by O. Henry
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
Richmond—in the field
*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’?”