The system of the world - By Neal Stephenson Page 0,276


Buildings on London Bridge tended to be made by trial and error. Starting with a scheme that was more or less sane, in the broad sense that it had not fallen down yet, proprietors would enlarge their holdings by reaching out over the water with cantilevered add-ons, buttressed with diagonal braces. This was the trial phase. In the next, or error phase, the additions would topple into the Thames and wash up days later in Flanders, sometimes with furniture and dead people in them. Those that did not fall into the river were occupied, and eventually used to support further enhancements. Countless such iterations, spread thick over centuries, had made the Bridge as built-up as the laws of God and the ingenuity of Man would allow.

Daniel, venturing across springy floor-planks to this room’s eastern extremity, found himself embraced by windows—for this had originally been a sort of experimental balcony that had been encased in glass after it had failed to collapse for several consecutive years. Like a curd held up out of the whey by a strainer, he was being kept out of the Thames by perhaps a finger’s thickness of gappy planking. Between the boards he could see a gut of the river clashing and foaming along the edge of a starling. Vertigo—Hooke’s nemesis—claimed his attention for a few moments. Then he got the better of it and turned to gaze southeast at the Borough. A few moments sufficed to identify the Tatler-Lock, whose façade of blackened bricks rose up from the bank no more than two hundred yards away. For the better viewing of which, a perspective-glass lay on the windowsill. Above it, a single diamond-shaped pane had been punched out to allow for clear viewing. Hidden as it was beneath the furry, dribbling brow of the thatched eave, this would never be noted from the Tatler-Lock.

“Enjoy a good look, then,” said a new voice. “The glass is as good as any at your Society.”

Daniel turned to spy Sean Partry sitting crosslegged in a back corner, surrounded by ironmongery, tamping tobacco into a pipe.

Daniel picked up the glass, telescoped it to full length, and set its wide end into the vee of the missing diamond, which had thoughtfully been lined with a rag. This held it perfectly steady, while allowing him to swivel the narrow end to and fro. Putting his eye to it, and making some small adjustments, he was rewarded with a magnified view of some windows on the upper storey of the Tatler-Lock. Several were boarded over, or else veiled with remnants of sails. One was but a vacant window-frame. Through this could be seen the floor-boards of an empty room, starry with bird-shit.

“There is little to see,” Partry admitted. “Mr. Knockmealdown has a violent aversion to eavesdroppers.”

“It is very good,” was Daniel’s verdict. “The hunter who stakes out bait, must establish a nearby blind, from which to observe his quarry. But not too close, lest the beast nose him, and be put on his guard. This room shall do. And you are correct, Mr. Partry, about the glass. The opticks were ground by a master.”

A concentration of dust-bunnies and feather-shards marked the location of the previous tenant’s Bed and Engine of Revenue. This had been cast into the river and supplanted by more furniture of the plank-and-cask school, on which Threader and Kikin had already claimed seats. Orney moved towards the windows to mark Prudence’s progress downriver but pulled up short as he felt the balcony losing altitude under his weight.

“What have you told the proprietor about who we are, and what we are doing?” Mr. Threader was asking Saturn.

“That you are Royal Society men making observations of the daily currency of the river.”

“He’s not going to believe that, is he?”

“You didn’t ask me what he believes. You asked me what I told him. What he believes, is that you are City men investigating a case of insurance fraud by spying on a certain ship anchored out in the Pool.”

“Fine—our true purpose shall not be suspected as long as he is telling people that.”

“Oh no, he’s not telling people that. He’s telling them that you are a Sect of Dissenters forced to meet in secret because of the recent passage of Bolingbroke’s Schism Act.”

“Let the blokes in the tap-room think we are Dissenters then, is all I’m trying to say.”

“That’s not what they think. They think that you are Sodomites,” Partry said. This silenced Threader for a while.

“No wonder we are paying such exorbitant