In Secret

Robert W. Chambers




When Clifford Vaux arrived at a certain huge building now mostly devoted to Government work connected with the war, he found upon his desk a dictionary camouflaged to represent a cook-book; and also Miss Erith's complete report. And he lost no time in opening and reading the latter document: 

"D. C. of the E. C. D., 
"P. I. Service. (Confidential) 

"I home the honour to report that the matter with which you have entrusted me is now entirely cleared up. 
     "This short preliminary memorandum is merely to refresh your memory concerning the particular case herewith submitted in detail. 
     "In re Herman Laufer: 
     "The code-book, as you recollect, is Stormonth's English Dictionary, XIII Edition, published by Wm. Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh and London, MDCCCXCVI. This book I herewith return to you. 
     "The entire cipher is, as we guessed, arbitrary and stupidly capricious. Phonetic spelling is indulged in occasionally--I should almost say humorously-- were it not a Teuton mind which evolved the phonetic combinations which represent proper names not found in that dictionary-- names like Holzminden and New York, for example. 
     "As for the symbols and numbers, they are not at all obscure. Reference to the dictionary makes the cipher perfectly clear. 
     "In Stormonth's Dictionary you will notice that each page has two columns; each column a varying number of paragraphs; some of the paragraphs contain more than one word to be defined. 
     "In the cipher letter the first number of any of the groups of figures which are connected by dashes (--) and separated by vertical (|) represents the page in Stormonth's Dictionary on which the word is to be found. 
     "The second number represents the column (1 or 2) in which the word is to be found. 
     "The third number indicates the position of the word, counting from the bottom of the page upward, in the proper column. 
     "Roman numerals which sometimes follow, enclosed in a circle, give the position of the word in the paragraph, if it does not, as usual, begin the paragraph. 
     "The phonetic spelling of Holzminden is marked by an asterisk when first employed. Afterward only the asterisk (*) is used, instead of the cumbersome phonetic symbol. 
     "Minus and plus signs are namely used to subtract or to add letters or to connect syllables. Reference to the code-book makes all this clear enough. 
     "In the description of the escaped prisoner, Roman numerals give his age; Roman and Arabic his height in feet and inches. 
     "Arabic numerals enclosed in circles represent capital letters as they occur in the middle of a page in the dictionary--as S, for example, is printed in the middle of the page; and all words beginning with S follow in proper sequence. 
     "With the code-book at your elbow the cipher will prove to be perfectly simple. Without the code it is impossible for any human being to solve such a cipher, as you very well know. 
     "I herewith append the cipher letter, the method of translation, and the complete message. 
     "EVELYN ERITH: E. C. D." 

Complete Translation of Cipher Letter with Parenthetical Suggestions by Miss Erith. 

B 60-02, 

An American, who for reasons of the most vital importance has been held as an English (civilian?) civic prisoner in the mixed civilian (concentration) camp at Holzminden, has escaped. It is now feared that he has made his way safely to New York. (Memo: Please note the very ingenious use of phonetics to
spell out New York. E. E.) 

(His) name (is) Kay McKay and he has been known as Kay McKay of Isla--a Scotch title--he having inherited from his grandfather (a) property in Scotland called Isla, which is but a poor domain (consisting of the river) Isla and the adjoining moors and a large white-washed manor (house) in very poor

After his escape from Holzminden it was at first believed that McKay had been drowned in (the River) Weser. Later it was ascertained that he sailed for an American port via a Scandinavian liner sometime (in) October. 

(This is his) description: Age 32; height 5 feet 8 l/2 inches; eyes brown; hair brown; nose straight; mouth regular; face oval; teeth white and even--no dental work; small light-brown moustache; no superficial identification marks. 

The bones in his left foot were broken many years ago, but have been properly set. Except for an hour or so every two or three months, he suffers no lameness. 

He speaks German without accent; French with an English accent. 

Until incarcerated (in Holzminden camp) he had never been intemperate. There, however, through orders from Berlin, he was tempted and encouraged in the use of intoxicants--other drink, indeed, being excluded from his allowance--so that after the second year he had become more or less addicted (to the use of alcohol). 

Unhappily, however, this policy, which had been so diligently and so thoroughly pursued in order to make him talkative and to surprise secrets from him when intoxicated (failed to produce the so properly expected results and) only succeeded in making of the young man a hopeless drunkard. 

Sterner measures had been decided on, and, in fact, had already been applied, when the prisoner escaped by tunnelling. 

Now, it is most necessary to discover this McKay (man's whereabouts and to have him destroyed by our agents in New York). Only his death can restore to the (Imperial German) Government its perfect sense of security and its certainty of (ultimate) victory. 

The necessity (for his destruction) lies in the unfortunate and terrifying fact that he is cognisant of the Great Secret! He should have been executed at Holzminden within an hour (of his incarceration). 

This was the urgent advice of Von Tirpitz. But unfortunately High Command intervened with the expectation (of securing from the prisoner) further information (concerning others who, like himself, might possibly have become possessed in some measure of a clue to the Great Secret)? E. E. 

The result is bad. (That the prisoner has escaped without betraying a single word of information useful to us.) E. E. 

Therefore, find him and have him silenced without delay. The security of the Fatherland depends on this (man's immediate death). 

M 17. (Evidently the writer of the letter) E. E. 

For a long time Vaux sat studying cipher and translation. And at last he murmured: 

"Surely, surely. Fine--very fine.... Excellent work. But--WHAT is the Great Secret?" 

There was only one man in America who knew. 

And he had landed that morning from the Scandinavian steamer, Peer Gynt, and, at that very moment, was standing by the bar of the Hotel Astor, just sober enough to keep from telling everything he knew to the bartenders, and just drunk enough to talk too much in a place where the enemy always listens. 

He said to the indifferent bartender who had just served him: 

"'F you knew what I know 'bout Germany, you'd be won'ful man! I'M won'ful man. I know something! Going tell, too. Going see 'thorities this afternoon. Going tell 'em great secret!... Grea' milt'ry secret! Tell 'em all 'bout it! Grea' secresh! Nobody knows grea'-sekresh 'cep m'self! Whaddya thinka that?
Gimme l'il Hollanschnapps n'water onna side!" 

Hours later he was, apparently, no drunker--as though he could not manage to get beyond a certain stage of intoxication, no matter how recklessly he drank. 

"'Nother Hollenschnapps," he said hazily. "Goin' see 'thorities 'bout grea' sekresh! Tell 'em all 'bout it. Anybody try stop me, knockem down. Thassa way.... N-n-nockem out!--stan' no nonsense! Ge' me?" 

Later he sauntered off on slightly unsteady legs to promenade himself in the lobby and Peacock Alley. 

Three men left the barroom when he left. They continued to keep him in view. 

Although he became no drunker, he grew politer after every drink--also whiter in the face--and the bluish, bruised look deepened under his eyes. 

But he was a Chesterfield in manners; he did not stare at any of the lively young persons in Peacock Alley, who seemed inclined to look pleasantly at him; he made room for them to pass, hat in hand. 

Several times he went to the telephone desk and courteously requested various numbers; and always one of the three men who had been keeping him in view stepped into the adjoining booth, but did not use the instrument. 

Several times he strolled through the crowded lobby to the desk and inquired whether there were any messages or visitors for Mr. Kay McKay; and the quiet, penetrating glances of the clerks on duty immediately discovered his state of intoxication but nothing else, except his extreme politeness and the
tense whiteness of his face. 

Two of the three men who were keeping him in view tried, at various moments, to scrape acquaintance with him in the lobby, and at the bar; and without any success. 

The last man, who had again stepped into an adjoining booth while McKay was telephoning, succeeded, by inquiring for McKay at the desk and waiting there while he was being paged. 

The card on which this third man of the trio had written bore the name Stanley Brown; and when McKay hailed the page and perused the written name of his visitor he walked carefully back to the lobby--not too fast, because he seemed to realise that his legs, at that time, would not take kindly to speed. 

In the lobby the third man approached him: 

"Mr. McKay?" 

"Mr. Brown?" 

"A. I. O. agent," said Brown in a low voice. "You telephoned to Major Biddle, I believe." 

McKay inspected him with profound gravity: 

"How do," he said. "Ve' gla', m'sure. Ve' kind 'f'you come way up here see me. But I gotta see Major Biddle." 

"I understand. Major Biddle has asked me to meet you and bring you to him." 

"Oh. Ve' kind, 'm'sure. Gotta see Major. Confidential. Can' tell anybody 'cep Major." 

"The Major will meet us at the Pizza, this evening," explained Brown. "Meanwhile, if you will do me the honour of dining with me--" 

"Ve' kind. Pleasure, 'm'sure. Have li'l drink, Mr. Brown?" 

"Not here," murmured Brown. "I'm not in uniform, but I'm known." 

"Quite so. Unnerstan' perfec'ly. Won'do. No." 

"Had you thought of dressing for dinner?" inquired Mr. Brown carelessly. 

McKay nodded, went over to the desk and got his key. But when he returned to Brown he only laughed and shoved the key into his pocket. 

"Forgot," he explained. "Just came over. Haven't any clothes. Got these in Christiania. Ellis Island style. 'S'all I've got. Good overcoat though." He fumbled at his fur coat as he stood there, slightly swaying.

"We'll get a drink where I'm not known," said Brown. "I'll find a taxi." 

"Ve' kind," murmured McKay, following him unsteadily to the swinging doors that opened on Long Acre, now so dimly lighted that it was scarcely recognisable. 

An icy blast greeted them from the darkness, refreshing McKay for a moment; but in the freezing taxi he sank back as though weary, pulling his beaver coat around him and closing his battered eyes. 

"Had a hard time," he muttered. "Feel done in. ... Prisoner. .. . Gottaway. . . . Three months making Dutch border.... Hell. Tell Major all 'bout it. Great secret." 

"What secret is that?" asked Brown, peering at him intently through the dim light, where he swayed in the corner with every jolt of the taxi. 

"Sorry, m'dear fellow. Mussn' ask me that. Gotta tell Major n'no one else." 

"But I am the Major's confidential--" 

"Sorry. You'll 'scuse me, 'm'sure. Can't talk Misser Brow!--'gret 'ceedingly 'cessity reticence. Unnerstan'?" 

The taxi stopped before a vaguely lighted saloon on Fifty-ninth Street east of Fifth Avenue. McKay opened his eyes, looked around him in the bitter darkness, stumbled out into the snow on Brown's arm. 

"A quiet, cosy little cafe," said Brown, "where I don't mind joining you in something hot before dinner." 

"Thasso? Fine! Hot Scotch we' good 'n'cold day. We'll havva l'il drink keep us warm 'n'snug." 

A few respectable-looking men were drinking beer in the cafe as they entered a little room beyond, where a waiter came to them and took Brown's orders. 

Hours later McKay seemed to be no more intoxicated than he had been; no more loquacious or indiscreet. He had added nothing to what he had already disclosed, boasted no more volubly about the "great secret," as he called it. 

Now and then he recollected himself and inquired for the "Major," but a drink always sidetracked him. 

It was evident, too, that Brown was becoming uneasy and impatient to the verge of exasperation, and that he was finally coming to the conclusion that he could do nothing with the man McKay as far as pumping was concerned. 

Twice, on pretexts, he left McKay alone in the small room and went into the cafe, where his two companions of the Hotel Astor were seated at a table, discussing sardine sandwiches and dark brew. 

"I can't get a damned thing out of him," he said in a low voice. "Who the hell he is and where he comes from is past me. Had I better fix him and take his key?" 

"Yess," nodded one of the other men, "it iss perhaps better that we search now his luggage in his room." 

"I guess that's all we can hope for from this guy. Say! He's a clam. And he may be only a jazzer at that." 

"He comes on the Peer Gynt this morning. We shall not forget that alretty, nor how he iss calling at those telephones all afternoon." 

"He may be a nosey newspaper man--just a fresh souse," said Brown. "All the same I think I'll fix him and we'll go see what he's got in his room." 

The two men rose, paid their reckoning, and went out; Brown returned to the small room, where McKay sat at the table with his curly brown head buried in his arms. 

He did not look up immediately when Brown returned--time for the latter to dose the steaming tumbler at the man's elbow, and slip the little bottle back into his pocket. 

Then, thinking McKay might be asleep, he nudged him, and the young man lifted his marred and dissipated visage and extended one hand for his glass. 

They both drank. 

"Wheresa Major?" inquired McKay. "Gotta see him rightaway. Great secreksh--" 

"Take a nap. You're tired." 

"Yess'm all in," muttered the other. "Had a hard time--prisoner--three--three months hiding--" His head fell on his arms again. 

Brown rose from his chair, bent over him, remained poised above his shoulder for a few moments. Then he coolly took the key from McKay's overcoat pocket and very deftly continued the search, in spite of the drowsy restlessness of the other. 

But there were no papers, no keys, only a cheque-book and a wallet packed with new banknotes and some foreign gold and silver. Brown merely read the name written in the new cheque-book but did not take it or the money. 

Then, his business with McKay being finished, he went out, paid the reckoning, tipped the waiter generously, and said: 

"My friend wants to sleep for half an hour. Let him alone until I come back for him." 

Brown had been gone only a few moments when McKay lifted his head from his arms with a jerk, looked around him blindly, got to his feet and appeared in the cafe doorway, swaying on unsteady legs. 

"Gotta see the Major!" he said thickly. "'M'not qui' well. Gotta--" 

The waiter attempted to quiet him, but McKay continued on toward the door, muttering that he had to find the Major and that he was not feeling well. 

They let him go out into the freezing darkness. Between the saloon and the Plaza Circle he fell twice on the ice, but contrived to find his feet again and lurch on through the deserted street and square. 

The black cold that held the city in its iron grip had driven men and vehicles from the streets. On Fifth Avenue scarcely a moving light was to be seen; under the fuel-conservation order, club, hotel and private mansion were unlighted at that hour. The vast marble mass of the Plaza Hotel loomed enormous against the sky; the New Netherlands, the Savoy, the Metropolitan Club, the great Vanderbilt mansion, were darkened. Only a few ice-dimmed lamps clustered around the Plaza fountain, where the bronze goddess, with her basket of ice, made a graceful and shadowy figure under the stars. 

The young man was feeling very ill now. His fur overcoat had become unbuttoned and the bitter wind that blew across the Park seemed to benumb his body and fetter his limbs so that he could barely keep his feet. 

He had managed to cross Fifth Avenue, somehow; but now he stumbled against the stone balustrade which surrounds the fountain, and he rested there, striving to keep his feet. 

Blindness, then deafness possessed him. Stupefied, instinct still aided him automatically in his customary habit of fighting; he strove to beat back the mounting waves of lethargy; half-conscious, he still fought for consciousness. 

After a while his hat fell off. He was on his knees now, huddled under his overcoat, his left shoulder resting against the balustrade. Twice one arm moved as though seeking something. It was the mind's last protest against the betrayal of the body. Then the body became still, although the soul still lingered within it. 

But now it had become a question of minutes--not many minutes. Fate had knocked him out; Destiny was counting him out--had nearly finished counting. Then Chance stepped into the squared circle of Life. And Kay McKay was in a very bad way indeed when a coupe, speeding northward through the bitter night, suddenly veered westward, ran in to the curb, and stopped; and Miss Erith's chauffeur turned in his seat at the wheel to peer back through the glass at his mistress, whose signal he had just obeyed. 

Then he scrambled out of his seat and came around to the door, just as Miss Erith opened it and hurriedly descended. 

"Wayland," she said, "there's somebody over there on the sidewalk. Can't you see?--there by the marble railing?--by the fountain! Whoever it is will freeze to death. Please go over and see what is the matter." 

The heavily-furred chauffeur ran across the snowy oval. Miss Erith saw him lean over the shadowy, prostrate figure, shake it; then she hurried over too, and saw a man, crouching, fallen forward on his face beside the snowy balustrade. 

Down on her knees in the snow beside him dropped Miss Erith, calling on Wayland to light a match. 

"Is he dead, Miss?" 

"No. Listen to him breathe! He's ill. Can't you hear the dreadful sounds he makes? Try to lift him, if you can. He's freezing here!" 

"I'm thinkin' he's just drunk an' snorin,' Miss." 

"What of it? He's freezing, too. Carry him to the carl" 

Wayland leaned down, put both big arms under the shoulders of the unconscious man, and dragged him, upright, holding him by main strength. 

"He's drunk, all right, Miss," the chauffeur remarked with a sniff of disgust. 

That he had been drinking was evident enough to Miss Erith now. She picked up his hat; a straggling yellow light from the ice-bound lamps fell on McKay's battered features. 

"Get him into the car," she said, "he'll die out here in this cold." 

The big chauffeur half-carried, half-dragged the inanimate man to the car and lifted him in. Miss Erith followed. 

"The Samaritan Hospital--that's the nearest," she said hastily. "Drive as fast as you can, Wayland." 

McKay had slid to the floor of the coupe; Miss Erith turned on the ceiling light, drew the fur robe around him, and lifted his head to her knees, holding it there supported between her gloved hands. 

The light fell full on his bruised visage, on the crisp brown hair dusted with snow, which lay so lightly on his temples, making him seem very frail and boyish in his deathly pallor. 

His breathing grew heavier, more laboured; the coupe reeked with the stench of alcohol; and Miss Erith, feeling almost faint, opened the window a little way, then wrapped the young man's head in the skirt of her fur coat and covered his icy hands with her own. 

The ambulance entrance to the Samaritan Hospital was dimly illuminated. Wayland, turning in from Park Avenue, sounded his horn, then scrambled down from the box as an orderly and a watchman appeared under the vaulted doorway. And in a few moments the emergency case had passed out of Miss Erith's jurisdiction. 

But as her car turned homeward, upon her youthful mind was stamped the image of a pale, bruised face--of a boyish head reversed upon her knees--of crisp, light-brown hair dusted with particles of snow. 

Within the girl's breast something deep was stirring--something unfamiliar--not pain--not pity--yet resembling both, perhaps. She had no other standard of comparison. 

After she reached home she called up the Samaritan Hospital for information, and learned that the man was suffering from the effects of alcohol and chloral--the latter probably an overdose self-administered--because he had not been robbed. Miss Erith also learned that there were five hundred dollars in new United States banknotes in his pockets, some English sovereigns, a number of Dutch and Danish silver pieces, and a new cheque-book on the Schuyler National Bank, in which was written what might be his name. 

"Will he live?" inquired Miss Erith, solicitous, as are people concerning the fate of anything they have helped to rescue. 

"He seems to be in no danger," came the answer. "Are you interested in the patient, Miss Erith?" 

"No--that is--yes. Yes, I am interested." 

"Shall we communicate with you in case any unfavourable symptoms appear?" 

"Please do!" 

"Are you a relative or friend?" 

"N-no. I am very slightly interested--in his recovery. Nothing more." 

"Very well. But we do not find his name in any directory. We have attempted to communicate with his family, but nobody of that name claims him. You say you are personally interested in the young man?" 

"Oh, no," said Miss Erith, "except that I hope he is not going to die.... He seems so--young--f-friendless--" 

"Then you have no personal knowledge of the patient?" 

"None whatever.... What did you say his name is?" 


For a moment the name sounded oddly familiar but meaningless in her ears. Then, with a thrill of sudden recollection, she asked again for the man's name. 

"The name written in his cheque-book is McKay." 

"McKay!" she repeated incredulously. "What else?" 



"That is the name in the cheque-book--Kay McKay." 

Dumb, astounded, she could not utter a word. 

"Do you know anything about him, Miss Erith?" inquired the distant voice. 

"Yes--yes!... I don't know whether I do.... I have heard the--that name--a similar name--" Her mind was in a tumult now. Could such a thing happen? It was utterly impossible! 

The voice on the wire continued: 

"The police have been here but they are not interested in the case, as no robbery occurred. The young man is still unconscious, suffering from the chloral. If you are interested, Miss Erith, would you kindly call at the hospital to-morrow?" 

"Yes.... Did you say that there was FOREIGN money in his pockets?" 

"Dutch and Danish silver and English gold." 

"Thank you.... I shall call to-morrow. Don't let him leave before I arrive." 


"I wish to see him. Please do not permit him to leave before I get there. It--it is very important--vital--in case he is the man--the Kay McKay in question." 

"Very well. Good-night." 

Miss Erith sank back in her armchair, shivering even in the warm glow from the hearth. 

"Such things can NOT happen!" she said aloud. "Such things do not happen in life!" 

And she told herself that even in stories no author would dare--not even the veriest amateur scribbler--would presume to affront intelligent readers by introducing such a coincidence as this appeared to be. 

"Such things do NOT happen!" repeated Miss Erith firmly. 

Such things, however, DO occur. 

Was it possible that the Great Secret, of which the Lauffer cipher letter spoke, was locked within the breast of this young fellow who now lay unconscious in the Samaritan Hospital? 

Was this actually the escaped prisoner? Was this the man who, according to instructions in the cipher, was to be marked for death at the hands of the German Government's secret agents in America? 

And, if this truly were the same man, was he safe, at least for the present, now that the cipher letter had been intercepted before it had reached Herman Lauffer? 

Hour after hour, lying deep in her armchair before the fire, Miss Erith crouched a prey to excited conjectures, not one of which could be answered until the man in the Samaritan Hospital had recovered consciousness. 

Suppose he never recovered consciousness. Suppose he should die-- 

At the thought Miss Erith sprang from her chair and picked up the telephone. 

With fast-beating heart she waited for the connection. Finally she got it and asked the question. 

"The man is dying," came the calm answer. A pause, then: "I understand the patient has just died." 

Miss Erith strove to speak but her voice died in her throat. Trembling from head to foot, she placed the telephone on the table, turned uncertainly, fell into the armchair, huddled there, and covered her face with both hands. 

For it was proving worse--a little worse than the loss of the Great Secret--worse than the mere disappointment in losing it--worse even than a natural sorrow in the defeat of an effort to save life. 

For in all her own life Miss Erith had never until that evening experienced the slightest emotion when looking into the face of any man. 

But from the moment when her brown eyes fell upon the pallid, dissipated, marred young face turned upward on her knees in the car--in that instant she had known for the first time a new and indefinable emotion--vague in her mind, vaguer in her heart--yet delicately apparent. 

But what this unfamiliar emotion might be, so faint, so vague, she had made no effort to analyse.... It had been there; she had experienced it; that was all she knew. 

It was almost morning before she rose, stiff with cold, and moved slowly toward her bedroom. 

Among the whitening ashes on her hearth only a single coal remained alive. 


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