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Sherlock Holmes The Silver Holmes Collection
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Urban Fantasy in Victorian England.
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Invasion of the Fractals.
The Fractal Universe.
The sword is mightier than the pen, but only when it's wielded by men. In God's right hand, the sword is righteousness, honor and courage and never strikes an innocent man down. For true power is not the power to destroy, but the power to lift up and heal. --- Merlin the White Dragonfire.
History is strewn with bodies of the weak and the strong; the high and the mighty; and the weak and the lost. History is much like death it only marks the passing of time, not the creation of it. True time lifts its locks of silver, its caress of gold, its touch of the moment and like the mighty serpent of Creation that winds through all worlds and places, it shelters all beneath its shadow. --- Boggle the Clown.
A better adjective for the old school building portable should have been the Barn, for it smelled more and more like that as the hot days continued to ply at our minds and bodies in the midst of an air conditioning disaster.
I could have let in a fractal breeze to cool off the building, but I was afraid of revealing my power here now because of the recent attack. Maybe Gerald was smarter than I had thought when he said I wasn't giving myself enough credit. He was actually telling me I was being stupid and arrogant...just like Patti...for ignoring the fact that what I did was having a ripple effect in time and space and in the Fractal Universe.
A new law was forming in the back of my mind. What goes up must come down, or in the Fractal Universe, what side steps in and out, will also open paths in and out.
I first became aware of this anomaly about three years ago, but had no name or description for it at the time.
It was shortly after I had performed my first side step into the Fractal Universe. I was so full of myself for the vision of reality I had unleashed and experienced I had ignored the shadow movements about me. True, they weren't exactly hobbling up to me, poking their prickly heads in my face and saying "boo!" but they were there on the edges of my consciousness. I just pretended it was just a side effect, a temporary thing, but something as major as damage to the sidelines between our universes.
I remember reading in the newspaper the next day about a local drug store, a Walgreen's I think, that had a break in, but had set off no alarms, and no cash had been taken, nor any merchandise disturbed, except for in the aisle of balloons. All the balloons were missing.
Only a freaking child would break into a ten million dollar store to steal balloons! I had thought at the time, laughed, then turned off my TV and gone to work, the incident bothering the back of my mind, but relegated to the dustbins of further insight somewhere in some kind of hoary future, cobwebbed with time.
But the two that Senator Murphy had sent to attack me, it turned out where not from him. The bodies of two men, who looked exactly like those two had been found several days later in the field outside the school, rotting there, crows having a time of their life pecking their flesh off. It was by accident they had discovered. A couple of the kids had tossed a Frisbee and it had overshot the back fence. They had climbed over to retrieve it and found the bodies.
They would have bragging rights for weeks about the discovery, but nightmares for much longer.
The FBI and Homeland Security both sent teams to investigate, and shortly after that they came to our school and began interrogating teachers and students. That was when the Tall Man pulled out his deck of cards and laid down a joker.
They vanished as quickly as their investigation had begun. The news media shut down and retractions were announced, saying it was all a hoax. Both boys woke up the next day with memories of the incident wiped from their minds, if not their dreams. There was nothing the Tall Man could do about that without possibly hurting them permanently.
"Chesterton, this is serious business." He told me over a box of doughnuts and coffee. I had been retrieved from school during my second period class to meet with him. Patti covered for me while I side stepped from there to here, where I presently sat.
"Tell me about it." I said between bites of a cinnamon roll and sips of coffee.
He nodded, as if I had just expounded the most profound words of all time, then set his half eaten chocolate doughnut down, wiped his hands, then touched the folder between us. It was labeled: INVASION. In very, very big letters. Bold and black.
He flipped it open.
Gerald Butler stood in the doorway of my room, searching it with his eyes.
"Before you go side stepping out of here in anger because we've been watching you, look at what's behind him."
"Mind Reader." I snapped at him, side stepping back into my chair just moments after slipping away. I took the photo in my hands and eyed it closely. I brought it closer to my eyes. It couldn't be. And then memories came flooding back. Memories that I had buried in the hoary cobwebbed depths of my mind for future reference. Well, the future was here and now.
I set it down, my face hot and flushed. "I hate people watching me! It makes me feel like Big Brother is alive and well and seated in my backyard."
"He is. But it's not him you got to worry about." He tapped the blurry forms behind Gerald. "The fact that he didn't even notice makes me even more nervous. Neither one of you spotted these things."
"Well, you wouldn't have either without this..."
"Camera. Nano camera. It's embedded in the ceiling of your room. A special spray paint that we can activate at any given time and can provide any angle we desire."
"Tech that advanced?"
"Watching my kids?"
"No. You, Chesterton."
"Although we have a great deal of insights into what you do, we still don't know how yet. We need to know how."
I sighed. I had let them in. My lighthearted soul had just got rung out and hung up to dry. If Patti had been there at that moment, she would have smacked me on the side of t he head and kissed me at the same time. At least that's my vision of what might occur. Probably not the reality. I don't want you to start thinking I'm a masochist, or she's sadistic. Quite the contrary. I am hard headed and stubborn at times, but usually for a good reason. She's just straightforward enough to see through my prima donna moments and quick to correct them. How lucky can a guy get?
"So how do we stop this?"
I gave him a surprised look. "You're the Tall Man. The guy beneath the President. Literally." And he was. This office was buried deep beneath the White House so the President had instant access to its resources at his disposal, as well as the safest place on the planet to bail out to, should such a thing become necessary.
Suddenly, my cinnamon roll was looking pretty bleak and tasteless. I felt like my favorite peak had somehow managed to bite my ass and feed it to me for breakfast.
He reached across the table and patted my hand. "It's not that bad, Chesterton."
"Yes. It is." I disagreed.
"Yes. You're right." He agreed, which just sent me deeper into the craphouse of my regrets.
I looked up. "We need friends in high places."
"We have them."
I brightened. "You do?"
He didn't reply. His eyes never left mine.
I boggled for a moment, and then recovered my senses. "Patti's gonna hate me."
This brings us back to my present plight, a portable school building that even a horse would be disgusted with and an angry mob of forty adolescents who yearned for happier times. I sent out for the tenth round of A & W frosted mugs and fries and when done, I side stepped them to the front door, and knocked on it.
Morris opened it, glanced around. "Mister K, no one's there."
"How about our drinks and fries, Morris?"
He looked down. "Uh, sure, they're here."
"Please bring them in."
He did so.
We spent the next ten minutes luxuriating in the greasy depths of salty potatoes and frosty mugs of root beer...not actually mugs, really just cartons heaped with shaved ice, but who's complaining?
Finally, the last bell of the day rang and the kids plowed out of the room, leaving cartons and containers littering the room. And surprises only Shondel and Morris remained.
Morris gave me a shy look. "I'd like to help, Mister K."
He gave Shondel a sweet smile. She gave him one back. Who could have seen this coming?
In ten minutes my room smelled like an angelic barn once more, and the two kids departed, each absorbed in the other's talk as they stepped outside and left.
I sat down behind my desk and considered the small miracle that had happened. Every once in awhile all the hard work actually pays off and a kid or two will rise above the herd mentality and become more than they can be. Real human beings. Likable and lovable. A teacher's only reward, besides the low paychecks and long, long sweaty hours is having a child or two actually get it. Actually understand there's more to life than "Me!" When that happens, it's a time to celebrate, kick up the heels and relax. But only for a few moments, because next we have to start filling out all the administrative paperwork, replying to all the parents... (Maybe two or three if we're lucky)...who want to help, and get prepared for the next day's round of Herculean labors.
It was at that zenith of expectations that my door opened unexpectedly and Gerald stepped inside. "So soon?"
"Always too soon and too late." He replied sadly, and then flung the door open.
Across the school grounds, which were becoming shrouded in shadow from the setting sun. It was late, almost seven. Wow! Time flies when you're having fun. But across that expanse of ground was rushing a horde of demonic fractals, horned and four legged, with mean looking teeth and eyeballs to match.
I stood up, and brushed my hands off.
"You sure know how to get a guy's attention."
He grinned. "Yeah. Just like a first date, ain't it?"
I gave him a shocked look. "Hey! Let's keep this strictly personal between us."
He laughed and I stepped outside with him, reaching into side space for the nearest weapon I kept there, a huge blade with smaller blades that roared like miniature buzz saws, because they were and he and I rushed the oncoming horde, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid rushing to their death.
Except I had no desire whatsoever to die here and now. Least not before I had another Sweetkins Fried Chicken Breast.
We both roared at the top of our lungs, ran like proud knights, which we were and began slicing and pounding into the horde.
Will Chesterton K and his new found friend, Gerald Butler be able to hack and slash and pound their way through the horde of fractal monsters? Will Chesterton get to finish his cinnamon role? Will Gerald still be alive to insult his new friend yet again?
Come back on November 20th to find out.
I am now reverting to posting just once a month now to free up time to do more publishing and writing. Thanks for your reads and visits so far. Looking forward to more of same in the future.
Meanwhile, side step into happiness!
Classic Science Fiction. The Girl in the Golden Atom by Ray Cummings. We've been out there. Now it's time to go into here...the worlds within! CHAPTER I: A UNIVERSE IN AN ATOM
THE GIRL IN THE GOLDEN ATOM
CHAPTER I: A UNIVERSE IN AN ATOM
Author, Ray Cummings
"Then you mean to say there is no such thing as the _smallest_ particle
of matter?" asked the Doctor.
"You can put it that way if you like," the Chemist replied. "In other
words, what I believe is that things can be infinitely small just as
well as they can be infinitely large. Astronomers tell us of the
immensity of space. I have tried to imagine space as finite. It is
impossible. How can you conceive the edge of space? Something must be
beyond--something or nothing, and even that would be more space,
"Gosh," said the Very Young Man, and lighted another cigarette.
The Chemist resumed, smiling a little. "Now, if it seems probable that
there is no limit to the immensity of space, why should we make its
smallness finite? How can you say that the atom cannot be divided? As a
matter of fact, it already has been. The most powerful microscope will
show you realms of smallness to which you can penetrate no other way.
Multiply that power a thousand times, or ten thousand times, and who
shall say what you will see?"
The Chemist paused, and looked at the intent little group around him.
He was a youngish man, with large features and horn-rimmed glasses, his
rough English-cut clothes hanging loosely over his broad, spare frame.
The Banker drained his glass and rang for the waiter.
"Very interesting," he remarked.
"Don't be an ass, George," said the Big Business Man. "Just because you
don't understand, doesn't mean there is no sense to it."
"What I don't get clearly"--began the Doctor.
"None of it's clear to me," said the Very Young Man.
The Doctor crossed under the light and took an easier chair. "You
intimated you had discovered something unusual in these realms of the
infinitely small," he suggested, sinking back luxuriously. "Will you
tell us about it?"
"Yes, if you like," said the Chemist, turning from one to the other. A
nod of assent followed his glance, as each settled himself more
"Well, gentlemen, when you say I have discovered something unusual in
another world--in the world of the infinitely small--you are right in a
way. I have seen something and lost it. You won't believe me probably,"
he glanced at the Banker an instant, "but that is not important. I am
going to tell you the facts, just as they happened."
The Big Business Man filled up the glasses all around, and the Chemist
"It was in 1910, this problem first came to interest me. I had never
gone in for microscopic work very much, but now I let it absorb all my
attention. I secured larger, more powerful instruments--I spent most of
my money," he smiled ruefully, "but never could I come to the end of the
space into which I was looking. Something was always hidden
beyond--something I could almost, but not quite, distinguish.
"Then I realized that I was on the wrong track. My instrument was not
merely of insufficient power, it was not one-thousandth the power I
"So I began to study the laws of optics and lenses. In 1913 I went
abroad, and with one of the most famous lens-makers of Europe I produced
a lens of an entirely different quality, a lens that I hoped would give
me what I wanted. So I returned here and fitted up my microscope that I
knew would prove vastly more powerful than any yet constructed.
"It was finally completed and set up in my laboratory, and one night I
went in alone to look through it for the first time. It was in the fall
of 1914, I remember, just after the first declaration of war.
"I can recall now my feelings at that moment. I was about to see into
another world, to behold what no man had ever looked on before. What
would I see? What new realms was I, first of all our human race, to
enter? With furiously beating heart, I sat down before the huge
instrument and adjusted the eyepiece.
"Then I glanced around for some object to examine. On my finger I had a
ring, my mother's wedding-ring, and I decided to use that. I have it
here." He took a plain gold band from his little finger and laid it on
"You will see a slight mark on the outside. That is the place into which
His friends crowded around the table and examined a scratch on one side
of the band.
"What did you see?" asked the Very Young Man eagerly.
"Gentlemen," resumed the Chemist, "what I saw staggered even my own
imagination. With trembling hands I put the ring in place, looking
directly down into that scratch. For a moment I saw nothing. I was like
a person coming suddenly out of the sunlight into a darkened room. I
knew there was something visible in my view, but my eyes did not seem
able to receive the impressions. I realize now they were not yet
adjusted to the new form of light. Gradually, as I looked, objects of
definite shape began to emerge from the blackness.
"Gentlemen, I want to make clear to you now--as clear as I can--the
peculiar aspect of everything that I saw under this microscope. I seemed
to be inside an immense cave. One side, near at hand, I could now make
out quite clearly. The walls were extraordinarily rough and indented,
with a peculiar phosphorescent light on the projections and blackness in
the hollows. I say phosphorescent light, for that is the nearest word I
can find to describe it--a curious radiation, quite different from the
reflected light to which we are accustomed.
"I said that the hollows inside of the cave were blackness. But not
blackness--the absence of light--as we know it. It was a blackness that
seemed also to radiate light, if you can imagine such a condition; a
blackness that seemed not empty, but merely withholding its contents
just beyond my vision.
"Except for a dim suggestion of roof over the cave, and its floor, I
could distinguish nothing. After a moment this floor became clearer. It
seemed to be--well, perhaps I might call it black marble--smooth,
glossy, yet somewhat translucent. In the foreground the floor was
apparently liquid. In no way did it differ in appearance from the solid
part, except that its surface seemed to be in motion.
"Another curious thing was the outlines of all the shapes in view. I
noticed that no outline held steady when I looked at it directly; it
seemed to quiver. You see something like it when looking at an object
through water--only, of course, there was no distortion. It was also
like looking at something with the radiation of heat between.
"Of the back and other side of the cave, I could see nothing, except in
one place, where a narrow effulgence of light drifted out into the
immensity of the distance behind.
"I do not know how long I sat looking at this scene; it may have been
several hours. Although I was obviously in a cave, I never felt shut
in--never got the impression of being in a narrow, confined space.
"On the contrary, after a time I seemed to feel the vast immensity of
the blackness before me. I think perhaps it may have been that path of
light stretching out into the distance. As I looked it seemed like the
reversed tail of a comet, or the dim glow of the Milky Way, and
penetrating to equally remote realms of space.
"Perhaps I fell asleep, or at least there was an interval of time during
which I was so absorbed in my own thoughts I was hardly conscious of the
scene before me.
"Then I became aware of a dim shape in the foreground--a shape merged
with the outlines surrounding it. And as I looked, it gradually assumed
form, and I saw it was the figure of a young girl, sitting beside the
liquid pool. Except for the same waviness of outline and phosphorescent
glow, she had quite the normal aspect of a human being of our own world.
She was beautiful, according to our own standards of beauty; her long
braided hair a glowing black, her face, delicate of feature and winsome
in expression. Her lips were a deep red, although I felt rather than saw
"She was dressed only in a short tunic of a substance I might describe
as gray opaque glass, and the pearly whiteness of her skin gleamed with
"She seemed to be singing, although I heard no sound. Once she bent over
the pool and plunged her hand into it, laughing gaily.
"Gentlemen, I cannot make you appreciate my emotions, when all at once I
remembered I was looking through a microscope. I had forgotten entirely
my situation, absorbed in the scene before me. And then, abruptly, a
great realization came upon me--the realization that everything I saw
was inside that ring. I was unnerved for the moment at the importance of
"When I looked again, after the few moments my eye took to become
accustomed to the new form of light, the scene showed itself as before,
except that the girl had gone.
"For over a week, each night at the same time I watched that cave. The
girl came always, and sat by the pool as I had first seen her. Once she
danced with the wild grace of a wood nymph, whirling in and out the
shadows, and falling at last in a little heap beside the pool.
"It was on the tenth night after I had first seen her that the accident
happened. I had been watching, I remember, an unusually long time before
she appeared, gliding out of the shadows. She seemed in a different
mood, pensive and sad, as she bent down over the pool, staring into it
intently. Suddenly there was a tremendous cracking sound, sharp as an
explosion, and I was thrown backward upon the floor.
"When I recovered consciousness--I must have struck my head on
something--I found the microscope in ruins. Upon examination I saw that
its larger lens had exploded--flown into fragments scattered around the
room. Why I was not killed I do not understand. The ring I picked up
from the floor; it was unharmed and unchanged.
"Can I make you understand how I felt at this loss? Because of the war
in Europe I knew I could never replace my lens--for many years, at any
rate. And then, gentlemen, came the most terrible feeling of all; I knew
at last that the scientific achievement I had made and lost counted for
little with me. It was the girl. I realized then that the only being I
ever could care for was living out her life with her world, and, indeed,
her whole universe, in an atom of that ring."
The Chemist stopped talking and looked from one to the other of the
tense faces of his companions.
"It's almost too big an idea to grasp," murmured the Doctor.
"What caused the explosion?" asked the Very Young Man.
"I do not know." The Chemist addressed his reply to the Doctor, as the
most understanding of the group. "I can appreciate, though, that through
that lens I was magnifying tremendously those peculiar light-radiations
that I have described. I believe the molecules of the lens were
shattered by them--I had exposed it longer to them that evening than any
of the others."
The Doctor nodded his comprehension of this theory.
Impressed in spite of himself, the Banker took another drink and leaned
forward in his chair. "Then you really think that there is a girl now
inside the gold of that ring?" he asked.
"He didn't say that necessarily," interrupted the Big Business Man.
"Yes, he did."
"As a matter of fact, I do believe that to be the case," said the
Chemist earnestly. "I believe that every particle of matter in our
universe contains within it an equally complex and complete a universe,
which to its inhabitants seems as large as ours. I think, also that the
whole realm of our interplanetary space, our solar system and all the
remote stars of the heavens are contained within the atom of some other
universe as gigantic to us as we are to the universe in that ring."
"Gosh!" said the Very Young Man.
"It doesn't make one feel very important in the scheme of things, does
it?" remarked the Big Business Man dryly.
The Chemist smiled. "The existence of no individual, no nation, no
world, nor any one universe is of the least importance."
"Then it would be possible," said the Doctor, "for this gigantic
universe that contains us in one of its atoms, to be itself contained
within the atom of another universe, still more gigantic, and so on."
"That is my theory," said the Chemist.
"And in each of the atoms of the rocks of that cave there may be other
worlds proportionately minute?"
"I can see no reason to doubt it."
"Well, there is no proof, anyway," said the Banker. "We might as well
"I intend to get proof," said the Chemist.
"Do you believe all these innumerable universes, both larger and smaller
than ours, are inhabited?" asked the Doctor.
"I should think probably most of them are. The existence of life, I
believe, is as fundamental as the existence of matter without life."
"How do you suppose that girl got in there?" asked the Very Young Man,
coming out of a brown study.
"What puzzled me," resumed the Chemist, ignoring the question, "is why
the girl should so resemble our own race. I have thought about it a good
deal, and I have reached the conclusion that the inhabitants of any
universe in the next smaller or larger plane to ours probably resemble
us fairly closely. That ring, you see, is in the same--shall we
say--environment as ourselves. The same forces control it that control
us. Now, if the ring had been created on Mars, for instance, I believe
that the universes within its atoms would be inhabited by beings like
the Martians--if Mars has any inhabitants. Of course, in planes beyond
those next to ours, either smaller or larger, changes would probably
occur, becoming greater as you go in or out from our own universe."
"Good Lord! It makes one dizzy to think of it," said the Big Business
"I wish I knew how that girl got in there," sighed the Very Young Man,
looking at the ring.
"She probably didn't," retorted the Doctor. "Very likely she was created
there, the same as you were here."
"I think that is probably so," said the Chemist. "And yet, sometimes I
am not at all sure. She was very human." The Very Young Man looked at
"How are you going to prove your theories?" asked the Banker, in his
most irritatingly practical way.
The Chemist picked up the ring and put it on his finger. "Gentlemen," he
said. "I have tried to tell you facts, not theories. What I saw through
that ultramicroscope was not an unproven theory, but a fact. My theories
you have brought out by your questions."
"You are quite right," said the Doctor; "but you did mention yourself
that you hoped to provide proof."
The Chemist hesitated a moment, then made his decision. "I will tell you
the rest," he said.
"After the destruction of the microscope, I was quite at a loss how to
proceed. I thought about the problem for many weeks. Finally I decided
to work along another altogether different line--a theory about which I
am surprised you have not already questioned me."
He paused, but no one spoke.
"I am hardly ready with proof to-night," he resumed after a moment.
"Will you all take dinner with me here at the club one week from
to-night?" He read affirmation in the glance of each.
"Good. That's settled," he said, rising. "At seven, then."
"But what was the theory you expected us to question you about?" asked
the Very Young Man.
The Chemist leaned on the back of his chair.
"The only solution I could see to the problem," he said slowly, "was to
find some way of making myself sufficiently small to be able to enter
that other universe. I have found such a way and one week from to-night,
gentlemen, with your assistance, I am going to enter the surface of that
ring at the point where it is scratched!"
For those who prefer their text on the screen. Here is the written version of the classic story.
Happy Holidays everyone!
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 coloration 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 today."
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."
"Today," 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. I suppose---"
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 rarely 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 today. 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 remarkable."
"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 collected."
"I don't like the look of it," said his housekeeper. "It`s such an ugly shape."
"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 tomorrow."
"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 tomorrow! I must see tonight just exactly what to do with these things, and tomorrow 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 gravity.
"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 civilized 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 windowseat. I can see them just as well there."
The next few days he was indeed singularly busy in his steamy little hot-house, 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 aerial 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 aerial 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 mine."
His housekeeper shrugged her shoulders. "Anyhow I don't like it," she said.
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 been 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 aerial 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 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 green house, 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 hotwater pipes.
For a minute, perhaps, she stood motionless.
He was lying, face upward, at the foot of the strange orchid. The tentacle-like aerial 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 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 greenhouse. 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 Dr. Haddon at once," she said to the odd-job man so soon as he had 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 aerial 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 aerial 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