Despairing of horticulture indoors as out, I sometimes thought of orchids. I had seen much of them in their native homes, both East and West—enough to understand that their growth is governed by strict law. Other plants—roses and so forth—are always playing tricks. They must have this and that treatment at certain times, the nature of which could not be precisely described, even if gardening books were written by men used to carry all the points of a subject in their minds, and to express exactly what they mean. Experience alone, of rather a dirty and uninteresting class, will give the skill necessary for success. And then they commit villanies of ingratitude beyond explanation. I knew that orchids must be quite different. Each class demands certain conditions as a preliminary: if none of them can be provided, it is a waste of money to buy plants. But when the needful conditions are present, and the poor things, thus relieved of a ceaseless preoccupation, can attend to business, it follows like a mathematical demonstration that if you treat them in such and such a way, such and such results will assuredly ensue. I was not aware then that many defy the most patient analysis of cause and effect. That knowledge is familiar now; but it does not touch the argument. Those cases also are governed by rigid laws, which we do not yet understand.
Therefore I perceived or suspected, at an early date, that orchid culture is, as one may say, the natural province of an intelligent and enthusiastic amateur who has not the technical skill required for growing common plants. For it is brain-work—the other mechanical. But I shared the popular notion—which seems so very absurd now—that they are costly both to purchase and to keep: shared it so ingenuously that I never thought to ask myself how or why they could be more expensive, after the first outlay, than azaleas or gardenias. And meanwhile I was laboriously and impatiently gathering some comprehension of the ordinary plants. It was accident which broke the spell of ignorance. Visiting Stevens’ Auction Rooms one day to buy bulbs, I saw a Cattleya Mossiae, in bloom, which had not found a purchaser at the last orchid sale. A lucky impulse tempted me to ask the price. “Four shillings,” said the invaluable Charles. I could not believe it—there must be a mistake: as if Charles ever made a mistake in his life! When he repeated the price, however, I seized that precious Cattleya, slapped down the money, and fled with it along King Street, fearing pursuit. Since no one followed, and Messrs. Stevens did not write within the next few days reclaiming my treasure, I pondered the incident calmly. Perhaps they had been selling bankrupt stock, and perhaps they often do so. Presently I returned.
“Charles!” I said, “you sold me a Cattleya Mossiae the other day.”
Charles, in shirt-sleeves of course, was analyzing and summing up half a hundred loose sheets of figures, as calm and sure as a calculating machine. “I know I did, sir,” he replied, cheerfully.