I am a little puzzled by this passage:
On the eighth of December the Captain has an Express from the Admiralty, ordering him not to sail. “Furthermore,” he informs Mason & Dixon, “Bencoolen is in the hands of the French. I see no mention of any plans to re-take the place soon. I am sorry.”
“I knew it…?” Dixon walking away shaking his head.
“We may still make the Cape of Good Hope in time,” says Capt. Smith “That’ll likely be our destination, if and when they cut the orders.”
—Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon (p 33)
Without any further explanation the Seahorse proceeds down the Channel towards its bloody encounter with the l’Grand. But why? Captain Smith has orders from the Admiralty, which is responsible for command of the Navy, not to set sail. And as we have seen in the proceeding matter of the hundred pounds for expenses the Captain has “no wish to offend” “the Great Circumnavigator” George Anson, the then First Lord of the Admiralty.
Does this mean the orders not to sail should be read as “do not sail to Bencoolen”? This makes sense as it has been taken by the French, but “furthermore” suggests Bencoolen is an additional reason not to sail not the primary one. Is the Admiralty aware of the danger posed by the L’Grand?
Who is the “they” Captain Smith is referring to when he talks about cutting orders? If it’s the Admiralty, then why would they order the captain not to sail and then not cut orders. Surely the two are one and the same. If it is the Royal Society then this raises other questions.
Judging by the threatning letter the Royal Society send Mason and Dixon in reply to their letter from Plymouth, it is they whom the captain is referring to. So why then would he follow their orders over those of the Admiralty not to sail?
“Happen,” Dixon contributes in turn, “we were never meant at all to go to Bencoolen,— someone needed a couple of Martyrs, and we inconviently surviv’d?”
Dixon’s suspicions about the motives of the Society (on page 44) offer another glimpse of an explanation hinted at by captain Smith earlier. That Mason & Dixon are not the only ones sent out to observe the Transit of Venus.
“No one else is going there to observe,” Mason “Odd, isn’t it? You think there’d be a Team from somewhere.”
Capt. Smith look away, as if embarrass’d. “Perhaps there is?” he suggests, as gently as possible.
Of course this suggestion is absolutely correct, Maskelyne has also been sent out by the Society to observe the Transit from St. Helena. But it is his mission that fails not theirs. Why the captain should know about this, almost to the point of embarrsement, is unclear. But certainly Mason & Dixon are being kept in the dark.