System of the World, The
Volume Three of The Baroque Cycle
15 january 1714
In life there is nothing more foolish than inventing.
-- James Watt
"Men half your age and double your weight have been slain on these wastes by Extremity of Cold," said the Earl of Lostwithiel, Lord Warden of the Stannaries, and Rider of the Forest and Chase of Dartmoor, to one of his two fellow-travelers.
The wind had paused, as though Boreas had exhausted his lungs and was drawing in a new breath of air from somewhere above Iceland. So the young Earl was able to say this in matter-of-fact tones. "Mr. Newcomen and I are very glad of your company, but -- "
The wind struck them all deaf, as though the three men were candle-flames to be blown out. They staggered, planted their downwind feet against the black, stony ground, and leaned into it. Lostwithiel shouted: "We'll not think you discourteous if you return to my coach!" He nodded to a black carriage stopped along the track a short distance away, rocking on its French suspension. It had been artfully made to appear lighter than it was, and looked as if the only thing preventing it from tumbling end-over-end across the moor was the motley team of draught-horses harnessed to it, shaggy manes standing out horizontally in the gale.
"I am astonished that you should call this an extremity of cold," answered the old man. "In Boston, as you know, this would pass without remark. I am garbed for Boston." He was shrouded in a rustic leather cape, which he parted in the front to reveal a lining pieced together from the pelts of many raccoons. "After that passage through the intestinal windings of the Gorge of Lyd, we are all in want of fresh air -- especially, if I read the signs rightly, Mr. Newcomen."
That was all the leave Thomas Newcomen wanted. His face, which was as pale as the moon, bobbed once, which was as close as this Darth mouth blacksmith would ever come to a formal bow. Having thus taken his leave, he turned his broad back upon them and trudged quickly downwind. Soon he became hard to distinguish from the numerous upright boulders -- which might be read as a comment on his physique, or on the gloominess of the day, or on the badness of Daniel's eyesight.
"The Druids loved to set great stones on end," commented the Earl. "For what purpose, I cannot imagine."
"You have answered the question by asking it."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Dwelling as they did in this God-forsaken place, they did it so that men would come upon these standing stones two thousand years after they were dead, and know they had been here. The Duke of Marlborough, throwing up that famous Pile of Blenheim Palace, is no different."
The Earl of Lostwithiel felt it wise to let this pass without comment. He turned and kicked a path through some stiff withered grass to a strange up-cropping of lichen-covered stone. Following him, Daniel understood it as one corner of a ruined building. The ground yielded under their feet. It was spread thin over a shambles of tumbledown rafters and disintegrating peat-turves. Anyway the angle gave them shelter from the wind.
"Speaking now in my capacity as Lord Warden of the Stannaries, I welcome you to Dartmoor, Daniel Waterhouse, on behalf of the Lord of the Manor."
Daniel sighed. "If I'd been in London the last twenty years, keeping up with my Heraldic Arcana, and going to tea with the Bluemantle Pursuivant, I would know who the hell that was. But as matters stand -- "
"Dartmoor was created part of the Duchy of Cornwall in 1338, and as such became part of the possessions of the Prince of Wales -- a title created by King Edward I in -- "
"So in a roundabout way, you are welcoming me on behalf of the Prince of Wales," Daniel said abruptly, in a bid to yank the Earl back before he rambled any deeper into the labyrinth of feudal hierarchy.
"And the Princess. Who, if the Hanovers come, shall be -- "
"Princess Caroline of Ansbach. Yes. Her name keeps coming up. Did she send you to track me down in the streets of Plymouth?"
The Earl looked a little wounded. "I am the son of your old friend. I encountered you by luck. My surprise was genuine. The welcome given you by my wife and children was unaffected. If you doubt it, come to our house next Christmas."
"Then why do you go out of your way to bring up the Princess?"
"Only because I wish to be plain-spoken. Where you are going next it is all intrigue. There is a sickness of the mind that comes over those who bide too long in London, which causes otherwise rational men to put forced and absurd meanings on events that are accidental."
"I have observed that sickness in full flower," Daniel allowed, thinking of one man in particular.
"I do not wish you to think, six months from now, when you become aware of all this, 'Aha, the Earl of Lostwithiel was nothing more than a cat's paw for Caroline -- who knows what other lies he may have told me!' "
"Very well. For you to disclose it now exhibits wisdom beyond your years."
"Some would call it timidity originating in the disasters that befell my father, and his father."
"I do not take that view of it," Daniel said curtly.
He was startled by bulk and motion to one side, and feared it was a standing-stone toppled by the wind; but it was only Thomas Newcomen, looking a good deal pinker. "God willing, that carriage-ride is the closest I shall ever come to a sea-voyage!" he declared.
"May the Lord so bless you," Daniel returned. "In the storms of the month past, we were pitched and tossed about so much that all hands were too sick to eat for days. I went from praying we would not run aground, to praying that we would." System of the World, The
Volume Three of The Baroque Cycle
. Copyright © by Neal Stephenson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.