the adventure is over, but even though the housekeeper’s warnings have been supported and verified by events, Wedderburn is unrepentant. “Wedderburn himself was bright and garrulous…in the glory of his strange adventure.” So, the next time you wish your life were more eventful, or envy even slightly the busy, bold, bustling life of your favorite hero or heroine, reflect that there is a reason why such people exist and a reason why you exist as you do, not in the forefront, but safely in the rearguard, or the main body. For, such people’s stories are meant to inspire you, perhaps, to continue forth with your own adventure, while reassuring you that great things are possible. And also odd and eerie–Happy Halloween!