The Newton Cipher – Snippet 08
Trina woke refreshed, the soft light of a cloudy English morning filtering through the curtains. Jet lag did not seem to be a problem — she’d fallen asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. Maybe it was Alice’s chamomile.
Just before she’d fallen asleep, she checked to make sure the British Library was open on Saturday. It was. She fished two crumpled sticky notes out of her backpack. When Edelstein had asked her to take his place in authenticating the Newton papers, he’d written down the name of the contact he’d been given at the Library:
Alfie Gill, Early-Modern Manuscripts Curator, Brit. Lib.
Edelstein had also written down the name of his good friend at Cambridge University, who had originally referred him to this Alfie Gill:
Fiona McFee, Professor of Renaissance History, Queen’s College, Cam. U.
Trina didn’t know if she’d have time to meet Professor McFee, but she said she would try. McFee was a legend; every historian with an interest in the later middle ages and Renaissance knew of Fiona McFee, a specialist in Renaissance magic. Her work on occultism and alchemy had helped redefine the intellectual achievements of that era.
According to an old guidebook Edelstein had given her, the Library was about two miles away. Her American smartphone didn’t work here in the United Kingdom — she realized that last night when she’d tried to text Sammy — but she knew she could get a SIM card for her phone that would let her use it in England.
She got up, put on black leggings, a thick grey sweater, and Edelstein’s necklace, then put the sticky notes onto the little notebook she carried with her alongside the number of the guy from Interpol.
She’d listened to his message twice more before falling asleep. He had said to call him at her convenience, and he was apparently in Italy, so calling from her room’s landline phone would incur long-distance charges. Well, her convenience would be as soon as she a new SIM card.
Breakfast was incredible, and Trina hadn’t realized how hungry she was. She hadn’t eaten a full meal since the flight. Warm sausages (“bangers,” Alice called them), grilled slices of thick tomato, baked beans, and piping hot scones with jam. A big pot of tea, as well.
“The quickest way to the British Library is on the Tube,” Alice said. “Get on at Marble Arch, just down the street. Switch lines at Oxford Circus, up to King’s Cross. It’s just a short walk from there.”
“The Tube,” Trina paused. “Is it safe?”
“Oh,” Alice said. “You mean the killings? Those are tragic. Some madman. Or madmen. That’s life in London these days. Terrorists, murderers, we have them all. Just do what all the signs say.”
“What signs?” Trina gave her a quizzical look.
“Keep calm and carry on,” Alice said, feigning an official-sounding voice. “It started during the Second World War, and had a resurgence of late. It’s almost become London’s unofficial motto.” Seeing Trina’s frown, Alice patted her shoulder. “But now I’m worrying you. Look, these Tube killings have all been at night, and a fair bit west of here. Just stay with the crowds, which shouldn’t be too hard on a busy shopping Saturday.”
With an unexpected hug, Alice sent Trina on her way. Getting the SIM card was a matter of a few minutes at a kiosk, and she bought a London transport pass as well.
She crossed the street (carefully, this time) to the vast expanse of London’s famous Hyde Park. The trees were mostly bare, but a few still clung to their leaves. A sidewalk paralleled the busy street, and Trina joined Londoners walking along, crunching fallen leaves under her feet.
She stopped at the infamous Speaker’s Corner, where everyone from Orwell to Marx to Lenin took advantage of the literal soapbox to spout off to whomever would listen. But today it was quiet, no one wanting to stop and espouse politics on a crisp November morning.
Trina turned left along a path and came to the entrance to the Marble Arch Underground station. She took a deep breath.
She carried on, down the escalator, into the warren of tunnels beneath London.
The Tube was a breeze — there was nothing to it, other than a bit of confusion at Oxford Circus when she was so turned around she almost go on a train going the opposite direction. She laughed at herself for having been so worried. There were so many people riding she felt perfectly safe — no one would try anything in crowds like these. And yes, the posters were everywhere: Keep calm and carry on.
At Kings Cross, she fought more crowds along Euston Road, past the castle-like bulk of St Pancras train station, until the giant, red-brick bulk of the British Library came into view.
In the foyer, a guard at the desk waved her over. Trina handed him her passport and asked for Alfie Gill.
“All visiting researchers to our manuscripts department are required to provide a letter of recommendation from a senior scholar on your institution’s letterhead.”
“Right,” Trina said, pulling Edelstein’s envelope from her backpack. It occurred to her then that she hadn’t actually opened it yet. It was short and sweet, introducing her and asking that any institution extend her every due courtesy as a scholar. It made her proud, and the thought of Edelstein reminded her she should text Sammy to find out how he was doing.
She handed the letter to the guard, who made photo copy of it and had her sign in. He picked up his phone, spoke, then hung up.
“Mr. Gill will be out shortly.”
“Do I have time to make a call?”
The guard nodded and pointed to a sign on the wall behind him: Mobile phones may only be used in the Library Foyer.
She stuffed the letter back in the pocket of her coat and found a quiet corner. She called the number left by Ulrik Stander, but got his voice mail.
“Hi, uh, this is Trina Piper. You left a message for me about Alasdair Edelstein. And, ah … yes, I found him in his house the other night, but … I’m not sure how I can help Interpol? You said you were with an art division? Anyway, I’m doing research today at the British Library and my phone will be off but you can leave a message. The number is …”
Just as she finished, a heavy, bespectacled man came through a door behind the guard desk marked Staff Only. His threadbare tweed jacket was too long and loose for his squat frame, the sides flapped behind him as he strode toward her.
“Trina Piper?” The man extended a plump hand, shaking hers vigorously. “Alfred Gill. But everyone here calls me Alfie. I’m the assistant director of special collections. It’s such a pleasure to meet you. Please, follow me.”
The guard buzzed them through the Staff Only door, and Trina followed Alfie Gill into the bowels of the British Library. They passed narrow rows of shelves stacked with books ten-feet high, ducked behind heavy, fireproof doors and down hallways, making their way into the bowels of one of the world’s second-largest libraries. Gill chattered the entire time.
“… Edelstein came highly recommended by Professor McFee. But then he recommended you just as highly. I can not tell you how happy we are to have someone with your expertise to look at these pages.”
“Why me — or Edelstein?” she said. “Surely there must be a dozen British scholars who can authenticate a Newton manuscript?”
“True, true,” he said, leading her to a locked door. Fishing a key out of his pocket, he opened it and ushered her through with a gentlemanly sweep of his arm. Their labyrinthine journey had ended in a small room. Trina looked around. There was a table with a gray archival box and two sets of white cotton gloves; two simple chairs were nearby. Gill closed the door and offered her one of the chairs.
“British scholars will of course make the official announcement. But, as I’m sure you can understand, before we make a public statement we want to make sure what we’ve found is indeed authentic. Imagine: never-before discovered papers of Sir Isaac Newton! It will be the historical discovery of the decade. But should we announce such a thing too quickly and they turn out to be forgeries, we would look ridiculous. The concern of our director is that British scholars would not be impartial in this matter. They might … jump the gun. So we turned to Edelstein, and now, to you.”
“But what about Professor McFee, at Cambridge? She must know about this. After all, you said she was the one who first recommended Edelstein.”
“I only told her that we needed some seventeenth-century documents authenticated, and asked if she could recommend someone — someone outside Britain. And of course, I must insist you not take any photos of these documents during your investigation. I’m sure you understand. Shall we get started?”
“I understand. And yes, lets.”
He pulled on a pair of gloves and she did the same. Oils from their skin, or dirt from their hands, could damage the old, fragile documents.
“Are they all paper?” she asked. “Rag or some sort of flax pulp?”
“Partly,” Gill said, taking the lid off the box. “The bundle we found contained documents that seem to have been produced at different times. Two have been identified as standard paper pulp, beaten from combed flax.”
“Stamper?” she said, referring to the type of large wooden press used in the middle ages and Renaissance to help flatten wet pulp into sheets of paper.
“Yes. They bear the standard, pre-Hollander beater marks.”
Trina was thrilled to be talking shop with a fellow expert. “That certainly fits with the late-seventeenth, early-eighteenth century time frame. Well within the parameters of Newton’s life.”
“You mentioned that they were partly paper. Was there vellum as well?”
“Indeed,” Gill said. He dipped into the box and pulled out the first of the documents, a broad sheet that bore multiple fold marks. At the bottom was an attached ribbon, affixed with a wax seal. “This one is vellum parchment.”
“Thin sheepskin,” Trina said. “Far more expensive back then, but made to last a very long time. And reusable — you could just scrape the ink off and write over it today, if you wanted to.”
“I can’t tell you how many vellum parchments we have in our collection that look like they were just written a few decades ago, if not yesterday. Astounding stuff.”
“Is that a royal seal?” Trina reached forward and gently lifted the hard, coin-shaped blob of red wax that dangled at the bottom of the parchment’s ribbon. It looked like a polished stone — it was almost certainly hundreds of years old. Impressed into the wax on one side was an image of a seated ruler holding an orb and scepter — the standard symbology of a king. On the other was an image of a galloping horse and a rider holding a sword. Around the edges was an inscription in latin.
“Regius Caroli II … King Charles the Second. That also checks out.”
“This is a contract,” Gill said. “I’ve gone over it. My latin is rusty, but it contains multiple provisions for some kind of work-for-hire. In addition to a lot of what we would call boilerplate, it specifies the delivery of two products. One is referred to as the ‘medicine,’ medicinae, and the other as the ‘cleanser,’ or purgo. You are welcome to review it at your convenience. But here …” he pointed to the bottom of the contract “… is the signature.”
Is. Newton, baccalaureus artium.
“And these,” Gill produced a sheet of paper, “are photocopies of known examples of Newton’s signature, from various periods in his life. The consistency is notable.”
“Do you have any originals of those?”
“No, not here, sorry.”
Trina reached into her backpack and pulled out a thick black folio. Unzipped and opened flat, it contained a number of brushes, magnifying glasses, and watchmaker’s lenses. She selected a magnifying glass with a built-in light.
“Please,” Gill said, carefully placing the contract on the table in front of her.
Trina stood to get a better angle, holding the magnifier over the signature. She compared it to the known examples. Some of Newton’s autographs were loose and flowing — quite messy, really, with letters of inconsistent size, the kind of signature often found on personal correspondence. Others were neat and tight, the sort of penmanship reserved for more formal or official documents. But in all of the examples, Newton rarely appeared to sign his full first name, instead abbreviating it to the first two letters. On the contract in question, the signature was nearly an exact match to some of the signatures on Gill’s sheet.
“I’d like to do a ph and salts test. It will require just a tiny sample of ink.”
Gill frowned. “You won’t damage it?”
“Just a little scrape. It’s part of the process.”
“Well, I suppose that’s why we hired you. Please be careful, Miss Piper.”
“Of course, Mr. Gill.”
“Please, call me Alfie.”
Trina selected a small metal needle and a tiny plastic vial from her kit. Scraping a bit of dried brown-black ink and the paper beneath it from Newton’s signature, she dropped the tiny flake in the vial. Then she added a few drops of liquid from a small bottle.
“Polar solvent. Ethyl acetate.” She swirled the vial gently, then pulled a tiny flashlight from the kit and flicked it on. The light was a bright blue-purple.
“Ultraviolet,” she said. Glints of color reflected at the bottom of the liquid.
“See that? Ferric salts and tannic acid. It’s definitely iron gall ink. A thin-layer chromatography test in a lab would confirm it, but without taking this parchment out of this room, I would say the signature is authentic. I would, however, like to see other authenticated samples of Newton’s signature to be sure. Not just scans.”
“That can easily be arranged. A number of our partner intuitions in England hold Newton manuscripts. Cambridge University, where Newton was both a student and professor, is one of them, and only an hour away by train.”
“That would be perfect. I want to get up there anyway and meet Professor McFee. I understand you have other documents for me to inspect? Ones that are encoded?”
“Yes,” Gill dipped into the box again. “And this is the real mystery.”
He pulled out two sheets of brownish, brittle looking paper. Trina immediately recognized them as octavo-sized sheets — a fairly standard size paper during the late-medieval and Renaissance periods, obtained by folding a large sheet of blank paper from a paper mill into eight — octo, in latin. Multiple octavo bundles were bound together to form the pages of books.
“They look like they were cut from a notebook,” she said as Gill set them down in front of her. “Look at the edges on the left hand sides — a blade made these. But these symbols written on them … what are they?”
The first sheet was covered, front and back, with strange, squiggly characters written in precise hand. Many of the characters were unknown to Trina, but interspersed among them were those she clearly recognized as alchemical symbols. She saw the four elements: air, earth, fire, and water. And symbols for metals, too: sulphur, mercury, and gold, among others.
There were no alchemical symbols on the second sheet. In fact, it was mostly blank, with two lines of those odd, squiggle-characters on one side, and another two lines on the other. The lines had half a page of space between each.
“We were hoping you might know. We’ve never seen anything quite like them. We assume it is some kind of code, or, more precisely, a cipher. Are you familiar with Renaissance cryptography?”
“Somewhat. Cryptography was more common back then than most people realize. Everyone from politicians to generals to alchemists used it. In the fifteenth century, learned Europeans developed means of encrypting messages, making them incomprehensible without a key, or cipher. As long as the sender and receiver both knew the key, they could communicate without fear of their message being discovered. This country’s own Queen Elizabeth I famously used cryptography to receive secret messages from her network of spies, helping to save her from the many plots against her. Some of the foundational European cryptography texts were written by the fifteenth-century German abbot Johannes Trithemius, and his works greatly influenced British spymasters, like Queen Elizabeth’s advisor John Dee and secretary of state, Francis Walsingham.”
Gill nodded, impressed. “You know your British history. Here I thought you were merely a specialist in textual authentication.”
“For my masters degree I analyzed esoteric medieval and Renaissance texts — books on medicine, the occult, that kind of thing. The kind of texts understood by a very small number of European intellectuals. Occult and magical texts were often encoded, their true meanings hidden, to avoid Church scrutiny.”
“So you’ve heard of steganography then, too?”
Trina was on a roll. “From the Greek words steganos and graphia: concealed writing. The embedding of hidden information in non-secret texts, images, or other innocent-looking media. Hiding secrets in plain sight, so to speak. Steganographia was the title of Trithemius’s most important cryptography text. It was highly influential throughout Europe, especially here in England. Why, do you think these pages are steganographic?”
“Well, you clearly know more about it than I do. But yes, they symbols are like nothing we’ve ever seen before. And they are spaced oddly — some words seem too long to be English words, and the short ones are far too frequent to be standard pronouns. The gaps and spacing are odd as well.”
Trina looked them over, carefully flipping the fragile pages with her gloved fingers. They were covered with handwritten symbols, apparently organized in sections, but otherwise without any obvious syntax.
“How do we know these are Newton’s?”
“Look at the bottom of the second page.”
Trina flipped the final page over and, at the bottom, saw a signature. She’d missed it earlier because her gloved thumb had covered part of it.
What she saw made her mouth drop open in surprise.
Mint, Tower of London, 29 Februarius 1727
Warder 3/12 4/20