Little Secrets


The early dawn silence was shattered by the crash of distant cannon fire.  Antoine stirred in his sleep, and then awoke.

"Every morning," he groaned sitting up. "Mon Dieu! How long must this war go on for?"

He felt a hand on his arm and turned to see his wife looking up at him sleepily.  He bent down and kissed her forehead.

"Good morning, my love."

"I am still sleeping," she replied with mock indignation.

He smiled and kissed her again, and then got out of bed, shivering on the cold flagstones as he put on his gown and leather slippers.  He shuffled through to the kitchen to light a fire in the hearth and hang a pot for hot water.  He then opened the shutters and gazed for a while over the sleeping rooftops of Lombard towards the distant, hazy city walls of Réalmont.  He listened to the continuing explosions.

"Poor bastards," he muttered.

His reverie was interrupted by the clattering of hooves on the cobble-stoned street below his house.

He looked down to see two soldiers pull up on horseback, trailing a third horse. One of the soldiers, a plume-helmeted lieutenant, dismounted and banged on the house front door.

"What is it?" shouted down Antoine from the window.

The lieutenant looked up.  "Monsieur Rossignol? Antoine Rossignol?"

"Yes?"

"You are to come with us, please.  Général Duchamps has requested your presence at the camp at Réalmont. Immediately."

"What are you talking about?" objected Antoine. "I cannot just leave! I have students to teach! What does he want?"

"I'm afraid I must insist," said the lieutenant. "We will wait while you get ready."
Antoine sighed and turned from the window.  His wife looked at him anxiously as he returned to the bedroom. "Who was that?"

"Soldiers of the prince.  I've been summoned to see one his generals."

"Why you?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Who knows?  Perhaps he needs help counting his cannons."

"This is no time for jokes, Antoine.  You are not a soldier and have no business there."

"Do you think I want to go? But what choice do I have?"

"But..."

"Clarisse, enough.  I will go, and I will come back.  Please help me fetch me my things."
His wife scowled, but helped him get ready.

"Please don't fret, my love," said Antoine, kissing his wife's forehead as he was about to leave.  "I will take care and will be back soon, I promise."

He then opened the front door and was helped onto his horse by the waiting soldier and rode off along the narrow streets of Lombard until they reached the country road to Réalmont.  The morning was still young and a reluctant mist clung to the fields. The road was dry, even with the recent rains, and despite his apprehension, Antoine felt an uncustomary thrill as they galloped past miles of poplar-lined countryside.

He heard the siege camp before he saw it, but then at the crest of a hill it appeared below: a vast sprawl of white tents flying the purple hawk crest of Henri II of Bourbon. Beyond the camp lay the great fortified gate of Réalmont.

They trotted into the camp, mud splashing surly soldiers huddled around morning camp fires as they passed, until finally they came to a halt in front of a large tent, and dismounted.

"Come with me," said the lieutenant.

Antoine followed him into the tent containing a chart-covered table, some draped chairs, a large studded chest and a simple camp bed.  An older soldier wearing a nightshirt stood stooped over the charts, scratching his stubble.

He looked up. "Ah, Monsieur Rossignol," he said. "Do come in, and thank you for coming at such short notice." He took a step towards Antoine and extended his hand. "I am, despite my rustic appearances, Général Duchamps, commander of this patch of mud."

Antoine bowed and shook his hand.  "Monsieur Général, I am honoured indeed to be here, but I don't quite understand..."

"Yes, my apologies for the secrecy and summoning you like this. War unfortunately curtails the freedoms of all, does it not?"

Antoine did not reply, so the general continued, "Ah well, there it is.  We have a matter of great importance that you perhaps can help us with. You are a mathematician, I understand?"

"Yes."

"And what is your view of this war? You are, I understand, Catholic?"
Antoine shrugged.  "I am indeed, but it is a war. War is unfortunate."

"You don't believe in the cause, then? The extermination of these Huguenot protestant heretics?"

Antoine eyed the general cautiously before replying slowly.  "I believe in the truth of the Church, but I also believe in man's fallibility. Truth can be hard to perceive."

The general chuckled. "A diplomat, philosopher and mathematician.... and I am told with some enthusiasm for cryptography, I think it is called?  The deciphering of codes?"

Antoine shuffled uncomfortably.  "It is but a hobby of mine, Monsieur le Général."

"Do not be modest, Monsieur.  Your reputation in this area precedes you."  The general then handed Antoine a piece of paper containing a few lines of text.  Antoine looked at it curiously.  It was clearly a coded message: the letters were carefully arranged in a grid, but made no immediate sense.

"It appears to be a code," he said.

The general smiled. "It certainly does, Monsieur.  We intercepted a messenger from the city.  He was carrying this, but sadly did not live long enough to reveal its contents. We have such enthusiastic soldiers, you see.  So, we are hoping you might be able to help."

~
"Fool, fool, arrogant fool, Antoine! To think you could solve this riddle. Oh, you come highly recommended, do you?  Not after this!" He swept the papers off the table in disgust.  The key to the code had eluded him so far, despite hours of struggle, and he held is face in despair. Initially the excitement at a new challenge had absorbed his attention, but as the puzzle failed repeated attempts at solving using standard decryption techniques, the young man became increasingly anxious.  His lack of conviction over the Catholic cause was not a secret, and he worried that his inability to decipher the code might be considered deliberate by the enthusiastic army which surrounded him.

"Monsieur?"

Antoine looked up.  A small man dressed in drab civilian clothes and a white cap entered the tent bearing a tray of food.

"Pardon Monsieur for interrupting your work.  Monsieur le Général asked that I bring you something to eat," said the man.

Antoine waved it away. "I am not hungry."

The man did not leave.

"Thank you, but no," insisted Antoine. "I have to finish this first. I cannot afford distractions."

The man approached and carefully put the tray on the table.

"Monsieur, I beg you to at least take a look at what I have prepared." He removed the tray cover to reveal a bowl of steaming fragrant vegetable broth, bread and cheese.  Antoine relented - he was hungry after all, and perhaps a little break would be good.  The man watched as he took a sip of the soup.

"Oh my goodness,” exclaimed Antoine. “It's exquisite!"

The man beamed.  "It is my secret recipe."

"You are a chef?"

"I am, Monsieur.  The personal chef to Monsieur le Général."

"But you are not a soldier," remarked Antoine, gesturing to the chef's clothes.

"No, Monsieur. I am too small and feeble to be of such service to my country."

"So instead you cook magical soups?"

The chef blushed slightly.  "I do my best, Monsieur."

Antoine continued to eat in silence, then said, "So, tell me. What's in the soup?  I can see the vegetables and guess some of the herbs, but there is something else I cannot place."

"I regret I cannot say, Monsieur, the recipe is a little secret of mine, but I will say that sometimes the secret of recipes is not in the basic ingredients, but in the way they are combined to form more complex ingredients..."

Antoine looked up suddenly. "Mon Dieu!" he exclaimed.  The chef frowned. Antoine quickly pushed his tray to one side and leaned down to pick up his papers off the floor. "You see," he continued excitedly, waving the encoded message, "your soup is like this secret message. And when we try to decipher it, we look for basic ingredients, the letters, and seek familiar patterns, like the fact that a letter which occurs the most often may well represent the letter 'e'."

The chef nodded, still frowning slightly.


"But!"  Antoine raised a triumphant finger.  "Fool that I am for missing it until you spoke, in this case, and that is what has frustrated me until now, I have been looking for simple ingredients, not complex ones.  Not letters..." He paused for dramatic effect. "But syllables!"

He did not wait for a response, and peered intently at the message in his hand, then at his letter charts, and then started scribbling furiously on a blank page, muttering to himself.  The chef quietly cleared away the dishes on to the tray and slipped out of the tent without a word.

~
And thus it happened that Antoine Rossignol, formerly of cobble-stoned Rue Navier, Lombard, teacher of mathematics and husband to Clarisse, solved the encoded message of Réalmont. The message was found to be a desperate plea for provisions and ammunition to allies of the city, and when presented to the city the next day in decoded form, resulted in prompt surrender.
The means of the victory came to the attention of His Grand Eminence, Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to Louis XIII, and Antoine was summoned to the Palace of Versailles with his wife where he became chief cryptographer to the king.  He decoded many more such messages, and developed the Grand Cipher, which for many a generation defined modern French cryptography.

History does not however mention, at least until now, the chef with a penchant for little secrets.

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