Telephone and Telaphib
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
OF all modern weapons of offense, the telephone is the most unfair, because, in the conflict that follows the call to action (‘Hello! Is this Suburban 4428?’) the party attacked has no adequate weapon of defense.’ The receiver transmits into the porches of the ear poisoned gas in the form, let us say, of an invitation to dine and play bridge — a poison more deadly than juice of cursed hebenon, because we have no antidote at hand to pour into the mouthpiece at our end. The only possible retaliation is the sharp swift stroke of a deadly lie. That such a lie is justified, I have — in my saner moments — no doubt; but the moment when I am called to the telephone never is a sane moment. I falter, I try to prevaricate, I decide to mix truth and falsehood — and I am lost.
As an aid to the retort courteous and untruthful, Cynthia has pinned on the wall, beside the telephone list, a ‘Telaphib List.’ of alibis and excuses; and in moments of great stress we both draw from some of the following suggestions: —
Aunt Sally coming on a visit.
Nephew just telephoned to ask if he can spend that night here — bringing a friend. (This last in case we are told to bring nephew along.)
Algernon’s class dinner.
Two people coming to play bridge that evening.
Old cousin of Algernon’s has died suddenly, and we think for a week it. would be more respectful to accept no invitations.
And then follows; —
For Special Emergencies Only
Aunt Sally seriously ill. May be summoned to her bedside any minute, so am not making any engagements ahead.
Algernon has been having queer dizzy spells. Doctor forbids — etc., etc.
Am threatened with nervous breakdown [from too much telephoning!]. Complete rest is ordered.
Both of us have been exposed to a kind of middle-aged mumps that is very contagious. Not right to others for us to go about.
I trust it will be understood that any criticisms in which telephobia leads me to indulge are not aimed at the legitimate use of this necessary evil, but only at those social holdups to which even the most obscure dwellers in the remote suburbs of ‘Society’ are liable.
As Cynthia and I sit by our cozy fireside, our home life is almost wrecked by the undesired presence of this invisible third. The Eternal Triangle in our case consists of ourselves and this wandering voice, which, although proceeding from different throats, always beats on our eardrums with the same metallic vibrations. The voice invariably selects either the sacred hour of dinner for its rude intrusions, or the digestive period immediately following the repast, when easy-chairs and congenial chat lend to conjugal companionship something of the glamour of romance.
Glowing with a sense of domestic felicity, we decide that for a week we shall not allow any outside engagement to disturb the pleasant routine of our evenings at home. Then the telephone rings. We both groan. My wife says, ‘You go. I ’ll go next time.’
After a tense interval, I hear my strained voice saying to the absent inquisitor, ‘Oh, that sounds perfectly delightful! I am very sure that I have nothing for that night; but perhaps I had better ask Cynthia — she keeps an engagement-book, and —and—will you just hold the line a moment?’
My wife’s face at this moment is a study. Under her solemn fillet. I see the scorn. She merely says, ‘Go on! You ’ve done it now. I ’m not going to get you out. of it. You ’ve told them you have no engagement, so, of course, if you haven’t, I haven’t! You are the worst liar I ever knew!’ (Which I realize is not the compliment it sounds.)
Again I hear my mechanical accents saying, ‘Cynthia tells me she has no engagement. We shall be delighted to come.’ Then I hang up the receiver and stagger back to my avenging angel, ashamed of my own cowardice, and in no condition for the marital skirmish that is bound to follow this ignominious surrender to the unseen enemy.
‘ If you would only let me do it!' says Lady Macbeth. ’When you refuse an invitation, you must act definitely and convincingly. ’T were well’t were done quickly when you are doing long-distance lying. You never kill with a good clean lie; you just wound with a wretched little trumped-up excuse that only lacerates. You use a dagger as if it were a teaspoon, and you were dipping it into ice cream. Really, Algernon, if you are too moral to — ’
The telephone bell puts an end to this painful arraignment of my virtues.
‘ Your turn,’ I announce laconically.
’Hello?’ I hear in tones of gentle firmness. Then, in a moment, comes the familiar, ‘No, it is not: you have the wrong number,’ followed by the irritated click of an angrily replaced receiver.
Another poultice of silence for ten blessed minutes heals, not only the blows of sound, but the slight mutual irritation caused by my clumsy failure to buckle on the armor of untruth.
I exclaim, ‘There ’s the telephone again! ’
‘You!’ says my wife briefly.
I go, and I return.
‘You!’ I announce triumphantly; and then I listen, with jaw dropping, to my astonishing wife, who has sometimes actually been criticized for oversincerity.
Of course I understand perfectly that the conversation I hear is really for my benefit, much more than for the ear six miles away. Cynthia is showing off. She is also giving me an object lesson. This is what I hear: —
‘Hello! Why, Grace dear, is that you? I haven’t seen you for an age!' (A pause! Then —) ‘Oh, my dear,that sounds too heavenly! We should simply love it, but it’s absolutely out of the question, because — ’ (An evident interruption occurs; then Cynthia continues.) ‘No, it would n’t do the least good to change the night; but it’s awfully sweet of you to suggest it! You see I expect Aunt Sally to spend the week with me, and you know I just have to give up everything while she’s here — and then—’ (Another pause)
‘ Oh, that’s too sweet of you to want Algernon alone! But I was just looking over his engagement-book (you know I have to keep his dates for him, he’s so stupid about such things), and if you can believe it, he has something every night for the next week!— What did you say?’ (A pause) ‘Oh no, my dear, he is n’t popular at all! I don’t mean interesting things, but just stupid sort of business meetings and college reunions and things that he simply longs to get out of and can’t. Oh, wait a minute — he’s just calling out, “Tell Grace that if I had mv way I ’d break every engagement in my calendar to dine with her and Ned!” How’s that for a compliment?’ (Pause) ‘No, he does n’t ever flatter, — really, — that’s the way he feels about you both. But I must n’t keep you any longer, my dear; do please ask us again some time, won’t you? After Aunt Sally has gone, and when Algernon is through reuniting. Goodbye. So disappointed!’
Cynthia returns to her scat and her sewing — a flush of victory on her brow.
‘Is Aunt Sally really coming?’ I ask briefly.
‘She’s awfully subject to bronchitis at this season,’ Cynthia replies evasively. ‘One can never be sure of an old person.’
Then, very gravely, I take out my engagement-book to confront her with the blank pages; but after glancing at the dates of the coming week, I acknowledge myself checkmated. I am aghast at discovering the following entries: —
Monday: Class dinner.
Tuesday: Reunion of Class.
Wednesday: College Endowment Fund dinner.
Thursday: Class dinner. And so on for the next ten days.
‘Cynthia,’ I remark severely, ‘if you were a man, I would say that your code is not that of a gentleman.’
‘Algernon,’ she replies sweetly, ‘if you were a woman, I should say that you were inconsistent. We have agreed that it is right to Tel and Tel’ (Cynthia’s code for Telephone and Telaphib) ‘but you don’t dare to live up to your convictions. Gracious! There’s that old bell again!’
Once more I take down the receiver, and listen to the voice of the sluggard who is too lazy to write her invitations.
‘This is Mary Borus speaking. We hope that you and your wife will run in to-morrow evening after the Mental Hygiene lecture, and have a Welsh rarebit.’
A sudden inspiration seizes me, and by way of answer I hear myself uttering those five words that so often beat as one upon the ear of the ‘wrong number.'
‘ Willyoupleaseexcuseus ? ’
I hang up the receiver with conscious pride, and am rewarded by Cynthia’s smile of commendation. ‘How rude you were, dear!’ she says admiringly. ‘At last you are really acquiring telephone technique! ’