By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

20. Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 623-658

Mason & Dixon: A NovelTwo: America; 64-67
Zhang tells the story of Hsi and Ho, who failed to predict a solar eclipse, putting them in danger of execution: "We made the Emperor look bad. As a Child of Heaven, he's supposed to know all about these Wonders in advance." They escape from the palace on a giant kite and crash-land into a pond, where they attract the attention of the daughters of Lord Huang. He hires them as his astronomers, but once again they neglect their duties -- distracted by Huang's daughters -- and miscalculate the time of an eclipse, leaving Huang exposed to his enemies in a battle. The story, Zhang says, has alternate endings: In one, Huang wins the battle after all, and banishes Hsi and Ho to the desert where they live out their lives as holy beggars. In the other, Huang is killed and the astronomers "take over Huang's Lands, Fortune, Army, and Harem of Daughters."

In December they return to the Harlands'. "No telling if they'll ever take the line west of Allegheny. All is in the hands of Sir William Johnson" and his administration of the Indian territories. They spend Christmas discussing the star of Bethlehem, with Dixon opining, "'Twas either a Conjunction of Planets ... or a Comet," and Mason asserting, "In seven B.C., according to Kepler, Jupiter and Saturn were conjunct three times, -- and the next year, Mars join'd them.... No one who was out at night could have fail'd to notice that. It must have been the most spectacular Event in the Sky." Zhang points out that Halley's comet appeared in 12 B.C. But Cherrycoke protests to both theories that "Christ was not born any time Before Christ." Zhang further complicates matters:
"If," says the Geomancer, "like all Christian nations, you accept the reckoning of Dionysius Exiguus, -- then, Herod died in four B.C., -- yet the Gospels have him alive when Christ was born, -- the taxation that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem may've been as early as eight B.C. There are a number of these ... strange inconsistencies."
This is too much for Cherrycoke to swallow. Dionysius, he says, translating the name as "Dennis the Meager," "was an agent of God." Whereupon Dixon mutters, imitating Mason's voice, "God should've found another Agent," shocking Cherrycoke. "'I didn't say that,' Mason protests, '-- Did I?'"

In the spring, Mason and Dixon begin hearing voices: "the great Ghost of the woods has been whispering to them, -- tho' Reason suggests the Wind, -- 'No ... no more ... no further.'" Dixon jokes, "Reminds me of a Lass from Escombe." But one day, "Mason and Dixon hear the Voice, stirring the tops of Trees in a black swift Smear down the Mountainside and into the Shade, more to plead than to pronounce, -- 'You are gone too far, from the Post Mark'd West.' ... 'Thankee,' Mason mutters back to it, 'as if we didn't already know.'"
The Implication of the ghostly Speech is clear to them both, -- They will soon be proceeding, if indeed they are not already, with all Guarantees of Safety suspended, -- as if Whatever spar'd them years ago, at Sea, were now presenting its Bill.
"Be they heedful or not, 1767 will be their last year upon the Line." They wait in Philadelphia for word from Sir William Johnson, who is negotiating with the Indians, so "they get a late start this Year, not reaching the Allegheny Front until July, a full year since they left off their Progress West." They visit the Redzingers on the way, reuniting with Zhang, who informs them that his nemesis, Zarpazo, is no longer a threat: He has gone to Florida. Allègre visits them, too, and tells them "I see the Duck seldom of late. Perhaps, by now, she has taken in her charge so many other Souls as troubl'd as my own, that there remains less time for me, -- perhaps, as she has continu'd upon her way, I have even pass'd altogether from her Car."

At Cumberland, they meet settlers with a pack of hunting dogs, and Mason endeavors to find out from one of the dogs, Snake, about an old acquaintance: "I'm assuming that Norfolk Terriers, like other breeds, maintain a Web of Communication about 'em, and I was but curious after the whereabouts these Days of the Learnèd English Dog, or as I believe he is also known, Fang." But Snake is wary of letting people know of "his own Power of Speech, for he's known others, including the credulous Fang in fact, who've trusted Humans with the Secret only to find themselves that very Evening in some Assembly Room full of Smoke and Noise, and no promise of Dinner till after they've perform'd."

A delegation of Indians, sent by Johnson along with an interpreter, Hugh Crawfford, arrives. They "will remain with the Party till the end of October, when, reaching a certain Warrior Path, they will inform the Astronomers that their own Commissions from the Six Nations allow them to go no further, -- with its implied Corollary, that this Path is as far West as the Party, the Visto, and the Line, may proceed." Crawfford informs them that the Great Warrior Path is "one of the major High-ways of all inland America. So must it also stand as a boundary line, -- for when we come to it, we shall not be allow'd to cross it, and go on." Mason protests that it will only take a quarter of an hour to cross and and they'll clean up after themselves. "Cutting it with your Visto would be like putting an earthen Dam across a River," Crawfford insists. He tells them that it's thirty or forty miles from Ohio, but "although on paper it may look like only a few short steps from the Warpath to the River Ohio, I beg you both, be most careful, -- for Distance is not the same here, nor is Time."

The Indians, and their ability to slip into and out of the forest, unnerve Mason. Cherrycoke observes, "Mr. Dixon seems quite content in their company," which prompts Mason to respond,
"Who, Young Jollification? drinks with priests, roisters with Pygmies, -- aye, I've seen that. What cares he, as long as the Tobacco and spirits hold out? ... No, -- 'tis I who am anxious before the advent of these Visitors how Strange, who belong so without separation, to this Country cryptick and perilous, ... passing, tho' never so close, as shadowy and serene as Deities of Forest or River." 
When the instruments are shown to them, the Indians "explain, that for as long as anyone can remember, the Iroquois Nations as well, have observ'd Meridian Lines as Boundaries to separate the one from another." This amazes Zhang, who of course opposes such lines, until he learns that the Jesuits taught them to do so. But an Indian chief named Hendricks says, "Others believe 'twas not the Jesuits, but powerful Strangers, much earlier."

The chapter ends with yet another tall tale, this one about giant vegetables.

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