Calloway’s Code

by O. Henry

The New York En­ter­prise sent H. B. Cal­loway as spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent to the Russo-Japan­ese-Portsmouth war.

For two months Cal­loway hung about Yoko­hama and Tokio, shak­ing dice with the other cor­re­spon­dents for drinks of ‘rick­shaws—oh, no, that’s some­thing to ride in; any­how, he wasn’t earn­ing the salary that his paper was pay­ing him. But that was not Cal­loway’s fault. The lit­tle brown men who held the strings of Fate be­tween their fin­gers were not ready for the read­ers of the En­ter­prise to sea­son their break­fast bacon and eggs with the bat­tles of the de­scen­dants of the gods.

But soon the col­umn of cor­re­spon­dents that were to go out with the First Army tight­ened their field-glass belts and went down to the Yalu with Kuroki. Cal­loway was one of these.

Now, this is no his­tory of the bat­tle of the Yalu River. That has been told in de­tail by the cor­re­spon­dents who gazed at the shrap­nel smoke rings from a dis­tance of three miles. But, for jus­tice’s sake, let it be un­der­stood that the Japan­ese com­man­der pro­hib­ited a nearer view.

Cal­loway’s feat was ac­com­plished be­fore the bat­tle. What he did was to fur­nish the En­ter­prise with the biggest beat of the war. That paper pub­lished ex­clu­sively and in de­tail the news of the at­tack on the lines of the Russ­ian Gen­eral on the same day that it was made. No other paper printed a word about it for two days af­ter­ward, ex­cept a Lon­don paper, whose ac­count was ab­solutely in­cor­rect and un­true.

Cal­loway did this in face of the fact that Gen­eral Kuroki was mak­ing his moves and lay­ing his plans with the pro­found­est se­crecy as far as the world out­side his camps was con­cerned. The cor­re­spon­dents were for­bid­den to send out any news what­ever of his plans; and every mes­sage that was al­lowed on the wires was cen­sored with rigid sever­ity.

The cor­re­spon­dent for the Lon­don paper handed in a ca­ble­gram de­scrib­ing Kuroki’s plans; but as it was wrong from be­gin­ning to end the cen­sor grinned and let it go through.

So, there they were—Kuroki on one side of the Yalu with forty-two thou­sand in­fantry, five thou­sand cav­alry, and one hun­dred and twenty-four guns. On the other side, Zas­sulitch waited for him with only twenty-three thou­sand men, and with a long stretch of river to guard. And Cal­loway had got hold of some im­por­tant in­side in­for­ma­tion that he knew would bring the En­ter­prise staff around a ca­ble­gram as thick as flies around a Park Row lemon­ade stand. If he could only get that mes­sage past the cen­sor—the new cen­sor who had ar­rived and taken his post that day!

Cal­loway did the ob­vi­ously proper thing. He lit his pipe and sat down on a gun car­riage to think it over. And there we must leave him; for the rest of the story be­longs to Vesey, a six­teen-dol­lar-a-week re­porter on the En­ter­prise.

Cal­loway’s ca­ble­gram was handed to the man­ag­ing ed­i­tor at four o’clock in the af­ter­noon. He read it three times; and then drew a pocket mir­ror from a pi­geon-hole in his desk, and looked at his re­flec­tion care­fully. Then he went over to the desk of Boyd, his as­sis­tant (he usu­ally called Boyd when he wanted him), and laid the ca­ble­gram be­fore him.

“It’s from Cal­loway,” he said. “See what you make of it.”

The mes­sage was dated at Wi-ju, and these were the words of it:

Fore­gone pre­con­certed rash witch­ing goes muf­fled ru­mour mine dark silent un­for­tu­nate rich­mond ex­ist­ing great hotly brute se­lect mooted par­lous beg­gars ye angel in­con­tro­vert­ible.

Boyd read it twice.

“It’s ei­ther a ci­pher or a sun­stroke,” said he.

“Ever hear of any­thing like a code in the of­fice—a se­cret code?” asked the m. e., who had held his desk for only two years. Man­ag­ing ed­i­tors come and go.

“None ex­cept the ver­nac­u­lar that the lady spe­cials write in,” said Boyd. “Couldn’t be an acros­tic, could it?”

“I thought of that,” said the m. e., “but the be­gin­ning let­ters con­tain only four vow­els. It must be a code of some sort.”

“Try em in groups,” sug­gested Boyd. “Let’s see—’Rash witch­ing goes’—not with me it doesn’t. ‘Muf­fled ru­mour mine’—must have an un­der­ground wire. ‘Dark silent un­for­tu­nate rich­mond’—no rea­son why he should knock that town so hard. ‘Ex­ist­ing great hotly’—no it doesn’t pan out. I’ll call Scott.”

The city ed­i­tor came in a hurry, and tried his luck. A city ed­i­tor must know some­thing about every­thing; so Scott knew a lit­tle about ci­pher-writ­ing.

“It may be what is called an in­verted al­pha­bet ci­pher,” said he. “I’ll try that. ‘R’ seems to be the of­ten­est used ini­tial let­ter, with the ex­cep­tion of ‘m.’ As­sum­ing ‘r’ to mean ‘e’, the most fre­quently used vowel, we trans­pose the let­ters—so.”

Scott worked rapidly with his pen­cil for two min­utes; and then showed the first word ac­cord­ing to his read­ing—the word “Sce­jtzez.”

“Great!” cried Boyd. “It’s a cha­rade. My first is a Russ­ian gen­eral. Go on, Scott.”

“No, that won’t work,” said the city ed­i­tor. “It’s un­doubt­edly a code. It’s im­pos­si­ble to read it with­out the key. Has the of­fice ever used a ci­pher code?”

“Just what I was ask­ing,” said the m.e. “Hus­tle every­body up that ought to know. We must get at it some way. Cal­loway has ev­i­dently got hold of some­thing big, and the cen­sor has put the screws on, or he wouldn’t have ca­bled in a lot of chop suey like this.”

Through­out the of­fice of the En­ter­prise a drag­net was sent, haul­ing in such mem­bers of the staff as would be likely to know of a code, past or pre­sent, by rea­son of their wis­dom, in­for­ma­tion, nat­ural in­tel­li­gence, or length of servi­tude. They got to­gether in a group in the city room, with the m. e. in the cen­tre. No one had heard of a code. All began to ex­plain to the head in­ves­ti­ga­tor that news­pa­pers never use a code, any­how—that is, a ci­pher code. Of course the As­so­ci­ated Press stuff is a sort of code—an ab­bre­vi­a­tion, rather—but—

The m. e. knew all that, and said so. He asked each man how long he had worked on the paper. Not one of them had drawn pay from an En­ter­prise en­ve­lope for longer than six years. Cal­loway had been on the paper twelve years.

“Try old Hef­fel­bauer,” said the m. e. “He was here when Park Row was a potato patch.”

Hef­fel­bauer was an in­sti­tu­tion. He was half jan­i­tor, half handy-man about the of­fice, and half watch­man—thus be­com­ing the peer of thir­teen and one-half tai­lors. Sent for, he came, ra­di­at­ing his na­tion­al­ity.

“Hef­fel­bauer,” said the m. e., “did you ever hear of a code be­long­ing to the of­fice a long time ago—a pri­vate code? You know what a code is, don’t you?”

“Yah,” said Hef­fel­bauer. “Sure I know vat a code is. Yah, apout dwelf or fif­teen year ago der of­fice had a code. Der re­borters in der city-room haf it here.”

“Ah!” said the m. e. “We’re get­ting on the trail now. Where was it kept, Hef­fel­bauer? What do you know about it?”

“Somed­imes,” said the re­tainer, “dey keep it in der lit­tle room be­hind der li­brary room.”

“Can you find it?” asked the m. e. ea­gerly. “Do you know where it is?”

“Mein Gott!” said Hef­fel­bauer. “How long you dink a code live? Der re­borters call him a mas­keet. But von day he butt mit his head der ed­i­tor, und—”

“Oh, he’s talk­ing about a goat,” said Boyd. “Get out, Hef­fel­bauer.”

Again dis­com­fited, the con­certed wit and re­source of the En­ter­prise hud­dled around Cal­loway’s puz­zle, con­sid­er­ing its mys­te­ri­ous words in vain.

Then Vesey came in.

Vesey was the youngest re­porter. He had a thirty-two-inch chest and wore a num­ber four­teen col­lar; but his bright Scotch plaid suit gave him pres­ence and con­ferred no ob­scu­rity upon his where­abouts. He wore his hat in such a po­si­tion that peo­ple fol­lowed him about to see him take it off, con­vinced that it must be hung upon a peg dri­ven into the back of his head. He was never with­out an im­mense, knot­ted, hard-wood cane with a Ger­man-sil­ver tip on its crooked han­dle. Vesey was the best pho­to­graph hus­tler in the of­fice. Scott said it was be­cause no liv­ing human being could re­sist the per­sonal tri­umph it was to hand his pic­ture over to Vesey. Vesey al­ways wrote his own news sto­ries, ex­cept the big ones, which were sent to the rewrite men. Add to this fact that among all the in­hab­i­tants, tem­ples, and groves of the earth noth­ing ex­isted that could abash Vesey, and his dim sketch is con­cluded.

Vesey butted into the cir­cle of ci­pher read­ers very much as Hef­fel­bauer’s “code” would have done, and asked what was up. Some one ex­plained, with the touch of half-fa­mil­iar con­de­scen­sion that they al­ways used to­ward him. Vesey reached out and took the ca­ble­gram from the m. e.’s hand. Under the pro­tec­tion of some spe­cial Prov­i­dence, he was al­ways doing ap­palling things like that, and com­ing, off un­scathed.

“It’s a code,” said Vesey. “Any­body got the key?”

“The of­fice has no code,” said Boyd, reach­ing for the mes­sage. Vesey held to it.

“Then old Cal­loway ex­pects us to read it, any­how,” said he. “He’s up a tree, or some­thing, and he’s made this up so as to get it by the cen­sor. It’s up to us. Gee! I wish they had sent me, too. Say—we can’t af­ford to fall down on our end of it. ‘Fore­gone, pre­con­certed rash, witch­ing’—h’m.”

Vesey sat down on a table cor­ner and began to whis­tle softly, frown­ing at the ca­ble­gram.

“Let’s have it, please,” said the m. e. “We’ve got to get to work on it.”

“I be­lieve I’ve got a line on it,” said Vesey. “Give me ten min­utes.”

He walked to his desk, threw his hat into a waste-bas­ket, spread out flat on his chest like a gor­geous lizard, and started his pen­cil going. The wit and wis­dom of the En­ter­prise re­mained in a loose group, and smiled at one an­other, nod­ding their heads to­ward Vesey. Then they began to ex­change their the­o­ries about the ci­pher.

It took Vesey ex­actly fif­teen min­utes. He brought to the m. e. a pad with the code-key writ­ten on it.

“I felt the swing of it as soon as I saw it,” said Vesey. “Hur­rah for old Cal­loway! He’s done the Japs and every paper in town that prints lit­er­a­ture in­stead of news. Take a look at that.”

Thus had Vesey set forth the read­ing of the code:




Witch­ing—hour of mid­night

Goes—with­out say­ing


Ru­mour—hath it





Rich­mond—in the field


Great—White Way










*Mr. Vesey af­ter­ward ex­plained that the log­i­cal jour­nal­is­tic com­ple­ment of the word “un­for­tu­nate” was once the word “vic­tim.” But, since the au­to­mo­bile be­came so pop­u­lar, the cor­rect fol­low­ing word is now “pedes­tri­ans”. Of course, in Cal­loway’s code it meant in­fantry.

“It’s sim­ply news­pa­per Eng­lish,” ex­plained Vesey. “I’ve been re­port­ing on the En­ter­prise long enough to know it by heart. Old Cal­loway gives us the cue word, and we use the word that nat­u­rally fol­lows it just as we use ’em in the paper. Read it over, and you’ll see how pat they drop into their places. Now, here’s the mes­sage he in­tended us to get.”

Vesey handed out an­other sheet of paper.

Con­cluded arrange­ment to act at hour of mid­night with­out say­ing. Re­port hath it that a large body of cav­alry and an over­whelm­ing force of in­fantry will be thrown into the field. Con­di­tions white. Way con­tested by only a small force. Ques­tion the Times de­scrip­tion. Its cor­re­spon­dent is un­aware of the facts.

“Great stuff!” cried Boyd ex­cit­edly. “Kuroki crosses the Yalu to-night and at­tacks. Oh, we won’t do a thing to the sheets that make up with Ad­di­son’s es­says, real es­tate trans­fers, and bowl­ing scores!”

“Mr. Vesey,” said the m. e., with his jol­ly­ing-which-you-should-re­gard-as-a-favour man­ner, “you have cast a se­ri­ous re­flec­tion upon the lit­er­ary stan­dards of the paper that em­ploys you. You have also as­sisted ma­te­ri­ally in giv­ing us the biggest ‘beat’ of the year. I will let you know in a day or two whether you are to be dis­charged or re­tained at a larger salary. Some­body send Ames to me.”

Ames was the king-pin, the snowy-petalled Mar­guerite, the star-bright looloo of the rewrite men. He saw at­tempted mur­der in the pains of green-ap­ple colic, cy­clones in the sum­mer zephyr, lost chil­dren in every top-spin­ning urchin, an up­ris­ing of the down-trod­den masses in every hurl­ing of a derelict potato at a pass­ing au­to­mo­bile. When not rewrit­ing, Ames sat on the porch of his Brook­lyn villa play­ing check­ers with his ten-year-old son.

Ames and the “war ed­i­tor” shut them­selves in a room. There was a map in there stuck full of lit­tle pins that rep­re­sented armies and di­vi­sions. Their fin­gers had been itch­ing for days to move those pins along the crooked line of the Yalu. They did so now; and in words of fire Ames trans­lated Cal­loway’s brief mes­sage into a front page mas­ter­piece that set the world talk­ing. He told of the se­cret coun­cils of the Japan­ese of­fi­cers; gave Kuroki’s flam­ing speeches in full; counted the cav­alry and in­fantry to a man and a horse; de­scribed the quick and silent build­ing, of the bridge at Suikauchen, across which the Mikado’s le­gions were hurled upon the sur­prised Zas­sulitch, whose troops were widely scat­tered along the river. And the bat­tle!—well, you know what Ames can do with a bat­tle if you give him just one smell of smoke for a foun­da­tion. And in the same story, with seem­ingly su­per­nat­ural knowl­edge, he glee­fully scored the most pro­found and pon­der­ous paper in Eng­land for the false and mis­lead­ing ac­count of the in­tended move­ments of the Japan­ese First Army printed in its issue of the same date.

Only one error was made; and that was the fault of the cable op­er­a­tor at Wi-ju. Cal­loway pointed it out after he came back. The word “great” in his code should have been “gage,” and its com­ple­men­tal words “of bat­tle.” But it went to Ames “con­di­tions white,” and of course he took that to mean snow. His de­scrip­tion of the Japan­ese army strug­gling through the snow­storm, blinded by the whirling flakes, was thrillingly vivid. The artists turned out some ef­fec­tive il­lus­tra­tions that made a hit as pic­tures of the ar­tillery drag­ging their guns through the drifts. But, as the at­tack was made on the first day of May, “con­di­tions white” ex­cited some amuse­ment. But it in made no dif­fer­ence to the En­ter­prise, any­way.

It was won­der­ful. And Cal­loway was won­der­ful in hav­ing made the new cen­sor be­lieve that his jar­gon of words meant no more than a com­plaint of the dearth of news and a pe­ti­tion for more ex­pense money. And Vesey was won­der­ful. And most won­der­ful of all are words, and how they make friends one with an­other, being oft as­so­ci­ated, until not even obit­u­ary no­tices them do part.

On the sec­ond day fol­low­ing, the city ed­i­tor halted at Vesey’s desk where the re­porter was writ­ing the story of a man who had bro­ken his leg by falling into a coal-hole—Ames hav­ing failed to find a mur­der mo­tive in it.

“The old man says your salary is to be raised to twenty a week,” said Scott.

“All right,” said Vesey. “Every lit­tle helps. Say—Mr. Scott, which would you say—’We can state with­out fear of suc­cess­ful con­tra­dic­tion,’ or, ‘On the whole it can be safely as­serted’?”

Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /users/eblox/www/storybreeze/wp-includes/class-wp-comment-query.php on line 399