Sir Margaret St. John Cassowary: My Life

PANIC GRIPPED THE British aristocracy when it was announced that Sir Margaret St. John Cassowary was preparing his memoirs for publication. A certain Prime Minister had once described Sir Margaret as “not too bright, poor fellow,” but the one subject about which he knew his onions was the deepest and most embarrassing secrets of just about everyone, or at least everyone of the rank of baronet or above. If those secrets were exposed to the prying eyes of the general public, it would chip at the very foundations of social order. Nothing less than rampant republicanism might be the result.

Legal challenges were mounted at once. A certain anonymous person, known in court records as Lord John of Doe, applied to Her Majesty’s Court of Uncommon Pleas for a writ of habeas mandamus in excelsis; but the court ruled (setting an important precedent) that the letter of the law allowed such a writ to be issued only when pheasants were involved and in imminent danger. Another court challenge was rejected on the grounds that it was nearly time for tea.

Having failed in the courts, some of the more desperate sort turned to more direct measures. No fewer than four separate attempts were made on Sir Margaret’s life; but he survived them all and continued as blithely as if he had not even been aware of the plots against his person, which in fact may have been the case.

Finally, and most desperately of all, a bomb was thrown at the publisher’s offices. It was not, however, thrown very well: instead of penetrating the building, it bounced off the front wall and rolled into the middle of the annual parade of the Anarchists’ Society. The results were in some ways lamentable, and in other ways not.

In the midst of all this furore, Sir Margaret suddenly expired from a surfeit of lampreys, becoming the first English noble to perish in such a manner for more than four hundred years. He had, however, prepared for such an eventuality, and his solicitors shortly delivered a large package to his publishers, containing the much-anticipated manuscript. Eagerly the editors opened the package, but their eagerness began to evaporate when they saw that the manuscript appeared to be completely indecipherable.

A few days later, however, a letter arrived at the publishers’ office. It was written in the hand of Sir Margaret himself, who had instructed his solicitors to send it separately from the manuscript.

“I have known for some time,” Sir Margaret wrote, “that certain personal enemies of mine would stop at nothing to obtain the manuscript of my memoirs, which I have titled My Life in reference to the fact that it largely deals with my life. I have therefore written the manuscript in what I flatter myself must be an unbreakable cipher. If you are reading this letter, it is because I have met my demise, and my solicitor has been instructed to forward the manuscript to you. I shall therefore reveal to you, and only to you, the key to the cipher.

“The code is astonishingly simple and yet, to my knowledge, entirely secure. I have simply replaced every letter in every word with an X. Punctuation marks and spaces have each been replaced with an X as well, so as to leave no hint or clue by which the manuscript may be interpreted. Only to you have I revealed this key, which my solicitor has been instructed to keep securely stored separate from the manuscript until such time as it may be needed. Without this key, the manuscript is worthless. And now, perhaps, I shall have my revenge on all those former friends who said behind my back that I was not too bright. Simply reverse the encryption process which I have described to you, and you will see what sort of friends they really were to Queen and country. Even after death, revenge is sweet.”