Despite Mr. Bennet’s initial recalcitrance, he called on Mr. Bingley almost immediately, and Mr. Bingley returned his call with a visit of his own a few days later. Though Mrs. Bennet tried to have Elizabeth stay in the study, the visit had nothing to do with code craft and so Mr. Bennet sent Lizzie to wait with her sisters.
“Once Mr. Bingley has left must get your father to tell us everything about the young gentleman,” Mrs. Bennet insisted. “Mr. Bennet can hide nothing from you, nor does he wish to.”
Elizabeth was less certain of that supposition. Nor did she have any desire to learn more about Mr. Bingley, who she had determined must have a similar temperament to his close and irritating friend, Mr. Darcy.
An hour after Mr. Bingley had left, with arms linked and Mrs. Bennet’s hand atop her daughter’s arm to keep her daughter from attempting to flee, Mrs. Bennet led Elizabeth into the study. “Lizzie, you must help your father complete that cipher. No dawdling.”
“I can walk on my own,” Elizabeth said.
Mrs. Bennet ignored her.
When they entered, Mr. Bennet stood in front of the window by his desk with his cane in his right hand.
“My dear! How delightful it must have been for you to receive company!”
“I suppose you wish to ask about Mr. Bingley.”
“Why, Mr. Bennet, I would never presume, but as you have brought up the subject—”
“He is a fine young man with pleasant manners.”
“I could hardly be trusted to give such an opinion, now could I?”
“My dear Mr. Bennet! Your eyes are not failing so much as that! Was he fair or dark? Large or thin? He appeared from the window to have wide shoulders and an easy gait.”
“Are you wishing our daughters to marry the young stallion or race him?”
Elizabeth smothered a laugh.
“He is young enough and fit enough I suspect for both endeavors.”
“Must you always reduce things to jest?” Mrs. Bennet coughed furiously. “This conversation is not fit for a young lady’s ears.”
“Then I will spare you further humor, my dear,” Mr. Bennet said. “For you are as fair as the day I married you, and I would not ask you to age a day.”
“Well!” Mrs. Bennet clasped her hands at her throat. “Oh, my dear Mr. Bennet.”
Elizabeth averted her gaze. Her father was never needlessly cruel, but she sensed some manipulation in his compliments. Perhaps it was because of the traits he valued, beauty had become—with the deterioration of his eyesight—the least important to him.
Still, it made Mrs. Bennet happy, and that happiness eased some of the tension between mother and daughter. For that, Elizabeth was relieved.
Mrs. Bennet attempted to pull a few more details about the gentleman from her husband, but it was in vain. Eventually, in a flurry of movement and chatter, she left again.
Elizabeth went to the shelf and took down some of her and her father’s notes on previously solved and common keys for substitution ciphers. She dropped the books on the desk with a satisfying thump before beginning to page through them.
“And you, Lizzie, did you have questions about young Mr. Bingley?”
“He is a friend of Mr. Darcy’s, is he not?”
“Mr. Darcy is staying at Netherfield Park as Mr. Bingley’s guest.”
“Then there is nothing more I need to know.”
“You should not let this Mr. Darcy irritate you so,” Mr. Bennet said.
“It is fortunate I dislike him. If he were a gentleman in manner as well as inheritance, then for fear of breaking my mother’s heart at the possibility of a good match, I would feel badly for letting him learn of my eccentricities,” Elizabeth said bitterly.
“Most men do not search for ciphering in a wife.” Even if Mrs. Bennet had not insisted on telling Elizabeth such at every available opportunity, Mr. John Dunn, her first suitor, had taught her how damaging to her prospects sharing her love of codes and ciphers could be.
“A woman may play with puzzles, but for heaven’s sake, no more talk of war. Such missives are not appropriate for a lady or a wife.”
Jane had grabbed and held Elizabeth’s arm before she could smack him, and then later that evening, Jane held Elizabeth as she cried.
It was fortunate then, that Elizabeth despised Mr. Darcy. His dismissal of her had been irritating, but since she had no hope or interest of a match with him, she was free to prove herself and, without physical violence, remove that expression of smug coldness from his face.
Mr. Bennet said, “Lizzie, you are a diamond of the first order. If a man cannot recognize that, it is his failing, not yours.”
Elizabeth swallowed. Her father was sometimes selfish in his jests, but he loved her, and, almost as importantly, he understood her.
Unfortunately, he was also wrong.
To secure a husband, Elizabeth would have to play the fool and hide her own abilities. It didn’t preclude a love match, which was her true desire. After she had achieved her husband’s regard in other areas, she would reveal her ciphering. Society expected a man and woman to marry knowing little about each other. Every person had their secrets. Love was born of an instinctive understanding of another’s character. She would do better to abandon the foolish hope of finding a husband who encouraged her less acceptable interests. It was foolishness, plain and simple.
“Papa, would you have chosen a wife who could decipher as well as you?”
Mr. Bennet laughed. “Dear Lizzie, I doubt any woman could decipher as well as myself, excepting you, who are a part of my flesh and blessed with a youngster’s eyes.”
Elizabeth flipped through the books quickly. None of the standard keys had yielded results or inspiration, a surprise to neither her nor her father.
Over the following week, Elizabeth split her time between a slew of decoding requests from Sir Drake’s office and Mr. Darcy’s cipher.
Though the afternoons held the brisk, watery sunlight that Elizabeth found ideal for walking, even during those sabbaticals, Mr. Darcy’s letter dominated her every sense. She would solve it and prove to the prig that she was not merely an ornament, but a capable and intelligent if not a proper woman.
Latin substitution ciphers were relatively simple, each word a replacement for a letter in the alphabet. Of course, it depended on the alphabet. This letter had been addressed to Mr. Darcy’s younger sister. An educated young lady of her age was likely to know French, Latin, and English at the least. Considering the letter had come from France and was written in mock Latin, English was the most likely language for the message to be written in.
Elizabeth first determined which words in the Latin “prayer” appeared most frequently, and assigned them a common letter: S, R, E, L, O, and T. Then through various iterations, tried to get a sense of what the message might be. It was complicated by a lack of punctuation or sign of spaces between words, not to mention the splotches of water on the final two pages.
Every day, after they finished their official work, Elizabeth read out each trial to her father, and they discussed the possibilities for the message’s content until Mr. Bennet dozed off. Then Elizabeth continued on her own, and, through brute force, she managed to make sense of the first half.
DELIUERTHISTOLORDCUNNINGHAMANDREMEMBERTHEBUTTERFLIESFrom there it was lines and lines of gibberish, further confused by an increasing number of water-stained words on the final two pages, rendering the last few lines illegible.
Elizabeth penned out a letter outlining her initial progress. It was frustrating to have to take so long with it. The codes used by their own agents were more regular, and perhaps Elizabeth had grown complacent with the ease of solving them. Worse, the second half of this cipher looked like a different code altogether. Whoever Lord Cunningham was likely had the key on hand. Elizabeth doubted it concerned Miss Darcy at all, but she had promised herself she would decipher the entire thing, and giving up halfway felt like admitting defeat.
She tried running the remaining text through various shift and substitution ciphers, but without a hint as to the method of encoding, it was a like throwing horseshoes blind. Frequency yielded little insight. Elizabeth’s eyes were burning when Jane stepped into Mr. Bennet’s study and called the pair for dinner.
“Huh?” Mr. Bennet sat up suddenly. His glasses sat askew on his nose, and he adjusted them. “What time is it?”
“Dinner, father,” Jane said. “You worked through tea. How goes Mr. Darcy’s puzzle?”
Elizabeth looked down at her scrawled notes. “Soon,” she said. “The first half is done.”
Jane smiled. “That is good news. I gave you and Papa as much time as possible, but our mother and sisters await us.”
Elizabeth stood and stretched her arms over her head as her joints cracked. Outside the window, the rosy orange of sunset kissed the horizon. Now Elizabeth was not caught up in the cipher, she realized she had become quite chilly.
“Go ahead with your sister,” Mr. Bennet said. “I will straighten up in here.”
Which was Mr. Bennet’s excuse to forestall sitting at the table and being subjected to his wife and daughters’ girlish chatter for as long as possible.
“Yes, Father,” Elizabeth said, and linking arms with her sister, they walked together from the study.
As they entered the dining room, Lydia and Kitty were both flushed with excitement, their voices high and fast as they spoke to Mrs. Bennet, who leaned forward with interest, and Mary, who sat back ramrod-straight with her hands folded on her lap.
“Madame Godiva said my future husband has hair like the sun, and that I would meet him soon.”
“She said your fate was entwined with a man with bright blond hair—” Kitty interrupted.
“Of course!” Lydia exclaimed, tapping her palm on the table. The china rattled. “That gentleman is my future husband. Why else would my fate be entwined with a strange and handsome man?”
Mrs. Bennet nodded eagerly. “I have heard from some of the ladies in the village that Madame Godiva has some Gypsy blood, and this allows her these visions.”
“She did not say. But—”
“I think you should be more cautious, sister,” Mary interrupted. “Does not the Bible warn us of becoming enamored of false idols?”
“I do not intend to worship the woman,” Lydia retorted with exasperation. “I merely state she has a gift. I told you about the buggy accident.”
Elizabeth glanced at Jane, who gave a minute shake of her head.
Lydia, seeing that her two oldest sisters had joined them, exclaimed, “Good and finally, you are here. I am famished. Where is Father?”
Lydia breathed out sharply through her nose. “I wish he would hurry. We are having Cornish hens with blackberry sauce.”
“You were telling us about Madame Godiva,” Mrs. Bennet said.
“Yes! Yes! Kitty and I, as has become our custom, went to pay a visit to the soldiers in town, and that is where we met Madame Godiva. She has a gift!”
The door to the dining room opened again, and Mr. Bennet entered. He stood straight and tall, barely leaning on the ornate wooden cane in his right hand. It was an unacknowledged truth in the household that Mr. Bennet used the cane more to ensure he did not trip over any small objects in the halls rather than to steady his gait. He glared in Lydia’s general direction and said, “What is this ruckus? I thought we were having dinner.”
“Mr. Bennet!” Mrs. Bennet crossed the room and linked her arm through her husband’s free one. “It is a joy to see you up and about.”
“I am often up and about as there is nothing wrong with my legs,” Mr. Bennet responded crossly.
“Or your stomach, I suspect. Girls, say good evening to your father. I will have the first course brought in.”
Elizabeth and Jane took their seats at the table while Lydia explained again in a rush about her discovery of Madame Godiva and what the fortune teller had shared about Lydia’s future prospects.”
Mr. Bennet asked, “How much did she charge you?”
“Nothing, Father! Madame Godiva stepped out of her shop, and when her gaze met mine, I was transfixed. Her eyes are two different shades of green, one bright and the other dark. And when her eyes caught mine, a curious sensation passed over me, as though the fierceness of her gaze had tickled something in my soul.”
“I should hope you didn’t laugh too hard,” Mr. Bennet said, his lips twitching with amusement at his own joke. “A tickling of the soul can be overwhelming.”
Mrs. Bennet asked, “What did this Madame Godiva tell you?”
“She said an inner revelation had compelled her to step out from her wagon, and that same impulse drew her to me. Me! She said she should like to read my palm, and I told her I had no extra coin, but she insisted. She said for one with her gifts, the compulsion to right a wrong sometimes took over her limbs and she had no choice but to do as her gift demanded.”
Now Elizabeth was intrigued. “Which wrong did she need to correct?”
“I could only imagine it was that horrible Mr. Darcy and how abysmally he treated me when he called on us. I hope Mr. Bingley is of a better temperament! Papa says he is a gentleman, but there are different types of gentlemen.”
Lydia sighed, and then resting her fork on her plate, continued. “But Madame Godiva led me into her wagon, and it was the most remarkable place, with bright red and gold curtains and a sweet incense that made me almost feel lightheaded.”
“You went with her on your own?” Mr. Bennet asked.
“What harm could she do? I had no money, and she was alone. Just one small, old woman and her wagon with all of her worldly possessions.”
“One small woman who you saw, and who knew how many other compatriots!” Mr. Bennet interjected. “I do not approve of you and Kitty going so far on your own. Not if you refuse to exercise such basic caution as to not throw yourself willy-nilly into a stranger’s wagon.”
“Oh, Mr. Bennet! Your fatherly regard and care for your daughters is without bound,” Mrs. Bennet said in a vain attempt to soothe her husband’s ire. “But two young ladies cannot be forced to spend all of their time indoors, constrained to the bounds of our estate.”
“I should think it would be easier on your nerves to know with confidence that all of your daughters are safe,” Mr. Bennet said dryly.
“Oh! And now you remind me of my nerves. Mr. Bennet, will nothing satisfy you beyond my accompanying Lydia and Kitty on their next excursion into town?” Before Mr. Bennet could respond, Mrs. Bennet continued, “Of course, nothing would satisfy you. I must accompany my daughters and witness this woman’s gifts for myself. Tomorrow. The assembly is in a fortnight, and we will have much in small essentials to acquire in any case. Mary will also join us.”
Mary’s head shot up. “Mother! I do not wish to consort with false idols.”
“Oh, calm yourself, Mary. She is a fortune teller, not a Biblical plague. We will stop at the music shop after she has told you something useful about your future and you can look over the sheet music.”
“Yes, Mother,” Mary pressed her lips together and stabbed her half-eaten meat with her fork.
“And Lizzie and Jane as well.”
Elizabeth looked up from her plate. She was not to be so easily persuaded by sheet music and platitudes. “I am satisfied with my existing gowns and bonnets for the Saturday assembly.”
“Satisfied! Well, that is hardly enough. All five of you, unmarried, and you will present only a satisfying appearance to Mr. Bingley. Should we play our hand correctly, he will certainly choose one of you as his wife.”
“If Mr. Bingley has hair like the sun,” Lydia said, “perhaps he is the man my fate is entwined with.”
“A man with hair like the sun is neither specific nor unique,” Mr. Bennet said. “How is it you are so convinced of this woman’s gifts?”
“Because of the cart. She said an unexpected calamity would slow our journey from town, but that all would work out by the evening. And our cart… the wheel was caught in the mud as we left town. I feared it was a broken axle, as did the driver, but a young officer—”
“And a handsome one,” Kitty interjected.
“His hair was brown,” Lydia said dismissively. “He helped extricate our cart, and we were able from that point to return home. So you understand, this was a sign of Madame Godiva’s power. She can see the future, and I believe I will soon meet the man I will marry.”
Mr. Bennet said, “So long as you are properly supervised and expect only your allowance to spend on her services, I suppose it’s no more of a frippery than another bonnet or dress.”
“Oh, Mr. Bennet!” Mrs. Bennet clutched her hands to her chest. “We must use all methods at our disposal before a woman of lesser quality than our daughters snatches this fine, available young gentleman away from us.”
“And if this Mr. Bingley is of a similar character to Mr. Darcy?”
“Impossible,” Lydia said, placing her knife in the joint of the hen’s wing and cutting viciously. “That stiff and insufferable man is one of a kind.”
Elizabeth was inclined to agree.
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