May 1812 – Read the opening

1

25 April 1812

The last of the evening’s bottles lay empty on the floor beside his chair as he sat in the pristine silence that was night melting into early morning.  Before him, the breakfast table was covered with pages of dog-eared letters and intercepted dispatches, with copies of more letters and more dispatches, strewn and in stacks, and each page covered in lines of numbers, all of them written in the Grand Chiffre, as they called it.  Streaks of paly flame burned upward from the wax stubs in a single candelabra, five stripes of light against the curtained gloom, while about their bases the liquid wax pooled or eked over to drip, stippling the table with dark dull rounds on the polished mahogany surface.  His coat he had removed and discarded, flinging it onto a side chair where it hung uneasily on the handle of a spare driving whip left there some days ago.

Myddelton swallowed the last of his coffee and briefly looked up at the green walls of the eating parlour, crammed with an array of engravings and portraits of his father’s favourite hunters.

“20.14.59.29.”

The coffee was cold.  His eyes were red-rimmed and about his throat his neckcloth hung limp and dishevelled as if he’d spent the night whoring in some King Street bordello.  He hadn’t.

“20.14.59.29?”

Again he scanned the most recent letter, which he’d copied with ample space between each of its lines for translation.  “Ah, mon ami, il ne peut pas dissimuler qu’il 20.14.59.29 le 36.49.1.12.63.14.17 de 6.28.27.30.31…”

Was 20.14.59.29. the sequence for était?  ’Struth, it must be.  For no other word would complete the sentence properly.  Yet with so many symbols for letters, one of them could be a bigram.

And breaking the silence in that clockless room with the muted scraping of Metallic pencil upon paper, Myddelton drew brackets under the numbers.  And noted the probable bigrams below each.  And studied the table of bigrams and syllables he had compiled:  E was the most commonly used letter in French, so code-numbers one through twenty might well equal e and its combinations.

Then, studying the lines of code in another recent dispatch, he searched for the recurrence of 20.14.59.29.  And then for 14.59.29.

Because if 20 equalled et, then 14 was a, 59 was i and 29 was t.  And if that was so, then he had cracked one of the most commonly used verbs.

Suddenly sure of it, he smiled.  “Got you, Froggie bastard!”

And with a new rushing energy of intellectual pleasure to banish his fatigue, Myddelton began once more, methodically searching out all instances of the repeated numbers on the several pages before him, segmenting off the coded sequence wherever he found it.  And shifting the piles of ragged-edged and smudged pages, at the top of another page, a sentence caught his attention—for there too were words amongst the code, several words in fact.  

            “Dans la lettre de 16ème mars, 1207 annonçait que 516.1264 donnait 703.1328 le commandement de 409.1327.1333.210.249.523, mais faisait 1165.1060.1238.820.  Votre Excellence…”

And translating, he read it again:  “In the letter of the 16th March, 1207 announced that 516.1264 gave 703.1328 command of…”  And smiled again.

For 1207 had to be a proper name.  As did 516.1264.  Thus 1264 was the surname, and 516 a title or rank.

“Ha!” His smile grew.  “Got you again…”

But what if the whole code was broken into sections?  Two sections?  Or even more?  Piss in the wind, Frenchie lobcock.

Marking his place with his finger, rapidly he compared the placement of the numbers above 1200 with those below.  It was possible…

Without knocking, oblivious, Myddelton’s private secretary and cousin, Mr. Thomas Broke, entered carrying a tray with the morning’s newspaper and post upon it.  The correspondence he had sorted already:  invitations were opened and laid out chronologically; letters of estate business had also been opened; private or official letters he had left, their many coloured seals intact, in a neat pile.

“Good morning, my lord.”

Myddelton put up his hand to still any further conversation as he scribbled notes along the margin of the second letter.  “What is it, Tom?” he murmured without looking up.

Broke hesitated, then glanced warily at his employer.  “It’s…”  He swallowed.  “…morning,” he said.  “I’ve brought the post.”

Blinking, Myddelton raised his eyes.  “Go away, Tom.  Just go away.”

And his finger upon the phrase of numbers he was attempting to decipher, Myddelton blew out a long breath of satisfaction.  Hell and all its angels, he had it.  He’d broken into the bastard.  He looked across at the slices of light penetrating the half-shut draperies.  It was morning.  He had been here all night.

Uncertain, Broke hovered like a young peahen transfixed by a hunter’s boots.

Myddelton sat back in his seat to stare at the ceiling roundel, mercifully unenhanced by the frolicking presence of naked Roman deities with attendant nymphs.  His legs were stiff from sitting too long.  “All right,” he sighed, giving way.  His eyes ached with the light, the fatigue.  ’Struth, if he shut them, he’d be asleep where he sat.  “Right…” he said absently.  “What have you got there?  Anything from Hinton?”

Relieved, Broke set the tray down in front of his employer, his great and handsome cousin.  “Yes.  He writes that he has cleared the pasture down by Gander Bottom, just like you said, and has moved the two mares in there, and that seems to have solved the problem.  And Morley writes that Mrs. Fred is breeding again and he expects the litter before midsummer.”

Dragging his mind away from the French and their pestilential codes, Myddelton tried to summon some enthusiasm.  He rubbed at his forehead.  “Excellent.  Tell him to put aside a bitch for Pemberton, will you?  Any word yet on the new stable block?”

“No, my lord, not yet.”  Mr. Broke paused.  He shifted his weight from one foot to the other.  “Ehm, I’m afraid that there is another letter from Ruttridge here though.”  A small missive lay open, its red seal cracked and broken, beside the invitations on the tray.  “Sent by special messenger.  He seems quite insistent this time, almost adamant, really, upon an interview.”  Broke’s eyelashes fluttered nervously.  “I have checked all the files, though I can find nothing to demand your immediate attention.  But, ehm, he has been requesting an interview f…for over six months, so perhaps…I suppose it could conceivably be about the will…”

Myddelton regarded his earnest young cousin and gave a whisper of a laugh.  “Ruttridge, eh?  ’Struth, he is a prosy old fossil.  I’ll have to see him, won’t I?”  He gazed down upon the pages yet undecoded.  He might be here for another six months altogether without cracking the whole.  Still.  “’Struth, if you say there is nothing, then, I have no doubt it will prove to be so…Tom, you exhaust me with your thoroughness…But, ehm, while I’m thinking on it…”  His concentration now well and truly broken, Myddelton poked at the invitations, then perused the letter from the persistent Ruttridge.  “Go by Weston’s today, will you, and order yourself a new coat.  The cuffs on that one are threadbare.”

Mr. Broke gave a worried glance to his cuffs.

“Yes, Tom, they are.  And I’d not like it said that Myddelton is too clench-fisted to clothe his private secretary, you know.  Particularly as it ain’t true.  Have Weston send the bill to me.”  Carelessly Myddelton broke open the seal of a letter from a cousin and read:  My gout has improved; I should be glad of a gun dog out of your Mrs. Fred when next she is in pup.  Yours, etc. 

“Truly, it’s not necessary,” Mr. Broke protested.

Myddelton looked up from the letter, regarding Broke as an elder sibling regards his awkward, underfed stripling of a younger brother.  “’Pon my soul, Tom, it is.  Indulge in your morbid fondness for funereal black, that’s as you wish, but you will order a new coat.  No, make it two.  We are agreed?

“Oh, and tell Morley he’s to put aside one of the dogs for Fitzjohn, will you?”  Myddelton yawned.  He reached for his snuff-box and again picked up the note from his solicitor.  And reread the contents.  “Adamant, I think you said?  Agitated, certainly, the old devil.  It will have to be Monday, though.  I’m meant to have this lot cracked by last week.”  He shook his head.  If he were to go up now, he could sleep for what?  Four hours perhaps.  “Send a note off.  Make it for three.”  He glanced out of the window.  “Is that the sun come out?  ’Struth, I hardly recognise it after all this time.”

And supporting his chin against his knuckles, Myddelton lifted a page from underneath the others in order to start again, to match it against the columns of numbers and the corresponding words he’d assembled.  And laid it alongside the list of bigrams.  Damned Frenchies.  “Thank you, Tom.  You’re a prince.  That’ll be all…Dans la lettre de 16ème mars, 1207 annonçait que 516.1264 donnait…”

May 1812Broke fidgeted.  He drew a sharp breath.  “Perhaps, sir, if you was to sleep more, you’d find it easier…” he ventured.

“Yes, Tom, yes…” Myddelton agreed idly.  “Have Kettering send in a fresh pot of coffee, will you?  And a tankard of ale…”

“Yes, my lord.”  Broke bowed, and withdrew, muttering under his breath, “I’m sure even Napoleon sleeps…even if it is just two hours a night, as they say…”

(c) M.M. Bennetts 2009.  All rights reserved.

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