“When a thing such as wax, or gold, or silver, turns liquid from heat, we say that it has fused,” Eliza said to her son, “and when such liquids run together and mix, we say they are con-fused.”
“Papa says I am confused sometimes.”
“As are we all,” said Eliza. “For confusion is a kind of bewitchment–a moment when what we supposed we understood loses its form and runs together and becomes one with other things that, though they might have had different outward forms, shared the same inward nature.”
We’ve come to a resting point in our effort to scale Mt. Stephenson: Camp Confusion. Here, we obtain respite from the hard climb Quicksilver imposed on us; we are rewarded with pirate battles, alchemical intrigues, and some proper romance at last. We will shelter in place at Camp Confusion for a couple of months, as I take time away from the expedition to fulfill my RIP obligations. Then, in November, it’s on to the summit, where we shall thrill to discover The System of the World!
Fittingly, this novel is a con-fusion of two books: “Bonanza”, which relays Jack’s adventures with his pirate crew, and “The Juncto”, which follows Eliza’s quest. The two interplay nicely, as events in one storyline impact and influence the characters of the other, back and forth. NOTE: Beyond this point lie spoilers galore for both Quicksilver and The Confusion–there’s just no way to get into the meat of the story without telling you some pretty big stuff!
The book opens with Jack Shaftoe coming out of a great confusion of his own: he has been lost in syphilitic dementia, a galley slave for an indeterminate length of time. A nearly-fatal fever does him the favor of burning out the last of the syphilis in him; he returns to his right mind to find himself embroiled in a plot to win freedom and riches for himself and nine of his fellow slaves. With backing from a mysterious investor, they plan to steal a fortune in silver from a Spanish Viceroy’s ship. If they succeed, they’ll earn a share of the wealth and papers setting them free from bondage. Only one problem: their patron, the Duc d’Arcachon, is none other than the evil man who abducted Eliza and her mother into slavery all those years ago. Jack learned his identity in Quicksilver, but events conspired to prevent him taking action or informing Eliza of his discovery. Now restored to sanity, he agrees to the plan, hoping to find a way to achieve justice for (and perhaps forgiveness from) Eliza along the way. The plan succeeds only too well–rather than silver, the renegade crew relieves the Viceroy of a cargo of gold. This causes several problems, the biggest of which is the fact that the haul is believed to be the fabled “Solomonic gold,” reputed to have magical properties. Where Spain might pursue stolen silver until the pirates escaped from Spanish territory, the alchemy-obsessed cabal who own the golden treasure will pursue them to the ends of the Earth to retrieve it.
Eliza has also entangled herself with the wicked Duc d’Arcachon, but not yet learned his true identity. You’ll recall that Quicksilver ended with her giving birth to a child who might be considered miraculous? The d’Arcachons are an ancient and noble family who suffer a noble curse: too much inbreeding has led to Hapsburgian facial deformities in the line. The d’Arcachons crave nothing more than a woman who can ‘breed true’, i.e., give them a non-deformed heir. Eliza’s pregnancy occurred just after she was seduced by Etienne d’Arcachon, the Duke’s scion; when she bears a healthy, well-formed son, the d’Arcachons believe they have found their miracle woman. They immediately begin scheming toward a marriage between Eliza and Etienne. This first child, unfortunately, is illegitimate and cannot be acknowledged by the noble house–nor by his mother, nor his true father: Bonaventure Rossignol. Rossignol (“Bon-Bon” to the smitten Eliza), Court Cryptographer to Louis XIV, was originally put on Eliza’s trail to discover whether she had turned double-agent for William of Orange. Rossignol cracked all of Eliza’s codes, including her needlework journal, and found himself intrigued by the brilliant woman behind the sophisticated ciphers. He began protecting her, passing along sanitized versions of her decoded letters to the Court; eventually, he arranged to meet her, and passions flared. Thus it transpires that Rossignol’s son is passed off for a wondrously healthy d’Arcachon bastard.
Bon-Bon has not deciphered Eliza’s closest-held secret, though: her vow to kill the man who enslaved her. She is well entangled with the d’Arcachon family–about to marry Etienne, in fact–when she learns his father is the man she has resolved to murder. To her credit, she lets no sentiment, no consideration of power or desire for wealth, distract her from her mission. She will risk the position she has worked years to obtain and the safety of her child; she is prepared to relinquish her freedom, and perhaps her life, to take her vengeance. On the night of her engagement party, she has the weapon in hand, prepared to confront her enemy–but a late dispatch from Cairo will change everything for her. Jack Shaftoe, for all his perversity, has one hell of a way of apologizing to a lady.
Eliza’s triumph is marred by one thing only: the loss of her first child, the one she cannot acknowledge as her own, but whom she loves immensely, nonetheless. He goes by the name Jean-Jacques, and the accepted story is that he’s a war orphan Eliza took pity on and adopted. Everyone knows their true relationship, but believes him to be an illegitimate d’Arcachon, so they comply with the fiction. When the Solomonic gold is stolen by the notorious L’Emmerdeur and his crew, one seething cabal member tries to leverage Eliza’s connection to Jack to get it back. Lothar von Hackelhaber steals Jean-Jacques away one night, intending to hold him for ransom to pressure Eliza into retrieving the gold. This plot goes awry in a surprising way, which is the reason that Eliza, a French and English duchess, is represented in Cryptonomicon by the German mathematician Rudy von Hackelhaber, a brilliant cryptographer–well, he would be, descending as he does from Eliza and Bon-Bon.
Daniel Waterhouse has a smaller role to play in this book. He spends some quality time with Gottfried Leibniz, tutor to Princess Caroline of Ansbach. Daniel makes a fateful promise to the teenaged Princess: “I should be honored to receive a letter from your highness at any time…if I may be of service to your highness in any way whatsoever. And I promise your highness that I shall respond–cheerfully and without a moment’s hesitation.” Decades later, Caroline, now Princess of Wales, will hold the aged Dr. Waterhouse to this promise, setting the Baroque Cycle in motion.
Daniel has formed the desire to get away from the political and personal distractions of London and retire to a simpler life in America. He dreams of founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts, dedicated to building a Logic Mill, a mechanical device that will perform computations of great complexity. Old friend Roger Comstock, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, offers to pay Daniel’s way and set him up with a sinecure in Massachusetts, in exchange for one teensy favor: he wants Daniel to lure Isaac Newton back from the wilds of alchemical research and convince him to take charge of the Royal Mint. If England is to be a serious player in international commerce, she must get serious about her coinage, and the King’s advisors have identified the brilliant, difficult, possibly mad Newton as the man to create a solid currency for the realm. In the thirty or so years since they roomed together at Cambridge, great misunderstandings have grown up between the two, but Roger correctly calculates that if anyone can bring Isaac into the royal fold, it’s Daniel.
Events fuse and con-fuse until Jack Shaftoe lands in the hands of his old enemy ‘Leroy’: Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV of France. Louis is prepared to forgive Jack all insults and injuries to himself, to his nobility, and to France, on two conditions: he must never again see la Duchesse d’Arcachon as long as he lives, and he must employ his pirating skills to one end: destroying the currency England is working so hard to establish. Le Roi promises that as England’s fortunes falter, those of Eliza and her children will prosper; the unspoken threat is that the reverse is equally true.
Sir Isac Newton, immoveable object, prepare to meet Jack Shaftoe, irresistible force!