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chapter sixteen

Between 1871 and 1908 he published twenty volumes of verse, of little merit

('Alfred Austin', The Oxford Companion to English Literature, edited by Margaret Drabble)

morse was spending the last three days of his West Country holiday at the King's Arms in Dorchester (Dorchester, Dorset). Here he encountered neither models nor beauticians; but at last he began to feel a little reluctant about returning to Oxford. On the Wednesday he had explored Hardy's Dorchester on foot (!) a.m., and spent the whole p.m. in the Dorset County Museum. Nostalgic, all of it. And when finally he returned to 'the chief hotel in Casterbridge' he sat drinking his beer in the bar before dinner sith the look of a man who was almost at ease with life.

On the Thursday morning he drove out through the countryside that provided much of the setting for Tess of the d'Urbervilles, along the A352 to the east of Dorchester, following the Vale of the Great Dairies, past Max Gate and Talbothays towards Wool. As he was driving through Moreton, he wondered whether there was any follow-up to the Phillipson analysis (there had been no mention in:he Tuesday or Wednesday editions), and he stopped and bought ihe last copy of The Times from the village newsagent's. The answer was yes yes, there was; and he sat for a while in the sunshine beside the wall of the cemetery containing the grave of Lawrence of Arabia, reading the long letter which (as with succeeding letters) now found its place naturally in the newspaper's correspondence columns:

From Professor (Emeritus) Rene Gray

Sir, My mind, doubtless like the minds of many of your regular

readers, has been much exercised these past few days following the publication (July 3) of the letter received by the Thames Valley Police. I beg the courtesy of your columns to make one or two observations.

This is not a poem by Alfred Austin, though the words 'A. Austin' appear beneath it. The name 'Austin' does not seem to refer to a make of motor car: 'A'-registration Austins date from 1983-84, and there is no resemblance between this date and those given in brackets. The dates given are not Austin the poet's dates. He was born in 1835, and died in 1913. There is a remote possibility that the last two digits of his birth-date have been transposed for some reason, but the death-date is plainly wrong. Dying in 1913, he was 78 years old at the time of his death. By a strange coincidence the transposition of these digits gives us the '87' which is written here. I conclude that the dates are not all they seem, and most likely constitute the key to the cypher.

The figures do not appear to give geographical co-ordinates. They do not match the format of Ordnance Survey co-ordinates, and they are not co-ordinates of latitude and longitude, since Great Britain lies between the 50th and 6oth lines of latitude and between the longitudes 2E and 10W. We are left with six digits which somehow must give the clue to the interpretation of the words of the message.

I have not been able to work out the cypher. I have tried the first word, followed by the eighth, followed by the fifth after that (giving either 'Find my the skylit', or 'Find frosted skylit me'). I have re-transposed the sequences of digits, to no better effect. I have tried lines, first words of lines, last words of line. I have taken the digits in pairs, i.e. as 18, 53 (or 35) and 87 with the same result. I have alternated the beginnings of the lines with the ends of the lines, and vice versa.

I have simplified the expression '1853-87' by interpreting the hyphen as a minus sign. The answer, '1766', does not produce any happier result. The only sensible word- produced is yielded by taking letters in that sequence in the first line, thus giving 'F-i-s-h', but the message does not continue. (A red herring, possibly!)

There are a large number of other combinations and permutations, but no method other than trial and error for seeing whether any make any sense.

The overriding advantage of the mechanical method of deciphering is that the poem itself does not have to make sense; a random sequence of words would fulfil exactly the same purpose of concealing the message. Hence odd words such as 'tiger' need not fall into the category of important words at all: in its place, 'chairman' or 'post-box' would do equally well; these words meet the requirements of the metre, but would not be included in the deciphered message. Likewise, the upper case 'T' in the middle of line 13 is not significant. The fact that the poem does make some kind of sense in places thus merely adds to the bafflement.

If this line of thinking is correct, it does not matter what the poem says, or what it means. What is needed is the services of a skilled cryptographer.

Yours faithfully,


136 Victoria Park Road,


Mosre read the letter once only, and decided to wait until his return to the King's Arms (where he had the two earlier cuttings) in order to have a more careful look at the good professor's analysis and suggested methodology. He sounded an engaging sort of fellow, Gray especially with that bit about the 'chairman' and the post-box'.

Back in Dorchester that afternoon, Morse went into the public library and looked up 'Austin' in The Oxford Companion to English Literature. He'd heard of Austin the poet of course he had; but hed never known anything much about him, and he was certainly unaware that any poem, or even line, produced by the former poet laureate had merited immortality.

From the library Morse walked on to the post office, where he brought a black and white postcard of Dorchester High Street, and stood for an inordinate length of time in the queue there. He didn't know the price of the stamp for a postcard, and didn't wish to waste a first-class stamp if, as he suspected, the official tariff for postcards was a few pence lower. It was, he realized, quite ridiculous to wait so long for such a little saving.

But wait Morse did.

Lewis received the card the following morning, the message written Morse's small, neat, and scholarly hand:

Mostly I've not been quite so miserable since last year's holiday, but things are looking up here in D. Warmest regards to you (and to Mrs Lewis) but not to any of our other colleagues. Have you been following the Swedish lass? I reckon I know what the poem means!

Definitely home Sat.


This card, with its curmudgeonly message, was delivered to police HQ in Kidlington since Morse had not quite been able to remember Lewis's Headington address. And by the time it was in Lewis's hands, almost everyone in the building had read it. It might, naturally, have made Lewis a little cross such contravention of the laws of-privacy.

But it didn't. It made him glad.

chapter fifteen | The Way Through The Woods | chapter seventeen