Source of the Cipher
A Mathematical Romance
By Nathaniel Hellerstein
1. Portrait of a Goddess
2. Behold the Woman
3. Rug Dealers
4. Computer’s Delight
5. Nothing To It
6. Much Ado
7. Her Life Justified
1. Portrait of a Goddess
“He is not... to be trusted... Your Highness,” the vizier panted. He scurried to keep up with Prince Rahni. “His offer... sounds fine... but you know... Arabian... rug dealers...”
Prince Rahni slowed down, stopped walking, and furrowed his brow. “Well...” he said, “In fact, I don't know. How must I deal with him?”
The vizier caught up with the Prince, then paused to huff and puff while the Prince looked down at him genially. Once he caught his breath, the vizier looked left, then right. In the banquet hall at the near end of the corridor, serving-girls were preparing the welcoming feast; and at the far end of the corridor, daylight gleamed. In the middle of the corridor, a washerwoman was busy scrubbing a statue.
Nobody of consequence was present, so the vizier spoke plainly. “Be exacting, Your Highness! Be specific and precise! Demand a full accounting of every rug he gives us, every spool of thread we give him! No fiber without fabric! No credits, no guesses! If he gives money, make sure that it's coin, not paper! If he gives coin, make sure it's gold and silver, not copper, nor base metal! Don't repeat previous mistakes! Not that Your Highness would ever make a mistake...”
“No, of course I wouldn't,” Prince Rahni agreed.
“... but above all, remember that business is business! May the buyer beware!”
“Business is business, may the buyer beware,” Prince Rahni agreed, and he lurched into motion. To match his long stride, the vizier had to start trotting again.
“If I may make... another suggestion... Your Highness...” he managed to gasp.
“And that might be?”
“Show off... the hot spices... after... the flowering tops...”
They turned a corner and disappeared from view. Prince Rhani’s stride sounded a stately klop, klop, klop, klop, and the vizier’s trot went toc-toc-toc-toc-toc-toc. These sounds slowly faded into the distance.
The washerwoman kept scrubbing. Of course she overheard every word; how could she not? The West Corridor's acoustics were superb, as were the twelve devotional statues that the washerwoman was supposed to clean. The washerwoman had often noticed such conversations, but had never been noticed noticing them. This suited her fine; she was glad that her husband got all the public scrutiny, and not her.
She wrung grey water out her cleaning rag, picked up her bucket, and moved on to the next statue. From down the hall sounded another pair of footfalls; tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic alongside thud, thud, thud. The washerwoman recognized the former as the Lady Nan-See and the latter as her man-servant. The washerwoman quickly got down on her knees and started swabbing the statue’s toes with extreme care. The job needed to be done, and besides it was always prudent to stay out of the caustic Lady Nan-See’s sight.
Thud, thud, thud, tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic, closer and closer. The washerwoman scrubbed industriously. Suddenly - O terror! - they stopped, just yards away!
The Lady Nan-See snapped her fan shut and said, “Filthy!”
Her man-servant rumbled, “No doubt they will all be cleaned soon.”
“Yes, clean soon; so I order! But it not matter. All twelve statues, West Corridor, filthy whether clean or not!”
“I do not understand, Your Ladyship.”
“Women! Men! Naked, doing dirty things!” Nan-See snapped her fan open and fanned herself rapidly. “Oh why I leave Middle Kingdom?” she asked the air, not for the first time. “Why leave center of world, go marry outer barbarian prince with palaceful smutty goddess statues? Like these twelve! Miss January! Miss February! Miss March and boyfriend! Down to Miss December!”
Her man-servant said, “Actually, these divinities are named...”
“I not care!” Nan-See snapped. “Twelve statues, so I say twelve months! But Prince like them, so they stay. So be it! And so very much like him!”
“I do not understand, Your Ladyship.”
“Soon he just like his father! Senile, drooling, incontinent, forget names, faces, everything! Each day he grow more stupid!” Lady Nan-See snapped her fan shut. “But then I there for him. Protect him, guide him.”
“A glorious prospect, O Lady!”
The Lady Nan-See turned a gimlet eye on the washerwoman. “You! Girl! Up!”
The washerwoman scrambled to her feet, her heart pounding. Grey water streamed out of the rag squeezed tightly in her clenched hand.
Nan-See looked at the washerwoman, then at the statue she had been working on. “Good,” she said; to the statue, not to the woman. Then Lady Nan-See wheeled right and set off down the corridor. Her manservant followed. Their fading footfalls went tic-tic-tic-tic-tic, thud, thud, thud.
Immensely relieved, the washerwoman returned to her labor; which was after all far less tiring than these meetings with the management. She scrubbed, she scrubbed, and she scrubbed. It was relaxing activity, vigorous yet contemplative, and therefore its own reward, unlike the maneuverings she constantly overheard in Prince Rahni’s corridors.
Another pair of footfalls approached; clipity-clipity-clipity-clipity. Girl’s laughter wafted down the corridor.
“... so dreamy,” said one serving-girl. “Handsome, brilliant...”
“Married,” the other added. “Besides, he’s just a computer.”
“Well, somebody has to compute the Prince’s wealth! And he’s a Brahmin!”
“A very poor Brahmin,” the other added. “Still, he is good at sums...”
“And still,” sighed the other, “he is married... to... uh... what’s her name?”
“That’s it; Namagiri! Why is a catch like Ramanujan married to such a nobody? What does he see in her?”
“She’s named for a lioness, yet she’s such a mouse!” the other added cattily.
Girl’s laughter echoed down the corridor. Clipity clipity clipity clipity.
Namagiri the washerwoman (for it was she) was quietly amused by the serving-girls’ gibes; for she had often overheard others call those two far worse names. They had not noticed her because she had been scrubbing Miss November’s back.
Eleven statues done; and now for the last. Namagiri stood up, wrung out her washrag, put hands on hips, and inspected the last statue. The Lady Nan-See had sarcastically called it “Miss December”; but its real name was -
“Namagiri! There you are!” yelled Ramanujan from down the hall.
Him? Here? Now? Just what she was dreading! For the goddess was far better looking than she was, and she hated to be bested in front of her husband.
When he arrived he said, “But what is the matter, my dear?”
“That statue,” she said. “Namagiri; consort of the lion god.”
Ramanujan looked at the statue named Namagiri. Then he looked at the woman named Namagiri. Then the statue, then the woman, then the statue, then the woman. He gestured toward the statue and said, “That is not a goddess.”
Then he embraced his wife, and they kissed. This took awhile.
But alas, when they came up for air he broke the mood by saying with utter seriousness, “It is a portrait of a goddess.”
She laughed, then pushed him away. “Be off now, you oh-so-logical computer! Go change clothes; you've been kissing the washerwoman!”
“And am I not allowed to kiss the washerwoman, if she happens to be my wife?”
“And then go see Prince and Sheik all rumpled and damp? Nonsense! Go change into something decent for our guest! Go! Go, go!” She shooed him away.
Namagiri watched Ramanujan walk all the way down the corridor. When he finally turned from view, Namagiri faced her namesake statue and said, “All right, goddess, it's time for your bath!” And she set to it with a will.
Soon enough the job was done. Namagiri set down the bucket and wiped her brow. Then she spoke to the statue. “Tell me, Namagiri, what's it all coming to? All these plots and schemes... why? What for? What will they accomplish?”
The woman listened intently.
No reply. In the near distance servants bustled. In the further distance a bird sang, wagons clattered, wind rustled through trees. Beyond the sounds... silence.
Namagiri smiled. “Thank you, dear namesake. I agree.”
Then she picked up the bucket and trudged down the hall. The East Corridor awaited, and woman's work is never done.