by Jack Alcott
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“Alas! The grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful ... they must sleep or they will devour us — they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish.” — Edgar Allan Poe
It’s a little-known fact that Edgar Allan Poe was expelled from the military academy at West Point in 1831 after only six months as a cadet. To this day, the reasons for the 21-year old’s court-martial are sketchy. This historical suspense novel fills in the missing pieces.
October 1830: West Point, New York
Laughter rippled from Room 28 in the four-story pile of roughhewn granite known as South Barracks. Inside, sabers and shako helmets lay where they’d been tossed on two narrow bunks as six cadets hunkered around a table quietly playing cards by candlelight. A small fire burned in the stone hearth, but the room remained chilly and the men all wore their greatcoats and passed a bottle of brandy among them.
Charlie, a huge cadet whose fists swallowed up his cards, studied his hand with a look of puzzlement, clearly unable to make up his mind.
“Can we get on with the game?” said Lucian, a skinny cadet, rapping his bony knuckles on the table.
“Go to hell, you little weasel,” Charlie rumbled back.
The oath was barely uttered when the door to the room flew open to reveal a man standing in the shadows just beyond the threshold. They couldn’t make out his face, but they could see he held a sack in one hand and a hatchet in the other — and that his clothes were spattered with ominous splotches.
“Jesus!” Charlie gasped, his cards forgotten as they spilled onto his lap. The other cadets all froze in place, not daring to move.
“I killed him,” the shadow-man hissed. “Cut his head clean off.”
With that, he yanked a bloody head-sized lump from the sack and tossed it at Charlie, who leapt from his seat with amazing agility for a man of his size. The cadets were all on their feet now, upending chairs as they clambered over one another to get out of the way. Someone knocked the lone candle over and the room went dark. Cursing and swearing, the men rushed to escape through the windows at the back. At their heels, the madman yelped and yowled like a brainsick animal.
Charlie used his superior size and strength to plow his way to the window, flinging aside whoever got in his way, and he was the first one out, dropping to the ground and clomping off into the darkness. He would have kept going straight to the commandant’s office, if he hadn’t heard the laughter behind him. When he turned around, the others were hooting and catcalling from the window. One of them held up a lantern so he could see the face of the apparition in the doorway: it was that crazy bastard, Cadet Edgar Allan Poe.
He should’ve known.
Charlie was greeted with more hoots and hollers when he went back in the barracks. While he didn’t enjoy being the butt of anyone’s joke, he was by nature an easygoing fellow and his sense of humor returned when his friends slapped him on the back and told him he was a good sport.
Poe, a slender cadet with a lank mustache, stood laughing and holding court in one corner as he cleaned streaks of soot from his face with a handkerchief and patted his wildly disheveled hair back in place, theatrical touches that had helped create his scarecrow illusion. When he was finished, he chopped at the air with the bloody hatchet to demonstrate his acting technique for the circle gathered around him. He stopped laughing when Charlie glared at him.
“Hey, look at this,” said Thomas, Edgar’s roommate, as he kicked the head, which rolled to rest at Charlie’s feet. “Nothin’ but a plucked goose with some horsehair and a little greasepaint,” he said as Charlie knelt to examine it in the lantern light. “Pretty, ain’t it? Poe’s best prank yet.”
Another cadet, William, put an arm around Edgar. “Our friend’s a great actor and artist,” he said, his cultivated Bostonian accent lending weight to his words.
“He’s a genius,” said Thomas.
“A misbegotten genius, but a genius nonetheless,” agreed William.
“He’s a better actor than you, that’s a certainty,” said Lucian, who shared a barracks room with William. The two were always together, and yet there was a constant nasty undertone between them. Lucian’s comment was especially cutting because William fancied himself an actor. He’d even considered a life on the stage, but his father had sent him to West Point instead.
“There’s no need to be so critical, you untalented blockhead,” he shot back at the smirking Lucian. Before the confrontation got uglier, Charlie pushed past them and stalked over to Edgar.
“I’d like a word with you, my madcap friend,” he said, his fists closing like gristly mallets.
Edgar shrank back as Charlie planted his massive bulk in front of him. He was sure the big man was about to pick him up and hurl him out the window. But Charlie’s meaty face split into a crooked-toothed grin, and he gave Edgar a friendly but nonetheless bone-jarring punch in the shoulder.
“Good one, Eddy, you got me. But if you ever make a fool of me again, I’ll send you to an early grave.”
Charlie’s cheerily delivered pronouncement was met with shouts and huzzahs. No one wanted a fight with him; he’d flatten most of them before they could restrain him.
“Good thing we’re all friends,” Thomas said.
“I’ll drink to that,’’ said William, handing Edgar a flask. Edgar took a swallow and then another, finishing off the bottle.
“This soldier’s dead, men, we need reinforcements,” he shouted, casually tossing the empty out the still-open window. “I think it’s time for a sneak attack on Old Ben’s.”
There were more cheers as the cadets piled through the doorway, but William shushed them once they were in the hall. Old Ben’s tavern was off limits and it was never good to attract attention if that was your destination. Edgar had expected officers to investigate the commotion, but they didn’t. He guessed that they were probably pickled and playing cards themselves.
The tavern was a sagging old saltbox that clung to a wooded hillside just a short hike from the Point. Although officially off-limits, it was popular with the cadets. Tonight, as always, its smoky interior was filled with rowdy West Pointers, some still wearing their gray dress uniforms, others in blue fatigues. The room was a hubbub of drunken laughter, bawdy songs and cursing. Several card games were in progress and Edgar regarded the stacks of coins with envy; it seemed that everyone had money but him.
They found a table in a back corner and were soon well into their cups. Old Ben, the proprietor, had been lenient enough to let Edgar put his food and drink on a tab that, after a couple of weeks of frequenting the place, was already a month of Army wages. He’d have to start winning at cards soon to pay him back, otherwise he’d have no refuge from the Point — a dismal prospect.
He sipped his brandy and surveyed the room with a look of mild intoxication until Charlie gave him a nudge. “I thought for sure you’d given Old Ben a few whacks with that hatchet,” he said. “You scared the shit out of me, you did — and I don’t frighten easily.”
The other cadets had a laugh at this, with Thomas chiming in that “big, tough Charlie was white as a sheet when he pushed everyone aside to get out that window.”
“I was not,” Charlie huffed. “I was just faster then the rest of you.” This only brought more guffaws from the cadets.
“I owe you a pint,” offered Edgar. “And as soon as I get my inheritance, I’ll buy you one.” With a laugh, he looked expectantly at his colleagues. “Until then, who’s got the next round?”
“Edgar’s cadging drinks; that’s a new one,” Lucian said to more laughter all around. William tossed some coins on the table and waved to a barmaid.
“A round for my friends. In honor of Poe’s performance.”
The cadets applauded this development. While most of them came from well-to-do families, William’s was wealthy and, better yet, unstinting with its money. He always had plenty and was generous. He also, as everyone knew, had an uncle in the War Department, a connection that made his life at the Point a lot more pleasant than the ordinary cadet’s.
The barmaid refilled their glasses and William draped his arm over Edgar’s shoulders. “You’re a good actor. You should think about making a career of it.”
“High praise, coming from you,” Edgar said. “Acting’s in my blood, though. Both my parents were in the theater and my mother, Eliza Poe, was well known in her day. Ever hear of her? She was in productions from Boston to Richmond.”
“Can’t say I have. But being a thespian myself, I recognize talent. With some work, you’d be all right.” He paused to take a drink. “That last bit, though, throwing the head and all, that was a trifle overdone.”
“That was brilliant,” Charlie broke in. “The best part.”
“What do you know about acting?” said William.
“Not much. But I don’t think you could’ve done any better.”
“Don’t insult me, jackass.”
“Call me another name and I’ll knock your prissy little head off,” Charlie said, leaning across the table.
Edgar raised his hand. “There’ll be no more lopping or breaking of heads tonight,” he said. “That’s my job.”
He turned to William, his gray eyes intense. “What’re you criticizing me for? We all saw you in Macbeth and you were stiff. Soldiers are stiff, not actors. Attention! Present arms!” He gave William a comic salute while the others looked uneasy and embarrassed.
“Stick to soldiering, Willy,” he said, raising his mug and accidentally sloshing beer on the table.
Edgar had once again drank too much and gone too far. Everyone knew William had exquisite taste when it came to the theater, or so he assured them. How many times had he said he was at the Point only to keep the peace with his father, a former Army colonel who expected him to fulfill a military career like his own? How many times had he said he was going back to Boston to act the minute he graduated?
A bespectacled cadet, Tim — ever the mediator — changed the subject.
“Look who just came in,” he said. All heads turned to watch a young woman, her black hair pulled primly back from her face, walk toward the bar. She carried a covered dish, which she placed on the counter in front of Old Ben, a giant of a man in his mid-fifties who was even bigger than Charlie.
“That Eleanor is something,” Thomas said. “I’d love to get my hands on her.”
Lucian grunted in approval. “I’d definitely take an ax to the old man for a peek under those petticoats,” he said to vulgar chuckles from the others.
Lucian was always quick with a lewd remark. A slightly built man with a perpetual smirk, his slanty blue eyes were constantly on the alert for pretty women.
“She’s too good for the likes of you,” Edgar said.
“Watch it lads, Poe’s in lust,” Lucian wisecracked.
“Another word and I’ll knock you on your ass,” Edgar said.
Lucian held his tongue. Poe wasn’t one to be trifled with. Over the past few months he’d been in a couple of drunken melees and he fought like a man possessed. Even sober, he was able with his fists, owing to the two years he’d already spent in the Army before coming to the Point. And despite his skinny frame, he was strong; the best swimmer among them, in fact. He won all the races across the Hudson to Garrison.
On the other side of the room, Old Ben was quietly upbraiding his daughter for coming into the tavern. It was obvious he didn’t like the stir she caused among the men. But she was positively basking in the cadets’ attention, and waved him off. Her glance searched the room and her eyes lit up when she saw Edgar. He returned her gaze.
“I’ll be right back,” he told his companions. With a slightly unsteady gait, he made his way across the room past tables crowded with other carousing cadets. From the look on Eleanor’s face, it was plain she saw he was drunk.
“I’ve missed you,” Edgar said as he came up to her, his body wavering as he sought to keep his equilibrium.
“Not as much as your liquor, I see.”
“I just had a few.”
“You know it turns you into a devil.”
“Than I’m a devil in love with an angel,” he answered, checking the bar to make sure Ben was busy, and then leaning into her for a kiss. She pulled away.
“See how bold drink makes you?” she said raising her voice and catching Ben’s notice. “Call on me when you’re sober and a gentleman again.”
She hurried over to her father, who was scowling and taking angry swipes at the bar top with a dirty towel.
Edgar was left swaying in place, the heady smell of perfume still in the air around him. He thought she looked wonderful with her hair aglow in the candlelight, her blue eyes sparkling in the tavern’s smoky gloom. He cursed himself for being a fool and wobbled back to his table where his friends waited, grinning and joking.
“It appears she’s given you the brush-off, old boy,” Lucian said as Edgar sat down. The others all laughed, with the exception of Tim, who hated to see defeat in anyone’s eyes.
Edgar ignored the remark, but Lucian wasn’t through. “You’re out of the running with that filly, friend. Maybe I should take a shot, show you how to seduce a lady.”
Edgar came halfway across the table and grabbed a fistful of Lucian’s shirtfront. “Think you’re clever, do you? How ’bout I kick the shit out of you?”
Then Eleanor was standing over them. “If you don’t stop it now, my father will beat some sense into both of you.”
Edgar pushed Lucian back in his seat and sat down again. Although still smarting from her earlier rebuff, he tried to seem nonchalant and disinterested. Jumping into the breach, William stood and offered her a chair.
“How thoughtful, William,” she said, throwing a frown at Edgar. “But I can’t stay.”
“What’s the matter?” Edgar said. “Too good to sit and have a drink with common soldiers?”
“No, Mr. Poe,” she said with chilly formality. “It would just be unseemly.”
“Unseemly?” Edgar sneered, as heads turned at nearby tables. “You should have heard some of the unseemly remarks these fellows made about you tonight.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Well, let’s just say your undergarments made for very provocative conversation.”
Edgar never saw her hand coming. She slapped him with such force that Old Ben heard the thwack clear across the room. The old bull reached under the counter and brought up an ugly cudgel as Eleanor ran from the table, tears in her eyes.
“Eleanor,” Ben called to her, but she dashed out the front door. The old giant came around the bar and toward the cadets.
“Uh oh, lads, looks like trouble,” William said.
Edgar was already up and heading for the door. Outside, the air was cool and clear and the night sky swarmed with stars.
For a moment, he couldn’t find Eleanor in the dark, but then he saw her shadow fleeing toward her family’s nearby house. “Eleanor,” he called, but the shadow seemed to shrink and flit faster down the road. He raced toward her, catching her just before she started up the front stoop. A lantern hung from a nail on a porch post, and she was no longer a shadow; the amber flame made her more beautiful than ever.
“I’m not myself when I drink,” he said, taking her by the arm.
She shook his hand off but waited for him to speak, tears still shimmering in her eyes.
“I’m sorry, I truly am,” he said. “I shouldn’t drink like that... it changes me.”
“You and your excuses; you are exasperating.”
“But it’s true, I can’t hold my liquor. Everyone knows it.”
“Then why do you do it? It makes you so vile.”
He stared at the flagstones. “When it’s in my veins it fires my imagination and I’m a king; everything is extraordinary. When it’s gone, I’m nothing again, an ordinary man in his drab little, ordinary world.”
“What is wrong with the ordinary? It’s real, it’s comforting.”
“For you, maybe. For me, it’s a horror.”
Eleanor shook her head at this, her mouth curved in despair. “And to think such a monster could write such lovely poems.”
“You’re the only one who’s read my worthless damned poems. No one cares about them. I don’t even care about them anymore.”
“Don’t say that. God gave you a gift, and you mustn’t ever throw it away.” She was shocked that he could be so careless about his talent.
“Then don’t leave me. Without you, I’m lost, I’m nothing, my soul a cold and empty tomb,” he said, kneeling before her.
Touched, Eleanor ran her fingers through his hair. There was something strangely attractive, even thrilling, about this mysterious young cadet.
“Does the monster love me that much?” she asked softly.
Edgar looked up at her from where he knelt, his face in the lamplight. “He does,” he said, kissing her hand and rising to take her in his arms.
“Hallo!” someone called out, cutting short their embrace. “Everyone all right?”
William came out of the darkness and sauntered up the walk.
“Just fine,” Edgar replied in a clipped tone meant to signal that he should leave. But William pretended not to notice and instead flashed his most winning smile at Eleanor.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott