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THE CIPHER WITH THE INVOICE
RED TABS' sphinx-like declaration was no riddle to me. I knew at once that Francis must be on secret service in the enemy's country and that country Germany. My brother's extraordinary knowledge of the Germans, their customs, life and dialects, rendered him ideally suitable for any such perilous mission. Francis always had an extraordinary talent for languages: he seemed to acquire them all without any mental effort, but in German he was supreme. During the year that he and I spent at Consistorial-Rat von Mayburg's house at Bonn, he rapidly outdistanced me, and though, at the end of our time, I could speak German like a German, Francis was able, in addition, to speak Bonn and Cologne patois like a native of those ancient cities — ay and he could drill a squad of recruits in their own language like the smartest Leutnant ever fledged from Gross-Lichterfelde.
He never had any difficulty in passing himself off as a German. Well I remember his delight when he was claimed as a fellow Rheinländer by a German officer we met, one summer before the war, combining golf with a little useful espionage at Cromer.
I don't think Francis had any ulterior motive in his study of German. He simply found he had this imitative faculty; philology had always interested him, so even after he had gone into the motor trade, he used to amuse himself on business trips to Germany by acquiring new dialects.
His German imitations were extraordinarily funny. One of his "star turns", was a noisy sitting of the Reichstag with speeches by Prince Bülow and August Bebel and "interruptions"; another, a patriotic oration by an old Prussian General at a Kaiser's birthday dinner. Francis had a marvellous faculty not only of seeming German, but even of almost looking like a German, so absolutely was he able to slip into the skin of the part.
Yet never in my wildest moments had I dreamt that he would try and get into Germany in war-time, into that land where every citizen is catalogued and pigeonholed from the cradle. But Red Tabs' oracular utterance had made everything clear to me. Why a mission to Germany would be the very thing that Francis would give his eyes to be allowed to attempt! Francis with his utter disregard of danger, his love of taking risks, his impish delight in taking a rise out of the stodgy Hun — why, if there were Englishmen brave enough to take chances of that kind, Francis would be the first to volunteer.
Yes, if Francis were on a mission anywhere it would be to Germany. But what prospect had he of ever returning — with the frontiers closed and ingress and egress practically barred even to pro-German neutrals? Many a night in the trenches I had a mental vision of Francis, so debonair and so fearless, facing a firing squad of Prussian privates.
From the day of the luncheon at the Bath Club to this very afternoon I had had no further inkling of my brother's whereabouts or fate. The authorities at home professed ignorance, as I knew, in duty bound, they would, and I had nothing to hang any theory on to until Dicky Allerton's letter came. Ashcroft at the F.O. fixed up my passports for me and I lost no time in exchanging the white gulls and red cliffs of Cornwall for the windmills and trim canals of Holland.
And now in my breast pocket lay, written on a small piece of cheap foreign notepaper, the tidings I had come to Groningen to seek. Yet so trivial, so nonsensical, so baffling was the message that I already felt my trip to Holland to have been a fruitless errand.
I found Dicky fat and bursting with health in his quarters at the internment camp. He only knew that Francis had disappeared. When I told him of my meeting with Red Tabs at the Bath Club, of the latter's words to me at parting and of my own conviction in the matter he whistled, then looked grave.
He went straight to the point in his bluff direct way.
"I am going to tell you a story first, Desmond," he said to me, "then I'll show you a piece of paper. Whether the two together fit in with your theory as to poor Francis' disappearance will be for you to judge. Until now I must confess — I had felt inclined to dismiss the only reference this document appears to make to your brother as a mere coincidence in names, but what you have told me makes things interesting — by Jove, it does, though. Well, here's the yarn first of all.
"Your brother and I have had dealings in the past with a Dutchman in the motor business at Nymwegen, name of Van Urutius. He has often been over to see us at Coventry in the old days and Francis has stayed with him at Nymwegen once or twice on his way back from Germany — Nymwegen, you know, is close to the German frontier. Old Urutius has been very decent to me since I have been in gaol here and has been over several times, generally with a box or two of those nice Dutch cigars."
"Dicky," I broke in on him, "get on with the story. What the devil's all this got to do with Francis? The document — "
"Steady, my boy!" was the imperturbable reply, "let me spin my yarn my own way. I'm coming to the piece of paper . . . .
"Well, then, old Urutius came to see me ten days ago. All I knew about Francis I had told him, namely, that Francis had entered the army and was missing. It was no business of the old Mynheer if Francis was in the Intelligence, so I didn't tell him that. Van U. is a staunch friend of the English, but you know the saying that if a man doesn't know he can't split.
"My old Dutch pal, then, turned up here ten days ago. He was bubbling over with excitement. 'Mr. Allerton' he says, 'I haf a writing, a most mysterious writing — a I think, from Francis Okewood.'
"I sat tight. If there were any revelations coming they were going to be Dutch, not British. On that I was resolved.
"'I haf received; the old Dutchman went on, from Gairemany a parcel of metal shields, plates — what you call 'em — of tin, hein? What I haf to advertise my business. They arrife las' week — I open the parcel myself and on the top is the envelope with the invoice.'
"Mynheer paused; he has a good sense of the dramatic.
"'Well', I said, 'did it bite you or say "Gott strafe England?" Or what?'
"Van Urutius ignored my flippancy and resumed. 'I open the envelope and there in the invoice I find this writing — here!'
"And here," said Dicky, diving into his pocket, "is the writing!"
And he thrust into my eagerly outstretched hand a very thin half-sheet of foreign notepaper, of that kind of cheap glazed notepaper you get in cafes on the Continent when you ask for writing materials.
Three lines of German, written in fluent German characters in purple ink beneath the name and address of Mynheer van Urutius . . . that was all.
My heart sank with disappointment and wretchedness as I read the inscription.
Here is the document:
Heern Willem van Urutius,
Alexander-Straat 81 bis.
Berlin, Iten Juli, 16.
O Eichenholz! O Eichenholz,
Wie leer sind deine Blätter.
Wie Achiles in dem Zelte.
Wo zweie sich zanken
Erfreut sich der Dritte.
Mr. Willem van Urutius,
81 bis Alexander-Straat.
Berlin, 1st July, 16.
O Oak-tree! O Oak-tree,
How empty are thy leaves.
Like Achiles in the tent.
When two people fall out
The third party rejoices.
I stared at this nonsensical document in silence. My thoughts were almost too bitter for words.
At last I spoke.
"What's all this rigmarole got to do with Francis, Dicky?" I asked, vainly trying to suppress the bitterness in my voice. "This looks like a list of copybook maxims for your Dutch friend's advertisement cards . . . ."
But I returned to the study of the piece of paper.
"Not so fast, old bird," Dicky replied coolly, "let me finish my story. Old Stick-in-the-mud is a lot shrewder than we think.
"'When I read the writing,' he told me, 'I think he is all robbish, but then I ask myself, Who shall put robbish in my invoices? And then I read the writing again and once again, and then I see he is a message.'"
"Stop, Dicky!" I cried, "of course, what an ass I am! Why Eichenholz . . . ."
"Exactly," retorted Dicky, "as the old Mynheer was the first to see, Eichenholz translated into English is 'Oak-tree' or 'Oak-wood' — in other words, Francis."
"Then, Dicky . . . ." I interrupted.
"Just a minute," said Dicky, putting up his hand. "I confess I thought, on first seeing this message or whatever it is, that there must be simply a coincidence of name and that somebody's idle scribbling had found its way into old van U.'s invoice. But now that you have told me that Francis may have actually got into Germany, then, I must say, it looks as if this might be an attempt of his to communicate with home."
"Where did the Dutchman's packet of stuff come from?" I asked.
"From the Berlin Metal Works in Steglitz, a suburb of Berlin: he has dealt with them for years."
"But then what does all the rest of it mean . . . all this about Achilles and the rest?"
"Ah, Desmond!" was Dicky's reply, "that's where you've got not only me, but also Mynheer van Urutius."
"'O oak-wood! O oak-wood, how empty are thy leaves!' . . . . That sounds like a taunt, don't you think, Dicky?" said I.
"Or a confession of failure from Francis . . . to let us know that he has done nothing, adding that he is accordingly sulking 'like Achilles in his tent.'"
"But, see here, Richard Allerton," I said, "Francis would never spell 'Achilles' with one 'l' . . . now, would he?"
"By Jove!" said Dicky, looking at the paper again, "nobody would but a very uneducated person. I know nothing about German, but tell me, is that the hand of an educated German? Is it Francis' handwriting?"
"Certainly, it is an educated hand," I replied, "but I'm dashed if I can say whether it is Francis' German handwriting: it can scarcely be because, as I have already remarked, he spells 'Achilles' with one 'l.'"
Then the fog came down over us again. We sat helplessly and gazed at the fateful paper.
"There's only one thing for it, Dicky," I said finally, "I'll take the blooming thing back to London with me and hand it over to the Intelligence. After all, Francis may have a code with them. Possibly they will see light where we grope in darkness."
"Desmond," said Dicky, giving me his hand, "that's the most sensible suggestion you've made yet. Go home and good luck to you. But promise me you'll come back here and tell me if that piece of paper brings the news that dear old Francis is alive."
So I left Dicky but I did not go home. I was not destined to see my home for many a weary week.