The Crimson Blind

Fred Merrick White, The Crimson Blind
(New York: R. F. Fenno & Company, 1905)

Then his eye fell on the telephone and he jumped to his feet. ‘What a fool I am!’ he exclaimed. ‘If I had been plotting this business out as a story. I should have thought of that long ago…. No, I don’t want any number, at least, not in that way. Two nights ago I was called up by somebody from London who held the line for fully half an hour or so. I’ve—I’ve forgotten the address of my correspondent, but if you can ascertain the number … yes, I shall be here if you will ring me up when you have got it…. Thanks.’ Half an hour passed before the bell trilled again. David listened eagerly. At any rate, now he was going to know the number whence the mysterious message came […].
‘Give me that black book,’ he said. ‘Do you know how to work the telephone?’ ‘I daresay I could learn. It doesn’t look hard.’ ‘Well, that is an extension telephone on the table yonder worked in connection with the main instrument in the library. […] Turn that handle two or three times and put that receiver to your ear. When the Exchange answers tell them to put you on to O,017 Gerrard.’ Littimer obeyed mechanically, but though he rang and rang again no answer came. With a snarling curse Henson dragged himself out of bed and […] twirled the handle round passionately. […] Still no reply came. Henson […] kicked the instrument over and danced round it impotently. […] ‘[…] It’s absolutely imperative that I should send an important telephone message to London […], and here the machine has broken down and no chance of its being repaired for a day or two. Curse the telephone.’

The Crimson Blind is obsessed with the telephone as an instrument(ality), its extraordinary usefulness and its paradoxical and occasional uselessness. The plot routinely hinges on access to a telephone, the content of conversations, and being able to ‘reverse phone lookup’. It is also interesting to compare the relationship between the telephone and the telegraph here (65 references to the telephone and 30 to the telegraph) as a snapshot of technological shift; the characters, on a number of occasions, send telegrams to suggest that they will telephone when they have the answers that they need.

by Don Sillence