Read by Greg Page
Auguste Boutonnière was an aesthete; neurasthenic, possibly consumptive, and, worst of all, a novelist. Yet duty demanded that I interview him; whatever the nature of the sinister web that had ensnared London, he might hold the key to unravelling it.
Those who lived through 1899, that most reprehensible of years, will recall the fear that gripped the city. The terror began insidiously, or at least, as insidiously as a series of massive explosions can. The first few were noted by we newspapermen, but attributed to gas, electricity, or ill-advised adventures with French recipes dans la cuisine. It was not until the rate accelerated—such that the usual thunder of the traffic along Oxford Street, the chatter in the drinking dens of Soho, the angry haggling with the booksellers on the Charing Cross Road, were punctuated once, twice, and even thrice hourly by the boom and clatter of another residence being blown to smithereens—that people began to spot a pattern.
Who or what was behind it all? That was all that anyone talked about. A criminal gang, perhaps, laden with dynamite stolen from a quarry or a demolition site, blasting their way into people’s homes, unable to calibrate the strength of their explosions? Or worse, anarchists, terrorists bent upon the wholesale destruction of society. My office at the The Evening Closer, London’s premier newspaper,was inundated with letters and telegrams from groups claiming responsibility, none very convincingly.
Dear Sir, one began, I write to explain my philosophy. If modern science teaches us anything, it is that the Earth is rich with natural elements, the combination of which causes explosions. The advance of man has been accompanied by bigger and bigger bangs. It is clear to us that God’s purpose is best expressed in one word: BOOM. Might we one day discover that when He said Let there be light, dynamite was the substance with which he achieved this aim?… and so on and so forth. The lesser papers gave space to this sort of thing. I threw most of these messages into the small fire in my office’s grate: our proprietor being over-economical with the coal, they provided much-needed warmth.
Boutonnière’s letter had somehow floated to the top of the stack of correspondence on my desk that morning in March. My name and address were written on the front in neat block capitals: on the back was a wax seal in the shape of a two-hole button, the letter A in the left hole, the letter B in the right. I recognised his emblem immediately, and was sufficiently intrigued to open his missive first. Although nominally a writer, Boutonnière was noted more for his lack of productivity than for his work, his only published novel being a slim volume entitled The Temptation of Anthony. Following the sensation and scandal that accompanied its appearance in print five years before, he had taken to his bed, accepting large advances from several publishing houses but producing only a series of bon mots rather than the promised novels.
And now he had written to me. Why?
The note was typically terse. Boutonnière kept correspondence brief.
I know the secret of the explosions. Call upon me this afternoon, and I will unburden myself.
What else could I do but comply? If there was any chance that my paper could reveal the cause of these mysterious and terrifying events, I owed it to my readers to follow through. And it was not an entirely outlandish claim: although bed-ridden, Boutonnière was extremely well-connected. His letters might have been short, but he sent a great number of them to his friends and acquaintances. He had also had his bedchamber connected up to the outside world with the very latest electrical telegraphic and telephonic apparatus. Any twitching of the social network that connected all in this great city, from lords to bootboys, European princesses to domestic charladies, would sooner or later register in Boutonnière’s little room in the tall, narrow house in Berkeley Square.
I had never met the man; however, Boutonnière was not entirely a stranger to me. I had read his work, of course, having in my possession an unexpurgated copy of his novel that I had bought during a trip to Paris a few years before. And in my role as a journalist, I had received and replied to several of his missives over the years. He was that most curious of modern creatures, a man many more people felt they knew than could say they had met him. It was not altogether a surprise, therefore, that he should have chosen me to write his story, and my paper, the prestigious Closer, to publish it. I immediately set off for Berkeley Square: as I made my way down Fleet Street to the cab-stand, another explosion rocked the mid-day thrum of the living city. I quickened my pace; clearly, I could waste no time in giving the public the truth about this terrible scourge. If Boutonnière was as concise in speech as he was in prose, I should have the story written up, fact-checked, edited, and type-set in time for the evening edition.
The door of Boutonnière’s house was opened by a young maid of striking appearance. As a satirical touch on her master’s part, she wore the dark suit and white tie of a butler: I am sure that many would find this shocking, but I am a well-travelled man who has seen all that London has to offer, and was thus untroubled by it. In fact, the effect was quite bewitching.
“I am Alfred Popper of The Evening Closer,” I said, presenting my card. “Mr Boutonnière wishes to speak with me.”
“Very good, sir,” said Boutonnière’s maid—or I suppose I should say, butler. “He is expecting you.”
She turned and led me up a broad stairway. The carpet, of the best Turkish weave, was thick and luxuriant, masking completely the noise of our footfalls. Into the silence drifted a voice: one high, pure, strong, and, as far as I could make out, Italian. I recognised it as the dying words of Mimi in Puccini’s La bohème, who, as with the protagonist of Verdi’s La traviata, found fatal respiratory illness no impediment to one final aria. The sound was quite arresting, echoing around that vast stairwell: it was too clear to be emitted by a phonogram, and I presumed that Boutonnière was now spending his publishers’ money on private lunchtime recitals from leading sopranos. Imagine my amazement when, upon my reaching the door, the song halted and an unseen audience immediately burst into rapturous applause and cries of Bravo!
“Good heavens,” I said to the butler-maid. “Has he built an entire auditorium in there?”
She did not answer, but smiled, turned the handle, and opened the door to her master’s chamber. I hovered uncertainly on the threshold until she pressed a single finger, strong and hard as iron, into the small of my back, propelling me inward. The room was dimly-lit by a single red lantern: as my eyes adjusted, I saw that the walls were lined with bookshelves and tapestries; the curtains were closed; and at the centre, surrounded by a fug of tobacco-smoke, lying supine upon a chaise longue, joining in enthusiastically with the adulation of the crowd, was Auguste Boutonnière.
“Bravissima!” he cried. Drifts of smoke wreathed his clapping hands. He turned to face me. “Mr Popper? I am sorry you did not arrive sooner. You would have enjoyed it.” He reached out to the little side-table next to him, turned a switch on the box resting there, and abruptly as the spirits at Prospero’s feast, the noise of the crowd vanished into thin air.
“Mr Boutonnière—I—what was that? How was it done?”
“Open the curtains, pull up a chair, and I will tell you all.”
I did as he asked. In the grey afternoon light that limped through the windows, he seemed smaller, far diminished from the demonic music-lover I had seen in outline. He was a small, pale man, with neatly-trimmed moustaches and Cupid’s-bow lips.
“If you look at the corner of the ceiling,” he said, “you will learn the secret. You see that device there, yes? What does it remind you of?”
“Why,” I replied, “it is like an earpiece of an enormous telephone receiver.”
“And that, my dear Mr Popper, is precisely what it is. Controlled from this box, you see. I place a call to the Royal Opera House using my regular telephone—” he indicated the familiar candlestick-like apparatus resting next to the box on the side-table—“and then I flick the switch here—and there you have it. The matinee performance piped directly through from Covent Garden to my own sitting-room.”
“A great boon. And yet I wonder if we might press on to business? You wrote to me claiming to have discovered the secret of these ghastly explosions.”
Boutonnière’s eyes narrowed. “Ah, but Mr Popper, everything is connected—the telephone, me, you, and the recent outbreak of detonations.”
As if to punctuate his statement, yet another blast sounded in the distance. Boutonnière raised his eyebrows wearily, and pulled out a scrapbook from beneath the chaise longue. He opened it and handed it to me.
“Here you are. Do you remember writing this?”
How could I forget? It was the obituary of one Albert Knopf, a German immigrant and a pioneer of telephonic communication. For years he had worked in isolation, enduring poverty and ridicule: and he had not even lived to see the massive success that his company ultimately achieved. Over half the telephones in London were Knopf models, prized for their economy, reliability, and the high quality of their reception. Knopf had passed away half a decade ago in a laboratory fire—his scientific interests having extended to experimentation with highly flammable kinematograph film, with tragic results.
I said as much to Boutonnière, who pointed at his telephone. “This device was manufactured by the Knopf company. Nothing unusual: it is identical to all the other Knopf telephones out there in our great metropolis. Would you examine it, please?”
I picked up the contraption. “It is as you say. A standard Knopf.”
“Precisely. Did I mention that I knew Knopf personally?”
“You did not.”
“A strange man. A driven man, I would say.” Boutonnière sighed. “In the last few months of his life, he became terribly worried about the spread of the telephone. He thought it would destroy civility. Requiring neither the thoughtfulness of a letter nor the tact of a face-to-face confrontation, he feared that the telephone would lead to an uncontrollable explosion in hostility: anonymous and abusive calls, for example. He was right, of course: anyone in the public eye will tell you that. I receive some half-dozen malicious communications a day.”
“As do I!” I exclaimed. “And in anticipation of this, Knopf turned against his own invention?” Here was a story that was worth the trip, whether or not the matter of the explosions was cleared up. Perhaps sensing my excitement, Boutonnière held up his hand in the manner of a conductor urging his orchestra to play largo.
“Not quite. He modified it: but his work was incomplete at the time of his death. Look again at the telephone: see those two buttons on the base.”
“Button A and Button B,” I said. “I am so familiar with them that I hardly notice them. Though I have never learned their purpose.”
“As I said, Knopf left unfinished business. He had an idea for civilising the telephone. There were two mechanisms. His first choice was Button A. When pressed, this would allow one to see the face of the person at the other end of the line—thus reminding the speakers that they were addressing real, living human beings.”
“Hence his fascination with the kinematograph.”
“Quite so. Alas, he never completed his work on Button A. After Knopf’s death, his successors, who did not understand his peculiar genius, produced his telephones to his exact specifications, without really comprehending what they were making. It took them a few years, but they managed it. Right down to the smallest detail.”
“Including Button B?”
“Now we come to the point,” said Boutonnière, darkly. “Button B, Mr Popper, is fully functional.”
“Fully functional?” I gasped. “Then, sir, one question remains. What is its function?”
“Quite simple, Mr Popper. All Knopf telephones are fitted with this property: upon pressing Button B, the telephone at the other end of the line, and hence the person delivering insults via that line, immediately explodes in a lightning-ball of death.”
“Good God. It’s monstrous. It’s terrible. It’s grotesque.”
“It’s effective.” Boutonnière interjected. “Quite effective.”
“You’ve used it?”
“Only once. Knopf told me all about Button B: I didn’t know if he was being facetious or not. And then he passed away, without leaving any notes on the subject. So there was only one way to find out. One day I received a particularly foul anonymous call from a man saying—well, you might guess. Before I knew it, I had pressed Button B.”
“As far as I can tell, it proved quite effective. The next day’s news reports of an unexplained explosion gave me a clue as to the caller’s identity. Who would have believed that a man of the cloth knew such language?”
“This—thing,” I stammered, “is—is a public hazard. I will publish this very day. I will let the world know all about it.”
“It is a relief, Mr Popper, to have this bitter cup, this frightful dilemma taken from me.”
I paused and thought for a second. “What do you mean by this frightful dilemma?”
“It is quite simple. There are two possibilities if you publish. The first is wholesale war and destruction via the telephone network. Tit for tat, escalating to massive carnage and the ultimate abandonment of telephonic devices for good.” He inhaled from his cigarette. “In which case, I shall miss the opera.”
“And the second?”
“Everyone becomes a great deal more polite. The world might turn terribly dull. But, now that you have the knowledge, the choice, Mr Popper, is yours.”
The choice was mine. I returned to my office at the Closer, and turned those words over and over in my head. What should I do? Button B was behind a swathe of explosions, some set off intentionally by those who had heard rumours of its awful power, others undoubtedly accidental. Would the dissemination of the secret of Button B destroy civilisation, or save it?
As I dithered, the press deadline getting closer and closer, the Knopf telephone on my desk jangle-growled. I picked it up and took the call. The voice at the other end was muffled, as if the man spoke through a handkerchief.
“Is this Mr Popper, the newspaperman?” he asked. I replied in the affirmative. “Then, sir,” he continued, “I will deliver a piece of my mind, Mr Sewer-Rat, Mr Gong-Farmer, Mr Muck-Snipe—”
My anonymous caller continued in this vein for some minutes with no sign of flagging. Anger rose in my breast, and I made to break the connection; but then I reconsidered. I kept a firm hold of the earpiece with my right hand, while my left index finger strayed down to the base of my telephone, where it came to rest, lightly, upon Button B.
(c) Niall Boyce
Aged six Greg Page was cast as Joseph in his infant school nativity. Somebody put a tea towel on his head and he became someone else. He hasn't been himself since. He can be contacted through roseberymanagement.com and has no idea what he's done with his keys.