Invisible Censor


25. Telegrams

In my simple world a cablegram is so rare that I should treasure the mere envelope. I should not be likely to resurrect it. It would be buried in a bureau, like a political badge or a cigar-cutter-but there is a silly magpie in every man, and a cable I would preserve. To discuss cablegrams or even cut-rate wireless, however, would be an affectation. These are the orchids of communication. It is the ordinary telegram I sing.

There was a magnificence about a quick communication in the days before the Western Union. Horsemen went galloping roughshod through scattering villages. It was quite in order for a panting messenger to rush in, make his special delivery, and drop dead. This has ceased to be his custom. In Mr. Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class there is one omission. He neglected to deal with that great adept in leisure, the messenger-boy. "Messenger-boy" is a misnomer. He is either a puling infant or a tough, exceedingly truculent little ogre of uncertain age and habit. His life is consecrated. He cares for nothing except to disprove the axiom that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. Foreseeing this cult of the messenger service, the designers of the modern American city abandoned all considerations of beauty, mystery, and suggestion in an heroic effort to circumvent the boy in blue. But the boy in blue cannot be beaten. By what art he is selected I know not. Whether he is attributable to environment or heredity I dare not guess. But with a possible inferiority to his rival, the coat-room boy, and, of course, nature's paradox the crab, he is supreme.

It is not a telegram in its last stages that has magic. Much better for the purposes of drama to have Cleopatra receive a breathless minion, not a laconic imp with a receipt to be signed. Yet a telegram has magic. If you are hardened you do not register. It is the fresh who have the thrill. But no one is totally superior to telegrams. Be you ever so inured, there is one telegram, the telegram, which will find your core.

Sometimes at a hotel-desk I stand aside while an important person, usually a man but occasionally a woman, gets a handful of mail without any sign of curiosity, and goes to the elevator without even sorting out the wires. Such persons are marked. They are in public life. It is pardonable. There must be public men and public women. I should not ask any one to give up his career for the peculiar ecstasies of the telegram. But no one can deny that these persons have parted with an essence of their being. What if I find a solitary notice? "It is under your door." I bolt for the elevator, thrilled, alive.

It may be suggested that my over-laden predecessors are not in public life; that they are very distinguished, very wealthy personages, receiving private advices as to their stocks, their spouses, their children, their wine-bin, their plumbing, or any other of their responsibilities, accessories, possessions. With every deference I answer that you are mistaken. Unless their riches are in a stocking, these are the custodians of tangible goods and chattels. Their title may be secure, but not their peace of mind. Whatever they wish, they are obliged to administrate. Whoever their attorney, the law of gravitation keeps pulling, pulling at their chandeliers. And so in some degree they are connected with, open to, shared by, innumerable people. Without necessarily being popular, they are in the center of populace. They have to meet, if only to repel, demands. I do not blame them for thus being public characters. It is often against their desires. But being called upon to convert a part of their souls into a reception-room, a place where people can be decently bowed out as well as in, it follows that they give up some of their ecstatic privacy in order to retain the rest. This I do not decry. For certain good and valuable considerations one might be induced to barter some of one's own choice stock of privacy, but for myself I should insist on retaining enough to keep up my interest in telegrams. To be so beset by Things as to be dogged by urgent brokers and punctilious butlers, no.

"There's a telegram upstairs for you, sir." "A telegram? How long has it been here?" "It came about half an hour ago." "Ah, thank you.... No, never mind, I'm going upstairs." What may not this sort of banality precede? Perhaps another banality, in ink. But not always. A telegram is an arrow that is aimed to fly straight and drive deep. Whether from friend or rival, whether verdict or appeal, it may lodge where the heart is, and stay. From an iron-nerved ticker the message has come, singing enigmatically across the country. But there is a path that leaps out of the dingy office to countless court-rooms, business buildings, homes, hospitals. That office is truly a ganglion from which piercing nerve-fibers curve into the last crevices of human lives. When you enter it to send a telegram it may depress you. You submit your confidence across a public counter. But what does it matter to a creature glazed by routine? He enumerates your words backwards, contemptuous of their meaning. To him a word is not a bullet-just an inert little lump of lead.

Some messages come with a force not realizable. Tragedy dawns slowly. The mind envisages, not apprehending. And then, for all the customary world outside, one is penned in one's trouble alone. One remembers those sailors who were imprisoned in a vessel on fire in the Hudson. Cut off from escape, red-hot iron plates between them and the assuaging waters on every side, they could see the free, could cry out to them, could almost touch hands. But they had met their fate. It is strange that by a slip of paper one may meet one's own. There are countries to-day where the very word telegram must threaten like a poisoned spear. And such wounds as are inflicted in curt official words time is itself often powerless to heal. As some see it, dread in suspense is worse than dreadful certainty. But there are shocks which are irreparable. It is cruel to break those shocks, crueler to deliver them.

All urgency is not ominous. If, like a religion, the telegram attends on death, it attends no less eagerly on love and birth. "A boy arrived this morning. Father and child doing well"-this is more frequently the tenor of the wire. And the wire may be the rapier of comedy. Do you remember Bernard Shaw's rebuff to Lady Randolph Churchill for asking him to dinner? He had the vegetarian view of eating his "fellow-creatures." He chided her for inviting a person of "my well-known habits." "Know nothing of your habits," came the blithe retort, "hope they're better than your manners." The art of the telegram is threatened. Once we struggled to put our all in ten words-simple, at least, if not sensuous and passionate. Now the day-letter and night-letter lead us into garrulity. No transition from Greek to Byzantine could be worse than this. We should resist it. The time will doubtless come when our descendants will recall us as austere and frugal in our use of the telegram. But we should preserve this sign of our Spartan manhood. Let us defer the softness and effeminacy of long, cheap telegrams. Let us remain primitive, virginal, terse.