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Charles Mason (1728-1786) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779) were the British surveyors best remembered for running the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland that has come to be known as the Mason-Dixon Line. Here the "National Book Award"-winning author of "Gravity's Rainbow" imagines their story in an updated 18th-century novel featuring Native Americans, frontier folk, ripped bodices, naval warfare, conspiracies erotic and political, and major caffeine abuse.
Latitudes and Departures
Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,--the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking'd-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel'd Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,--the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax'd and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults. Here have come to rest a long scarr'd sawbuck table, with two mismatch'd side-benches, from the Lancaster County branch of the family,--some Second-Street Chippendale, including an interpretation of the fam'd Chinese Sofa, with a high canopy of yards of purple Stuff that might be drawn all 'round to make a snug, dim tent,--a few odd Chairs sent from England before the War,--mostly Pine and Cherry about, nor much Mahogany, excepting a sinister and wonderful Card Table which exhibits the cheaper Wave-like Grain known in the Trade as Wand'ring Heart, causing an illusion of Depth into which for years children have gaz'd as into the illustrated Pages of Books...along with so many hinges, sliding Mortises, hidden catches, and secret compartments that neither the Twins nor their Sister can say they have been to the end of it. Upon the Wall, banish'd to this Den of Parlor Apes for its Remembrance of a Time better forgotten, reflecting most of the Room,--the Carpet and Drapes a little fray'd, Whiskers the Cat stalking beneath the furniture, looking out with eyes finely reflexive to anything suggesting Food,--hangs a Mirror in an inscrib'd Frame, commemorating the "Mischianza," that memorable farewell Ball stag'd in '77 by the British who'd been Occupying the City, just before their Withdrawal from Philadelphia.
This Christmastide of 1786, with the War settl'd and the Nation bickering itself into Fragments, wounds bodily and ghostly, great and small, go aching on, not ev'ry one commemorated,--nor, too often, even recounted. Snow lies upon all Philadelphia, from River to River, whose further shores have so vanish'd behind curtains of ice-fog that the City today might be an Isle upon an Ocean. Ponds and Creeks are frozen over, and the Trees a-glare to the last slightest Twig,--Nerve-Lines of concentrated Light. Hammers and Saws have fallen still, bricks lie in snowcover'd Heaps, City-Sparrows, in speckl'd Outbursts, hop in and out of what Shelter there may be,--the nightward Sky, Clouds blown to Chalksmears, stretches above the Northern Liberties, Spring Garden and Germantown, its early moon pale as the Snow-Drifts,--smoke ascends from Chimney-Pots, Sledging-Parties adjourn indoors, Taverns bustle,--freshly infus'd Coffee flows ev'ryplace, borne about thro' Rooms front and back, whilst Madeira, which has ever fuel'd Association in these Parts, is deploy'd nowadays like an ancient Elixir upon the seething Pot of Politics,--for the Times are as impossible to calculate, this Advent, as the Distance to a Star.
It has become an afternoon habit for the Twins and their Sister, and what Friends old and young may find their way here, to gather for another Tale from their far-travel'd Uncle, the [Rev.sup.d] Wicks Cherrycoke, who arriv'd here back in October for the funeral of a Friend of years ago,--too late for the Burial, as it prov'd,--and has linger'd as a Guest in the Home of his sister Elizabeth, the Wife, for many years, of Mr. J. Wade LeSpark. a respected Merchant active in Town Affairs, whilst in his home vet Sultan enough to convey to the [Rev.sup.d], tho' without ever so stipulating, that, for as long as he can keep the children amus'd, he may remain,--too much evidence of Juvenile Rampage at the wrong moment, however' and Boppo! 'twill be Out the Door with him, where waits the Winter's Block and Blade.
Thus, they have heard the Escape from Hottentot-Land, the Accursed Ruby of Mogok, the Ship-wrecks in Indies East and West,--an Herodotic Web of Adventures and Curiosities selected, the [Rev.sup.d] implies, for their moral usefulness, whilst avoiding others not as suitable in the Hearing of Youth. The Youth, as usual, not being consulted in this.
Tenebrae has seated herself and taken up her Needlework, a piece whose size and difficulty are already subjects of Discussion in the House, the Embroidress herself keeping silence,--upon this Topick, at least. Announc'd by Nasal Telegraph, in come the Twins, bearing the old Pewter Coffee-Machine venting its Puffs of Vapor, and a large Basket dedicated to Saccharomanic Appetites, piled to the Brim with fresh-fried Dough-Nuts roll'd in Sugar, glaz'd Chestnuts, Buns, Fritters, Crullers, Tarts. "What is this? Why, Lads, you read my mind."
"The Coffee's for you, Nunk,--" "--last Time, you were talking in your sleep," the Pair explain, placing the Sweets nearer themselves, all in this Room being left to seize and pour as they may. As none could agree which had been born first, the Twins were nam'd Pitt and Pliny, so that each might be term'd "the Elder" or "the Younger," as might day-today please one, or annoy his Brother.
"Why haven't we heard a Tale about America?" Pitt licking Gobbets of Philadelphia Pudding from his best Jabot.
"With Indians in it, and Frenchmen," adds Pliny, whose least gesture sends Cookie-crumbs ev'rywhere.
"French Women, come to that," mutters Pitt.
"It's not easy being pious for both of us, you know," Pliny advises.
"It's twenty years," recalls the [Rev.sup.d], "since we all topped the Allegheny Ridge together, and stood looking out at the Ohio Country,--so fair, a Revelation, meadow'd to the Horizon--Mason and Dixon, and all the McCleans, Darby and Cope, no, Darby wouldn't've been there in 'sixty-six,--howbeit, old Mr. Barnes and young Tom Hynes, the rascal...don't know where they all went,--some fought in the war, some chose peace come what might, some profited, some lost everything. Some are gone to Kentucky, and some,--as now poor Mason,--to Dust.
"'Twas not too many years before the War,--what we were doing out in that Country together was brave, scientifick beyond my understanding, and ultimately meaningless,--we were putting a line straight through the heart of the Wilderness, eight yards wide and due west, in order to separate two Proprietorships, granted when the World was yet feudal and but eight years later to be nullified by the War for Independence."
And now Mason's gone, and the [Rev.sup.d] Cherrycoke, who came to town only to pay his Respects, has linger'd, thro' the first descent of cold, the first drawings-in to the Hearth-Side, the first Harvest-Season meals appearing upon the next-best Dishes. He had intended to be gone weeks ago, but finds he cannot detach. Each day among his Devoirs is a visit, however brief, to Mason's grave. The Verger has taken to nodding at him. In the middle of the night recently he awoke convinc'd that 'twas he who had been haunting Mason,--that like a shade with a grievance, he expected Mason, but newly arriv'd at Death, to help him with something.
"After years wasted," the [Rev.sup.d] commences, "at perfecting a parsonical Disguise,--grown old in the service of an Impersonation that never took more than a Handful of actor's tricks,--past remembering those Yearnings for Danger, past all that ought to have been, but never had a Hope of becoming, have I beach'd upon these Republican Shores,--stoven, dismasted, imbecile with age,--an untrustworthy Remembrancer for whom the few events yet rattling within a broken memory must provide the only comfort now remaining to him,--"
"Uncle," Tenebrae pretends to gasp, "--and but this Morning, you look'd so much younger,--why I'd no idea."
"Kindly Brae. That is from my Secret Relation, of course. Don't know that I'd phrase it quite like that in the present Company."
"Then...?" Tenebrae replying to her Uncle's Twinkling with the usual play of Eye-lashes.
"It begins with a Hanging."
"Excellent!" cry the Twins.
The [Rev.sup.d], producing a scarr'd old Note-book, cover'd in cheap Leather, begins to read. "Had I been the first churchman of modern times to be swung from Tyburn Tree,--had I been then taken for dead, whilst in fact but spending an Intermission among the eventless corridors of Syncope, due to the final Bowl of Ale,--had a riotous throng of medical students taken what they deem'd to be my Cadaver back beneath the somber groins of their College,--had I then been 'resurrected' into an entirely new Knowledge of the terms of being, in which Our Savior,--strange to say in that era of Wesley and Whitefield,--though present, would not have figur'd as pre-eminently as with most Sectarians,--howbeit,--I should closely resemble the nomadic Parson you behold today... "
"Mother says you're the Family outcast," Pitt remarks.
"They pay you money to keep away," says Pliny.
"Your Grandsire Cherrycoke, Lads, has ever kept his promise to remit to me, by way of certain Charter'd Companies, a sum precise to the farthing and punctual as the Moon,--to any address in the World, save one in Britain. Britain is his World, and he will persist, even now, in standing sham'd before it for certain Crimes of my distant Youth."
"Crimes!" exclaim the Boys together.
"Why, so did wicked men declare 'em...before God, another Tale...."
"What'd they nail you on?" Uncle Ives wishes to know, "strictly professional interest, of course." Green Brief-bag over one shoulder, but lately return'd from a Coffee-House Meeting, he is bound later this evening for a slightly more formal version of the same thing,--feeling, here with the children, much as might a Coaching Passenger let off at Nightfall among an unknown Populace, to wait for a connecting Coach, alone, pedestrian, desiring to pass the time to some Revenue, if not Profit.
"Along with some lesser Counts," the [Rev.sup.d] is replying, "'twas one of the least tolerable of Offenses in that era, the worst of Dick Turpin seeming but the Carelessness of Youth beside it,--the Crime they styl'd `Anonymity.' That is, I left messages posted publicly, but did not sign them. I knew some night-running lads in the district who let me use their Printing-Press,--somehow, what I got into printing up, were Accounts of certain Crimes I had observ'd, committed by the Stronger against the Weaker,--enclosures, evictions, Assize verdicts, Activities of the Military,--giving the Names of as many of the Perpetrators as I was sure of, yet keeping back what I foolishly imagin'd my own. till the Night I was tipp'd and brought in to London, in Chains, and clapp'd in the Tower.
"Oh, do not tease them so," Tenebrae prays him.
"Ludgate, then? whichever, 'twas Gaol. It took me till I was lying among the Rats and Vermin, upon the freezing edge of a Future invisible, to understand that my name had never been my own,--rather belonging, all this time, to the Authorities, who forbade me to change it, or withhold it, as 'twere a Ring upon the Collar of a Beast, ever waiting for the Lead to be fasten'd on.... One of those moments Hindoos and Chinamen are ever said to be having, entire loss of Self, perfect union with All, sort of thing. Strange Lights, Fires, Voices indecipherable,--indeed, Children, this is the part of the Tale where your old Uncle gets to go insane,--or so, then, each in his Interest, did it please ev'ryone to style me. Sea voyages in those days being the standard Treatment for Insanity, my Exile should commence for the best of Medical reasons."
Tho' my Inclination had been to go out aboard an East Indiaman (the [Rev.sup.d] continues), as that route East travers'd notoriously a lively and youthful World of shipboard Dalliance, Gale-force Assemblies, and Duels ashore, with the French Fleet a constant,--for some, Romantic,--danger, "Like Pirates, yet more polite," as the Ladies often assur'd me,--alas, those who controll'd my Fate, getting wind of my preference at the last moment, swiftly arrang'd to have me transferr'd into a small British Frigate sailing alone, upon a long voyage, in a time of War,--the Seahorse, twenty-four guns, Captain Smith. I hasten'd in to Leadenhall Street to inquire.
"Can this be Objection we hear?" I was greeted. "Are you saying that a sixth-rate is beneath you? Would you prefer to remain ashore, and take up quarters in Bedlam? It has made a man of many in your Situation. Some have come to enjoy fairly meaningful lives there. Or if it's some need for the Exotic, we might arrange for a stay in one of the French Hospitals...."
"Would one of my Condition even know how to object, my Lord? I owe you everything."
"Madness has not impair'd your memory. Good. Keep away from harmful Substances, in particular Coffee. Tobacco and Indian Hemp. If you must use the latter, do not inhale. Keep your memory working, young man! Have a safe Voyage."
So, with this no doubt well-meant advice finding its way into the mid-watch sounds of waves past my sleeping-place, I set sail upon an Engine of Destruction, in the hope that Eastward yet might dwell something of Peace and Godhead, which British Civilization, in venturing Westward, had left behind,--and thus was consternation the least of my feelings when, instead of supernatural Guidance from Lamas old as time, here came Jean Crapaud a-looming,--thirty-four guns' worth of Disaster, and only one Lesson.