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   Chapter 16 THE CIPHER LETTER.

The Triple Alliance By Harold Avery Characters: 15086

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


The reading-room row, as it was called, had pretty well blown over, when one morning Diggory accosted Jack Vance and Mugford, who were both seated at the latter's desk, sharpening their knives on an oil-stone.

"I say, you fellows, look what I've found." As he spoke, he laid on the desk a slip of paper; it was evidently a scrap torn out of some exercise-book, and inscribed upon it were several lines of capital letters, all jumbled together without any apparent object in their arrangement, and, to be more exact, placed as follows:-

NVVGRMGSVTBNDSVMGSVUVOOLD HKZHHLMGLHFKKVIGSVGDLXZM HLUDZGVIZIGHGZMWRMTRMHRW VGSVXFKYLZIWFMWVIGSVHGZRIH.

"Well, what is there funny about that?" asked Jack; "it looks to me as if some one had been practising making capitals."

"Is it a puzzle?" inquired Mugford.

"No, but I'll tell you what I think it is," answered Diggory, sitting down, and speaking in a low, mysterious tone: "it's a letter written in cipher."

"A letter?" repeated Mugford, glancing at the paper. "Why, how could any one read that rubbish-NVVG?"

"Of course they can, if they know the key. Didn't I say it was written in cipher, you duffer? Every letter you see there stands for something different."

"Then why didn't they write the proper letters at once, and have done with it?" grumbled Mugford.

"Because, you prize ass," retorted Diggory, with pardonable asperity, "they didn't want it read."

"Then if they didn't want it read, why did they write it at all?" exclaimed Mugford triumphantly.

"Oh, shut up! you're cracked, you-"

"Look here," interrupted Jack Vance, "where did you find the thing?"

"Why, you know the window in the box-room that looks out on the 'quad;' well, there's a little crack under the ledge between the wooden frame and the wall, and this note was stuck in there. I should never have seen it, only I was watching a spider crawling up the wall, and it ran into the hole close to the end of the paper. Some fellows must be using the place as a sort of post-office; don't you remember Fred Acton made one in the wainscotting at The Birches? only these fellows have invented a cipher. Well, I'm going to find it out, and read this note, just for the lark."

"How are you going to do it, though? I don't see it's possible to read a thing like this; you can't tell where one word ends and a fresh one begins."

"There is a way of finding out a cipher," answered Diggory; "it tells you how to do it in that book that we bought when Mug had his things sold by auction at Chatford."

"What, in Poe's tales?" asked Mugford. "Yes; in one of the stories called 'The Gold Bug.' Where is the book?"

"I lent it to Maxton, but I should think he's finished it by this time.

I'll go and see."

"All right," said Diggory, pocketing the slip of paper; "you get it, and then I can show you what I mean. Come on, Jack; let's go out."

The two friends were just rising from the form on which they had been sitting, when they were accosted by Browse, who, strolling up with a pair of dilapidated slippers on his feet, which caused him to walk as though he were skating, inquired in drawling tones, "I say, have either of you kids got a watch-key?"

Jack Vance handed him the required article, which happened to be of the kind which fit all watches.

The Sixth Form "sap" was very short-sighted, and proceeded to wind up his timepiece, holding it close to his spectacles throughout the operation.

"I can't think how it is," he continued, in his sing-song tone,

"I'm always losing my key. I've had two new ones already this term.

I always stick them in a place where I think they're sure not to get

lost, and then I forget where I put them. Thanks awfully."

"What a queer old codger Browse is!" remarked Diggory, as the big fellow moved away; "no one would ever think he was so clever."

"No," answered Jack Vance. "By-the-bye, did you hear that he had another row with 'Thirsty' last night?"

"No; what about?"

"Oh, the same thing as before. Some fellows were making a beastly row in Thurston's study, and Browse couldn't work, so he threatened if they weren't quiet he'd report them to the doctor. 'Thirsty' came out in an awful wax, and said for two pins he'd knock Browse down; and young Collis, who was standing at the top of the stairs, says he believes he'd have done it if some of the other fellows in the Sixth hadn't come out and interfered."

In the course of the afternoon Diggory secured Mugford's copy of Poe's tales, and (sad to relate) spent a good part of that evening's preparation in trying to unravel the secret of the mysterious missive which he had found in the box-room. So intent was he on solving the problem that, instead of going down to supper with the majority of his companions, he remained seated at his desk, poring over the experiments which he was making according to directions given in the famous story of "The Gold Bug."

"Well, how are you getting on ?" inquired Jack Vance, as the crowd came straggling back from the dining-hall.

"Oh, pretty well," answered the other. "The first thing you have to do is to find E; it's the letter which occurs most frequently. Well, in this case V is the letter which comes oftenest-there are fourteen of them-so V is E. Then, when you know what E is, you search for the word 'the.' There are certain to be several 'the's' in the piece; so you look for instances in which the same two letters come before E, or, in this case, before V. Well, here it is, G S V, five times; so you are pretty certain that G S V is 'the,' or, in other words, that G is T, S is H, and V is E. That's as far as I've got at present; but I mean to worry out the rest of it to-morrow."

While Diggory was holding forth in the big schoolroom on his methods of reading a cipher, a conversation of a very different character, and on a matter of grave importance, was taking place in the study of the school captain.

Allingford and John Acton were seated in front of the former's little fireplace talking over matters connected with the football club. Suddenly there was a sound of hurrying feet in the passage; the next instant the door burst open, and in bounced Browse. The two prefects gazed at him for a moment in open-mouthed astonishment; then Acton broke the silence, exclaiming, "Why, Browse, what's the matter?"

The "sap" certainly presented an extraordinary appearance. His spectacles were gone; his hair was pasted all over his face, as though he had just come up from a long dive; his clothes were torn, and in a state of the wildest disorder; while the strangest part of all was that from head to foot he seemed soaking wet, drenched through and through with water, which dripped from his garments as he stood.

"Why, man alive!" cried Allingford, "what have you been up to?"

"It's those blackguards!" gasped Browse, choking with rage, and shaken for once in a way out of his usual drawl; "it's that Thurston and his crew-I know it was!"

"But what was? what's the matter?"

With some little difficulty the two prefects at length succeeded in extracting from their excited comrade an account of his wrongs; even then such an amount of cross-questioning was necessary that it will be best to make no attempt at a verbatim report, but rather to give the reader a more concise version of the story.

From Browse's statement it appeared that just before supper some one had come to his study, saying: "Smeaton wants you in the 'lab;' look sharp!" The door had only been opened a

bout a couple of inches, and then closed again. From the few words thus spoken Browse did not recognize the voice; but thinking that his particular friend Smeaton (another tremendous worker) was engaged in some important experiments, and needed his assistance, he hurried away, never dreaming but that the message he had received was genuine.

In order to reach the laboratory, it was necessary to traverse the box-room and the gymnasium, both of which were in darkness, the lights being turned out by the prefect on duty when the boys assembled for preparation.

Across the first of these chambers Browse groped his way in safety. Hardly, however, had he crossed the threshold of the second, when he was suddenly seized and held fast by several strong pairs of hands. His indignant expostulations were met with a titter of suppressed laughter; he was roughly forced down upon his knees, and while in this position what seemed like two buckets of cold water were emptied over his devoted head. This having been done, he was dragged to his feet, thrust back into the box-room, and the door leading into the gymnasium was slammed to and locked on the inside. From first to last not a word had been spoken, and at the very commencement of the struggle Browse's spectacles had been knocked off. These two circumstances had entirely prevented him from recognizing the shadowy figures of his assailants. He made one attempt to force the door open, but finding it securely fastened, had come straight away to the captain's study.

"It's that Thurston and some of his gang," he repeated in conclusion; "they did it to pay me out for interfering with their noisy meetings."

Allingford and John Acton sprang to their feet. The idea that the rowdy element should be so powerful in Ronleigh that a Sixth Form boy could with impunity be seized and drenched with cold water, was not very pleasing to one who was largely responsible for the order of the school, and the captain's face was as black as thunder.

"All right!" he exclaimed; "leave this to me. Go and change your clothes."

The two prefects hurried down the passage.

"Wait a minute," said Allingford. "Which is Thurston's study?"

Acton knocked at the door; and receiving no answer, pushed it open and looked in. The room was empty.

"Come on," cried Allingford; "the 'gym!' They may be there still."

They rushed down the stairs, scattering a group of small boys who were roasting chestnuts at the gas-jet in the passage, and on through the box-room, but only to find the door on the other side standing wide open, and the gymnasium itself silent and deserted-two empty water-cans, lying in a big pool of wet on the cement floor, being the only remaining traces of the recent outrage.

"They're gone," said Acton. "What shall we do?"

"We'll find one of them, at all events," replied his companion; and returning once more to the neighbourhood of the studies, he shouted,-

"Thurston!"

There was a faint "Hullo!" and a moment later a door opened half-way down the passage.

"Well, what d'you want?"

Allingford walked quickly forward. "Look here," he demanded sternly, "where have you been? What have you been doing?"

"Doing!" echoed Thurston; "why, I've been sitting here for the last two hours with old Smeaton. I asked him to let me come and work in his study to-night. There's some of this Ovid I can't get on with, and he promised he'd help me out with it if I'd tell him what it was I didn't understand."

The captain hesitated a moment, rather nonplussed by this unexpected reply. "I believe you know something about this affair with Browse," he continued. "Who did it?"

"Who did what?" demanded Thurston snappishly. "If you mean when he came banging at my study door last night-"

"No, I don't mean that," interrupted Allingford. "I mean this blackguard's trick that was played on him to-night."

"I don't know what you're talking about," retorted Thurston angrily. "Look here, Allingford, I'll thank you not to call me a blackguard for nothing, for I suppose that's what you're driving at. If you don't think I'm speaking the truth, ask Smeaton. I suppose you'll take his word, if you won't take mine."

Smeaton, whose veracity it was impossible to doubt, confirmed the last speaker's assertions, and Allingford and Acton were forced to beat a retreat, feeling that they had certainly been worsted in the encounter.

"What's to be done?" asked Acton, as they re-entered the captain's study.

"I don't know," answered the other, flinging himself into a chair.

"The only thing I can see is to report it to the doctor."

"Oh, I shouldn't do that; it's more a piece of personal spite than any disorder and breach of rule, like that reading-room affair. I think it's a thing which ought to be put down by the fellows themselves. Who was in Thurston's study last night?"

"I don't know. It may have been those fellows Gull and Hawley, but you can't accuse them without some evidence; you see what I got just now for tackling Thurston. Ever since the elections there seem to be a lot of fellows bent on bringing the place to the dogs. Thurston's hand and glove with the whole lot of them, and it's hard to say who did this thing to Browse."

A report of what had happened was rapidly spreading all over the school. One by one the other prefects dropped in to the captain's study to talk the matter over. Most of them were inclined to agree with Acton in considering it a thing to be taken up by the boys themselves, and the discussion was continued till bedtime.

"Well, I'll tell you what I think I'd better do," said Allingford, preparing to wish his companions good-night. "I'll report it to the doctor, and ask him not to take any steps in the matter until we've had a chance of inquiring into it ourselves."

The story of Browse's mishap, as we have just said, soon passed from mouth to mouth, until it was common property throughout the college. The remarks which the news elicited were often of an entirely opposite nature, according to the character of the boys who made them. Noaks and Mouler laughed aloud, declaring it a rare good joke; but to the credit of the Ronleians of that generation be it said, the majority shook their heads, and muttered, "Beastly shame!" "What'll be done?" was the question asked on all sides. "Will it be reported to the doctor?"

"If it is," said "Rats," "we shall lose another half-holiday. Confound those fellows, whoever they are! I should like to see them all jolly well kicked."

On the following day the first assembly for morning school passed without anything happening, though every one looked rather anxiously towards the head-master's throne as Dr. Denson took his seat.

The brazen voice of the bell had just proclaimed the eleven o'clock interval, when the Triple Alliance, hurrying with their companions of the Lower Fourth along the main corridor leading to the schoolroom, found that the passage was nearly blocked by a large crowd of boys standing round the notice-board.

"Hullo!" said Diggory, "another rhyme?"

This time, however, the placard was in good plain prose, and ran as follows:-

"NOTICE.

"A meeting of the whole school will take place directly after dinner in the gymnasium. A full attendance is urgently requested, as the matter for consideration is of great importance.

"A. R. ALLINGFORD."

"Humph," muttered Fletcher senior to himself, as he turned on his heel after reading the notice, "the fat's in the fire now, and no mistake."

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