Saturday morning, after a bumpy ride over roads that really weren't roads, we came to the clearing where my father's camping cabin stood. It was about noon and the day had turned from morning sun into advancing gloom. So, first things first, we opened and aired the cabin, then gathered wood from the wood shed, water from the well, and unloaded the provisions from the Ford. It was distinctly cooler when we went inside to start fires in the fireplace and the stove.
The cabin sports two rooms and each one had a window with glass panes. My father is especially proud of this. The floor is wooden, and altogether it is rather cozy, suitable for a small family getting away from the city for a few weeks.
For me, the sole purpose of visiting the cabin was to check to see that it was properly prepared for the winter, that the shutters were tight, the well still good, and the place cleaned up. Harry, who lived on a nearby farm, was supposed to do that, but it was always better to check up on him, if for no other reason than to praise him for his efforts. I was a bit relieved, however, that I didn't have to spend the night alone out here and had been secretly hoping for company.
We didn't speak of her problem until after dinner, over tea. By then it was dark and raining. There is no ceiling in the cabin and the sound of the rain on the roof added to the cozy feeling created first by the soup and then by the tea and cookies. I looked across the wooden planked table at Erica's face hovering over her tea cup in the light of the table lamp. What a beautiful young woman she was, but how sad and frightened she looked right now.
"As you may know," Erica said, "my family is divided, with many of us still living in Germany. I was actually born there, and came to the United States in 1905 when I was barely five with my mother to join my father. He came across first to get established, then sent for my mother and me to join him."
So I learned English after learning German, and we always spoke German at home and in our little community."
We were quite concerned about our family in Germany when that awful war broke out in 1914, but we couldn't visit, and even writing was quite difficult. If we exchanged three letters a year it was a miracle. So when the horrible thing finally ended two years ago, we immediately made plans to visit."
I wanted to study philosophy in Germany and we learned that I could do that. I applied and was accepted at the University of Berlin. I went during the summer of 1919, when I was 19 years old and had been attending Holmes College already, as you know, for my freshman year. In my major, the year in Germany would be expected if not absolutely essential, but usually in one's junior year rather than sophomore. My family in the United States was most anxious to learn what the situation was for my family in Germany, so I went a year early to see them. I traveled there in the company of my Uncle Kurtis, he being the one who was the most free to travel at that time."
The trip across the ocean on the steamship was very pleasant, but once in Germany I saw that things were very bad. People were starving, and everything was a perfect shambles. Many of the young men had died in the fighting and left widows and children with no support. My own family was very well off by comparison. Only one cousin was of military age and he had been very lucky to have returned from the fighting safe and sound."
From my family's home in northern Germany, I traveled in August to Berlin. Uncle Kurtis found accommodations for me in a very pleasant boarding house close to the University. I was enrolled in my classes and set for the year when Uncle Kurtis returned to the United States."
I couldn't help thinking that the story so far lacked a little something in the drama department.
"I met a man."
Now where have I heard that line before? I was suddenly jerked from my fairy tale mode of listening. I waited for Erica to continue. For a moment it seemed that she had come to the end of her tale. But, no, there was more.
"He was a very nice young man. We met in the classes I took. I was the first American he had ever known who spoke German. He thought my accent was cute."
So you met a man who thought your accent was cute. So what? Oh well, we really do have all night for this.
Again there was the long pause. I wondered if I was supposed to say something, or at least to understand something. But if you look like Erica, meeting a man who thinks your accent is cute at the University of Berlin does not seem so very strange to me. There must be hundreds if not thousands of men at the University of Berlin, and I couldn't imagine a single one of them who wouldn't want to meet Erica, cute accent and all.
"He is interested in politics, or rather, in the future of Germany and of the world. He is a Socialist. He wants to change the world."
Another pause. I listened to the rain pounding on the shingled roof. It was really a downpour. I wondered if I could finish the story for Erica. I was pretty sure I could. Just as I was about to, she began to speak again.
Looking directly and unflinchingly, almost angrily at me, she said, "We fell in love, in Germany. I didn't know I could do that, but I did. I never thought of myself as the type to fall in love like that. He had an apartment and we sort of fell in together." She stiffened her face a little bit. "I mean, I moved in with him for seven months."
Well, it's out at last. I knew exactly what this was all about. She has been off her feed lately, even for her, and had been quiet and moody since school started. The poor lamb was 'with child', as the saying goes.
My next thoughts were sudden and brutal. Will I help her become once again without child? Do I know anyone who can help her? I drank tea instead of responding while I thought about all the things I had been taught about this situation, all the conversations I had been part of and all the times I had wondered what I would do if I were in the situation.
I surprised myself with the easy resolution of my own mind once it actually happened. Yes, I would help find someone to relieve my much too young tenant of this unfortunate state of affairs. Yes, I would help her heart and soul.
"So you are, shall we say, 'in the family way?'", I asked. I sounded somewhat brutal, even to myself. But we were, after all, two women all alone in the woods and if we couldn't talk plainly here, we couldn't talk plainly anywhere. Just to show her that my interest was more than morbid curiosity, I added, "If you are, I will help you."
"Oh no!" Erica responded immediately, throwing her hands over her face. "It's nothing like that!" She seemed quite horrified at the suggestion.
After a few seconds, the hands dropped back to the table and she looked once more at me. "Thank God it's nothing like that." She smirked. "But I think you are just wonderful to offer and I shall remember it, should I ever need assistance in that way.
"No, Klaus is the one who is in trouble, not I. At least, I think not I. We lived together, and slept together, but we were very careful, about that. And then I had to go back to America and Klaus couldn't come with me, and it was horrible."
"I'll just bet!" I said, still defending my ground valiantly. "It saves him a lot of trouble."
I have a love-hate relationship with men. I love them enough to hate them, or possibly the other way around, I'm not sure. I've been hurt a few times by them, and been very lucky on a few other occasions. I am quite wary of intimacy. The next man I get close to is going to be pretty carefully chosen. In any event, I wasn't quite ready to let Klaus off the hook.
Erica continued: "Klaus was involved in the German socialist movement. I got involved in it with him. Here in America we must be somewhat discrete when talking about socialism, but in Germany it is far worse. In Germany words escalate quickly into violence. People there are very committed to their own opinions. They aren't just talking about changing the government, they are doing things about it, and Klaus was in all of that, and I was too. I even met Rosa Luxembourg one time at a rally.
"Then in just a few weeks the whole movement changed its attitude. The Bolsheviks took over the movement. They wanted to force socialism on the country rather than just encourage it. They wanted to destroy rather than to build. Klaus did not want to do that, and left the movement, just as I was leaving to return to the United States. He told me that we would both be returning to a former life.
Although it still sounded to me like the old "love 'em and leave 'em" story, I was gradually becoming more interested in what Erica was telling me.
"But it wasn't quite that simple for Klaus. He was rather important to the old organization and had many friends. Some of them did not leave the movement. I'm afraid that Klaus has gone into hiding and that the new leaders will kill him, if they haven't done so already. He knows too many of the names of the Bolsheviks, and of their financial friends. He has become very dangerous to the movement. Rosa Luxembourg was murdered by the Berlin police, but had the police not murdered her, the Bolsheviks surely would have."
I was listening carefully now, and wondering, since it appeared that Klaus was just as pure as snow, what this had to do with me, or even what Erica was supposed to do about it. All of this was taking place so far away. But maybe I was just expected to listen. If so, I would require another cup of tea, and quite possibly another log on the fire.
The teapot was on the back of the stove keeping warm. When we had each poured a second cup of tea and returned to our chairs in front of the fireplace, I noticed that Erica had a piece of note paper in her hand.
"Last week I got a letter in the mail. It came to me by a very strange route, through the University rather than to either my home or my school address."
She handed me the letter. The envelope was addressed to Erica Landsdorf, care of Holmes College, and had been routed variously throughout the campus, ending up in the Foreign Language department.
"It's not that often that one receives personal correspondence via one's German professor," she said dryly.
Please excuse my terrible English. I am the friend of your friend. He would himself write if he were able. I wish that I might give you his address, but I have no thought where he lives at the present moment. I write this letter in his place and hope it finds both you and your family all well there in America.
I do much better now, and we all hope a better future. Sincerely to your family.
Very Truly Yours, Micky
P. S., The ages you asked for are 13 for the young man, 37 for his mother and 45 for his father. I hope this helps you.
I read the letter very carefully, then looked up at Erica. "Seems rather confusing, actually nonsensical. Does it mean anything to you?"
"I have read it over and over. To me, it is a very frightening letter. First of all, why would Micky write to me? I met him one time only, very casually, when I was with Klaus at a café in Berlin. Micky isn't his real name, actually. It is a nickname that Klaus used. I don't think I ever heard his actual name. Second, why write to me in English? I never spoke in English at all while I was living in Germany! I met almost no one who spoke English while I was at the University. And why doesn't Klaus write for himself? And I don't have the slightest idea what the post script is about. I have never asked Klaus or Micky or anyone at all for anyone's ages, and I have no idea whom he is talking about."
"My goodness, I said, "what a puzzle. I don't suppose you detected any inclination towards madness in this 'friend of your friend'?"
"Well," Erica smiled ever so slightly, "You can't tell everything about a person in a single meeting in a café, but he certainly seemed sane enough at the time."
"Then there must be some meaning in the letter. He certainly went to a lot of trouble to find you. Why would he send it to the College, I wonder?"
"The only thing I can think is that he didn't know my address. We talked about me a little bit at the café, and I must have mentioned Holmes College. Possibly that's all he knew."
"Why not write the letter in German?" I mused out loud. "Why would one write in a foreign language when one knows that one's reader reads your native language perfectly well?" I paused. "Unless... Do we still censor letters over here, do you suppose? Two years after the war is over?"
"I don't know. The government certainly censored ours to our family in Germany during the war and read all the letters sent to us. Sometimes the letters arrived months late. The government never had enough translators to keep up, and of course all mail to and from Germany had to go through Holland."
"So, possibly, your Micky was trying to avoid a long delay in translation by writing his letter in English. He hoped it would get through the censors faster that way. He certainly didn't appear to want to say anything incriminating, or even slightly suspicious in his letter."
"He didn't seem to want to say anything at all!" Erica exclaimed.
I tried to put all the anomalies together into some sort of logical framework. It certainly seemed to me that this young man, Micky, wanted rather badly to correspond with Erica, but the letter itself contained virtually nothing. No information at all. No names. And no return address, either. How the devil was Erica supposed to write back, always supposing that she wanted to?
"Now I might write a pretty innocent letter the first time I wrote to someone, especially when I didn't know the address for sure, but I would certainly request the address, and also certainly give my own." I read through the letter several more times, sentence by sentence. It was a very short letter, and the more closely I read it the more nonsensical it became.
Then there was the really cryptic part about the ages. Anyone would expect a little more information about that. Suppose Erica didn't remember to whom the ages referred, as, in fact, she didn't. How foolish to leave out that information! In fact, there were almost no definite statements in the letter at all. The letter seemed to serve no purpose whatever.
My mind kept going back to the ages. They seemed pretty definite. Shining forth like some sort of surveyor's stake rising proudly from the middle of a barren desert of nonsense.
Then suddenly I thought I had it! The letter was hiding something! It had a second meaning! I read it again, and ended up with the same questions Erica had posed. Why was Klaus unable to write? She supposed that 'the friend of your friend' did refer to Klaus, Erica's lost love. It now seemed that he was even more lost than ever.
If there was a hidden meaning to the letter, it certainly was remaining hidden to me. I looked at the ages again. How very strange it all was! It was as though the numbers might have an importance in themselves. What was Erica supposed to do with those numbers? Idly I numbered the words in the letter. The 13th word was "He", the 37th word was "at" and the 45th word was "letter". I underlined those three words lightly with my pencil in the lamplight.
"What does 'He at letter' mean to you, my fine friend?" I asked Erica.
"He at letter -- nothing whatever." she responded.
I looked vacantly at the underlined words, allowing the paper to swim in front of my eyes. Suddenly it came to me. It was not three words, but two. "Heat" and "Letter".
Although it is quite out of the ordinary for me to follow instructions, I did so this time. I held the letter up close to the chimney of the oil lamp. Large words appeared. They formed an address. With Erica looking over my shoulder, I read:
I put the letter back down on the table. The address disappeared again as the paper cooled.
"Oh my great heavenly stars above!" I exclaimed, emphasizing each word separately, "Secret writing with invisible ink! What a peculiar way to correspond! Someone wants to write you a letter and they don't want anyone else to know about it. Why is it a secret? And why Hannibal for pity's sake. It's an all day train ride from here!" I sputtered.
The rain continued, filling the silence. After nearly a minute, Erica broke the rainy silence. She was very solemn now. "I'm remembering all that I can of the single meeting with Micky. We talked about America, I remember. When I told him I was attending a university in Missouri, that reminded him of Mark Twain. He had once read "Life on the Mississippi".
"Klaus sent this letter to me pretending to be Micky to tell me about the letter he wrote to me in Hannibal. He didn't send his real letter to me at my university address. He didn't dare send it to my home address in America. He didn't know any other address for me. The only other city he knew about in Missouri was Hannibal, because of Mark Twain. So he addressed his real letter to me at General Delivery, Hannibal. It must be a very important letter indeed, but I will have to go to Hannibal to get it."
"Well, we can't go tonight, dearest chuck. All the trains have left, and besides, it's raining. Now be a good girl, burn the funny letter in the fireplace and let's go to bed. Tomorrow morning we will plan our trip to Hannibal."
"We, you say? Will you come with me, then?"
"Of course, silly, you've got me into this now. Besides, you obviously need a chaperon. Your poor family sends you off to Europe for enlightenment and you hop into bed with the first man you meet. Falling in love with a socialist, for Heaven's sake! And at your tender age!"
"What's wrong with my age? I'm old enough!"
"Obviously. So was Juliette, and we know what happened to her. Alas, when I think of all that I have missed in the last ten or so years, it's simply appalling. Now go to bed."
I was taking this more seriously now. It might be many things, I supposed, but it wasn't a joke.