Ditchley Park, England, 1650
The letter arrived tightly sealed and folded many times. Nan flipped over the parchment, noting the worn creases, and confirmed the tiny intricate cutout was undisturbed. This message had travelled far and through many hands, some friendly, some not. She ran her thumb across the fold just above her name.
Yes. She smiled. Frances had learned her new skill well and used it adroitly.
The small tag which projected from the top left corner, no greater than a nail paring, would not be noticed by any but the sharpest eyes. Attention would be on the seal, a perfectly innocent falcon set in red wax. No interceptor would note the tag disappearing when the wax was softened and prized open. Only the recipient would know someone had tampered with the letter and resealed it.
Lady Anne Wilmot, Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire.
A simple address, Frances’s dear cousin in England, anxious to receive news of a baby safely delivered or a recipe for a physick.
Besides, what woman in a man’s world would be receiving cryptography, for surely the fair sex had no mind for the concealment of subtle thinking, politicking or other seditious behaviours? Nan Wilmot may have a reputation for being a shrewd bargainer and a good custodian of her children’s inheritance, but these were the confines of her faculties.
And she intended such opinion of her would remain.
Confident of her chamber’s privacy, Nan swiftly removed the cushion and lifted the dark oak seat of a large chair by the fireplace. Shifting first the left leg and then the right, she converted the chair into a desk and removed the inset writing box with its ivory-handled pen knife. In a few heartbeats, she slit open Frances’s letter. Drawing a candle close, she angled the parchment to catch the golden light.
My dear Nan
We are safely in Paris and greeted with much warmth by Mr. Jonathan Nash, who has taken great pains to introduce us to his friends and make us welcome. I am to visit the Convent of Our Lady this afternoon to continue the charitable works I started in England. I hope you received my note from Dover, and I would be grateful if you could send me Johanna’s recipe for the falling sickness, with the ingredients called out. Allen has a friend who suffers from this malady, and we would like to offer him consolation. In haste and in health.
Your affectionate cousin
Nan placed the parchment on her desk and leaned back, relief in her heart. Allen was safe. Not only safe, but now connected with their cousin Sir Edward Hyde, whose code name Frances had slipped so naturally into her missive. The king’s counselor welcomed them into the network, set Frances up with her contacts at the convent and, as agreed, sent a first request. Within the falling sickness recipe and list of ingredients, an update of safe houses would be written in lemon juice between the lines.
The fire flared blue, a hidden bead of resin popped, startling Nan from her thoughts. She took up the parchment again and held it towards the candle. Frances performed well. The convent was the main office for the distribution of news and intelligence in Paris, for who but the spinster daughters of exiled papists and secret Royalists could be trusted with the sacred intelligence of their beloved king?
Satisfied no other news was hidden within the document, yet saddened there was no word of Henry, she held the letter to the flame, teasing the corner to catch before tossing it to the fire. A flare as the note settled, and Frances’s writing curled and danced before blackening and turning to ash.#
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