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"See that he has everything he wants at once," said Sir William;
"there must be some one there." Then his voice turned in the
direction of Paul again, and he said laughingly, "Possess your soul
and appetite in patience for a moment, Mr. Bunker; you will be only
a course behind us. But we are lucky in having your company--even
at your own discomfort."

Still more bewildered, Paul turned to his invisible partner. "May
I ask where YOU are dining?"

"Certainly; at home in Curzon Street," returned the pretty voice.
"It was raining so, I did not go out."

"And--Lord Billington?" faltered Paul.

"Oh, he's in Scotland--at his own place."

"Then, in fact, nobody is dining here at all," said Paul desperately.

There was a slight pause, and then the voice responded, with a
touch of startled suggestion in it: "Good heavens, Mr. Bunker! Is
it possible you don't know we're dining by telephone?"

"By what?"

"Telephone. Yes. We're a telephonic dinner-party. We are dining
in our own houses; but, being all friends, we're switched on to
each other, and converse exactly as we would at table. It saves a
great trouble and expense, for any one of us can give the party,
and the poorest can equal the most extravagant. People who are
obliged to diet can partake of their own slops at home, and yet
mingle with the gourmets without awkwardness or the necessity of
apology. We are spared the spectacle, at least, of those who eat
and drink too much. We can switch off a bore at once. We can
retire when we are fatigued, without leaving a blank space before
the others. And all this without saying anything of the higher
spiritual and intellectual effect--freed from material grossness of
appetite and show--which the dinner party thus attains. But you
are surely joking! You, an American, and not know it! Why, it
comes from Boston. Haven't you read that book, 'Jumping a Century'?
It's by an American."

A strange illumination came upon Paul. Where had he heard
something like this before? But at the same moment his thoughts
were diverted by the material entrance of a footman, bearing a
silver salver with his dinner. It was part of his singular
experience that the visible entrance of this real, commonplace
mortal--the only one he had seen--in the midst of this voiceless
solitude was distinctly unreal, and had all the effect of an
apparition. He distrusted it and the dishes before him. But his
lively partner's voice was now addressing an unseen occupant of the
next chair. Had she got tired of his ignorance, or was it feminine
tact to enable him to eat something? He accepted the latter
hypothesis, and tried to eat. But he felt himself following the
fascinating voice in all the charm of its youthful and spiritual
inflections. Taking advantage of its momentary silence, he said
gently,--

"I confess my ignorance, and am willing to admit all you claim for
this wonderful invention. But do you think it compensates for the
loss of the individual person? Take my own case--if you will not
think me personal. I have never had the pleasure of seeing you; do
you believe that I am content with only that suggestion of your
personality which the satisfaction of hearing your voice affords
me?"

There was a pause, and then a very mischievous ring in the voice
that replied: "It certainly is a personal question, and it is
another blessing of this invention that you'll never know whether I
am blushing or not; but I forgive you, for I never before spoke to
any one I had never seen--and I suppose it's confusion. But do you
really think you would know me--the REAL one--any better? It is
the real person who thinks and speaks, not the outward semblance
that we see, which very often unfairly either attracts or repels
us? We can always SHOW ourselves at our best, but we must, at
last, reveal our true colors through our thoughts and speech.
Isn't it better to begin with the real thing first?"

"I hope, at least, to have the privilege of judging by myself,"
said Paul gallantly. "You will not be so cruel as not to let me
see you elsewhere, otherwise I shall feel as if I were in some
dream, and will certainly be opposed to your preference for
realities."

"I am not certain if the dream would not be more interesting to
you," said the voice laughingly. "But I think your hostess is
already saying 'good-by.' You know everybody goes at once at this
kind of party; the ladies don't retire first, and the gentlemen
join them afterwards. In another moment we'll ALL be switched off;
but Sir William wants me to tell you that his coachman will drive
you to your uncle's, unless you prefer to try and make yourself
comfortable for the night here. Good-by!"

The voices around him seemed to grow fainter, and then utterly
cease. The lights suddenly leaped up, went out, and left him in
complete darkness. He attempted to rise, but in doing so overset
the dishes before him, which slid to the floor. A cold air seemed
to blow across his feet. The "good-by" was still ringing in his
ears as he straightened himself to find he was in his railway
carriage, whose door had just been opened for a young lady who was
entering the compartment from a wayside station. "Good-by," she
repeated to the friend who was seeing her off. The Writer of
Stories hurriedly straightened himself, gathered up the magazines
and papers that had fallen from his lap, and glanced at the station
walls. The old illustrations glanced back at him! He looked at
his watch; he had been asleep just ten minutes!





Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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