Mrs. Hudson met me halfway on the doorstep of 221B Baker Street. Her expression told me all I needed to know, the sweet anxiety of her frown spoke unspeakable volumes. She jittered behind me now as I stepped into the hall.
“It is in, Doctor,” said she, her words heavy with portent.
“Oh dear me, is it, already?”
“Yes, Doctor, just this morning, barely an hour after you left. It is quite big and ugly. I am very glad that it belongs to you and not to me, for I should not know what to do with it.”
“I shall go and inspect it immediately, then. Thank you, Mrs. Hudson.”
I opened the door to our sitting-room and ventured inside. And there it was, installed at shoulder height upon the wall to my left. Holmes was hovering in front of it, a demonic expression of glee upon his face. He flapped at me excitedly.
“Watson, Watson! It is in!”
“Yes, Mrs. Hudson has informed me as much. Have you tried it already?”
Holmes beamed with pride, and touched the brand new Bell telephone with something akin to reverence. I had rarely seen him so moved.
“Yes, indeed. So far, in your absence, Watson, I have made 17 telephone calls. This is the most magical device ever invented, my dear fellow!”
I started in alarm. “Seventeen! I wasn’t aware that we had 17 acquaintances with telephones?”
“They were all to Inspector Lestrade at Scotland Yard. He was most pleased to hear from me, I assure you.”
I advanced towards the wooden contraption and eyed it suspiciously. It was large and cumbersome, with a crank handle attached to its right side, an ear-piece attached to a cord upon the left side, and a mouthpiece and series of bells protruding from the front. It was alien, threatening and disturbing. It stood to reason therefore that Holmes should adore it.
“How does it even work?” I asked, poking at one of the bells, which protested feebly with a dull ker-ting.
Holmes stepped forward.
“You lift the ear-piece, like so,” said he, and demonstrated for me. “Then you turn the handle here, quite briskly, a number of times, like this, and you are connected to a charmingly vacuous Operator.” He rotated the handle four or five times. “Ah, Operator! Good day to you. Could you connect me to Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, please? Thank you.” A pause. “That was the Operator, Watson. She is now contorting a myriad of plugs and leads and putting me through to our dear friend who is no doubt idling his afternoon away with a cup of tea and the racing pages. Ah, Lestrade! Good afternoon, it is me again. Yes. Yes. I know. Yes.” Holmes listened intently to the other end of the line. “Yes, Lestrade, I am aware that I have telephoned you several times already today, but I assumed that you would be anxious to hear from me. Yes. I know. Yes. Well, goodbye then.”
Holmes returned the ear-piece to its cradle, and looked at me.
“He was not so very pleased to hear from me on this occasion,” said he, baffled. “Perhaps I interrupted him in the middle of eating a biscuit? What do you think, Watson?”
“I think it more likely that his ears are still ringing from the previous 17 telephone calls, and the 18th was the one that just about did it for him,” I replied, chuckling. “Do you not know of anyone else who is in possession of a telephone, Holmes?”
“Well, there is Mycroft, of course, but who in their right mind would want to call him of their own volition? He is not even aware that we are now connected, Watson, so do please keep quiet on that front should you happen to meet with him in the near future.”
I rolled my eyes and moved across to the sofa, where I sat with a heavy sigh and commenced to pack my pipe. “Has anyone put a call through to us here, yet?” I asked. “Those bells on the front appear quite weak; I wonder that we should be able to hear them at all if they rang out.”
“Not yet,” replied Holmes, thoroughly dejected. “I am living in hopes that Lestrade will see fit to call me with fresh details of the new case he is working on. I cannot think why he is so unforthcoming with the information. Perhaps I should call him again to enquire.”
“No!” said I, waving at him to come sit across from me at the fireplace. “You should do nothing of the sort. Were you always so impetuous, even as a child?”
Holmes considered the question. “I have always held a healthy curiosity for all things novel or bizarre. I keep abreast of new inventions. They entertain me as I think how I myself might have improved upon the original patent.”
“Yes, I can imagine,” I replied dryly. “I suppose it has set us back a pretty penny, too. How much does a single call cost, I wonder?”
“I have no idea,” said Holmes, vaguely. “It is all done with plugs and wires, I do not know anything of the upkeep. However, the welcome cheque which we received very recently from Lord Saltmarsh over the unfortunate affair of the Missing Chandelier has covered the initial installation cost quite nicely.”
“Holmes!” I expostulated in agitation, “I do trust that we shall be able to afford all these calls that you are making. I wish that you would research the finer details of such an investment before steaming ahead in your usual pig-headed fashion.”
Holmes appeared hurt but undeterred. He gazed fondly across at the wooden behemoth, as if willing it to trumpet its bells and prove me wrong as to its worthlessness. The telephone remained stoically silent, malevolently mute.
“I am going to make another call,” Holmes decided, and sprang up once more. I groaned.
Holmes held up the ear-piece and pressed his lips to the mouth-piece.
“Watson, come here! I want to see you!” he chirruped into the trumpet.
“I beg your pardon, Holmes?!”
“Never mind,” he sighed. “Now let me put that call through to Lestrade, and let us see if he has quite finished that biscuit by now.”
I heard Holmes speak once more to the beleaguered Operator, and endured the brief pause while he was connected again with the even more beleaguered Inspector Lestrade, whose tea and racing pages had surely long ago been hurled against the office wall in a blind fury.
“Lestrade!” sang Holmes, “Tell me, my dear fellow, is your watch currently running? It is? Well, you had better go and catch it, then.” He hung up, shoulders shaking in silent mirth. He turned around to me.
“Good lord, Watson, but this thing is fun!” he exclaimed.
The contraption rang, then. The bells chimed out as though the seven torments of hell were jangling at their very foundations. Holmes started in shock, leapt away a short distance, then peered back over his shoulder at the continuing cacophony.
“Watson!” he hissed, “We have an incoming call! And it is really very loud!”
“Holmes, in the name of all that is holy, I beg you to answer it,” said I, covering my ears in pain. The bells echoed mercilessly throughout the small flat. I had no doubt that even Mrs. Hudson should be able to hear it, as deaf as she was, ensconced in her rooms on the ground floor.
Holmes tentatively picked up the receiver. “Yes?” he said, hesitantly. “Yes. I see. Well, yes, then. Goodbye.” He replaced the ear-piece.
“That was Lestrade,” explained my friend. “He informs me that -”
The telephone rang again. The bells shrieked, wailed and bellowed their exultation at being alive. Holmes flung himself upon the handset.
“Yes, yes?” he squeaked breathlessly, the other hand covering his spare ear. “Oh, it is you again, Lestrade. I see. Hmm, yes. Well, why did you call, then? These bells are infernal! Goodbye.”
Holmes backed away from the telephone with a look of growing mistrust.
“I believe this invention requires tweaking, Watson,” said he. “Perhaps it is more meant for cavernous ballrooms or halls, where the sound of the bells may carry forth more harmoniously?”
The bells chimed again. Holmes shrieked, and grabbed at the ear-piece.
“What now?! What? I beg your pardon? What? Yes! No! Go away!” He slammed down the set.
“I am going to strangle Lestrade,” he informed me. “This cannot go on. Either it stops, or I remove those bells forcibly and push them down his throat.”
“Well, the novelty certainly didn’t last very long,” I mused. “I recommend that both you and Lestrade call a cease-fire for the time being.”
Holmes sat down again. “You may be right,” he replied, wincing. “The Bell telephone does appear to be a double-edged pleasure.”
I continued, smiling wickedly, on a roll now. “It would be very pleasant if we had some way of actually knowing who was on the other end of the line before picking up the receiver. If it was a friend, let’s say, or an unwelcome caller. After all, Holmes, as you know, it is always helpful if one is able to tell-a-phoney.”
As Holmes tutted in disgust I quietly filed my pun away for future use; my pawky humour on this occasion quite unappreciated.