“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?”
“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?”