by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 1 and part 2
appear in this issue.
In the distance, he heard the dolorous voices of the undertaker and his assistants coming from the tavern. When he looked back, he saw them carrying a shrouded stretcher out the front door while a hearse waited in the road with its doors open like a great black-winged beetle, its wheels sunk in the mud up to their spokes.
Then there was a crack of snapping twigs behind him and he started to turn, only to find himself knocked to the ground. Before he could get up, a dark-cloaked man was on his back, choking him. He struck back with a fear-driven fury, throwing his attacker off and picking up a stone to dash his brains out.
That’s when he heard the laugh — the caustic, arrogant bray of only one man alive. He let go of the rock — and his older brother jumped up from the roadway cackling madly.
“I got you good that time, Eddy! I win that round!” Henry Poe crowed before his words were cut short by a series of ragged coughs.
“You barmy bastard! What the hell are you doing here?”
Henry backed away, laughing, hacking and spitting into a blood-flecked handkerchief. The consumption that had plagued him since childhood had advanced since Edgar last saw him five months ago in Baltimore, and his handsome face had an unhealthy pallor. Edgar hated to see his brother cough like that, but when Henry looked up again, he was smiling.
“Hah! You should have seen your face when I jumped you. Pure, delicious fear.”
“And I should kick your ass for it, too. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
“Would you have believed me?”
“There you go, then. You never believe anything I tell you. But then you steal it for your ridiculous poems.”
Edgar laughed at this because there was some truth to it, although, as always, Henry exaggerated. Edgar loved his brother and he admired him for his talent and intelligence. Not only was he an author of numerous short stories, he’d run off to sea when he was seventeen and visited exotic locales that Edgar only dreamed of: Russia, Tahiti, even — if you believed him — the Amazon. All adventures Edgar had falsely claimed as his own on many a drunken occasion, all experiences he had indeed appropriated for his poems.
Now, at twenty-three, Henry was also a drinker, a gambler and an all-around rakehell who left a trail of broken hearts, empty brandy bottles and gaming debts wherever he went. All of those traits and vices were better developed and more profligate than similar propensities in Edgar.
The brothers resembled each other physically as well, although Henry was slightly taller. Both were lean and wiry, and both had gray eyes and chestnut-brown hair. Henry, like Edgar, also wore a neatly groomed moustache. Edgar liked to think that Henry had borrowed that stylish affectation from him, but wasn’t sure if he hadn’t stolen the refinement from Henry.
Anger was another area where his brother exceeded him. Under Henry’s veneer of charm and sangfroid seethed a sadistic rage that could boil up without warning, especially when he was drinking. There was no reasoning with him then; he became dangerously unpredictable. Even now there was liquor on his breath and Edgar would have to watch his words.
“It’s great to see you brother. You haven’t changed a whit since I last saw you.”
“You mean I was drunk before noon then, too?” Henry said.
“Naw, you look good. Although that cough worries me.”
“It comes and goes,” Henry replied, brushing off his frockcoat, every inch the somewhat dissipated Southern aristocrat. “I’m feeling pretty good these days, actually. The damnable consumption seems mostly at bay.”
Edgar knew that was a lie. Even as Henry spoke he was wracked by another lacerating cough. Catching his breath, he stepped back to give Edgar, who was in full-dress uniform, the once-over.
Edgar’s gray tunic was decorated with gold braid and piping, and three rows of brass buttons ran down the front to great effect. But his breeches were a bit long and baggy. Under most circumstances he thought the uniform impressive; in front of Henry, he felt ridiculous.
“That uniform suits you,” Henry said. “Edgar the Annihilator, isn’t that what we used to call you?”
Edgar laughed. Only Henry would remember that nickname from their boyhood war games in Richmond. Although they were brought up in separate foster homes after their mother died, they had often pleaded to see each other, and their adopted families would bring them together several times a year. As a result, they remained close and shared a lot of interests, from literature and music to all things military. And they were both vain about their clothes. Edgar, in fact, had immediately coveted Henry’s herringbone coat with its rich touches of black velvet at the lapels, pockets and sleeves. He’d obviously won some money lately.
“Come on, what’s the real reason you’re here? I know you didn’t come gallivanting all this way just to see me.”
Henry pretended to be stricken by Edgar’s assertion, then gave a sly wink. “All right then. I won a smallish fortune at cards and, well, I needed to get out of Baltimore for a few weeks until the losers cooled their tempers.”
“I guessed as much.”
Drunk or sober, Henry rarely lost at cards. Edgar had never known him to cheat, but he wouldn’t have put it past him. His skill was such, though, that cheating was probably unnecessary in most instances. His victims didn’t share that view, however, and Edgar had seen him leave town in a hurry more than a few times, usually after winning large sums. He never returned until he’d spent most of it.
“Wherever you’re staying, move out and join me at the barracks,” Edgar said, throwing his arm over Henry’s shoulder as they walked. “You’ll like my friends. But no cards, please — I’m afraid you’d skin ’em.”
Henry thanked him for the offer but said he was staying at Madam Hopkins’, a local boarding house and brothel. “Food’s only fair, but the landlady doesn’t mind if you bring a trollop or two up to your room.”
“You dog,” Edgar said. “Can’t get along without your whores, can you?”
Henry ignored the question and hooked his thumb toward the tavern. “So what’s going on there? Seems to be in quite a turmoil.”
Henry looked back at the nondescript, slope-roofed old edifice. The hearse was gone, but several townsmen still waited out front, talking and shaking their heads. Behind the tavern, the morning mists receded across a meadow and into some pines, chased by the late-October sunshine.
“A murder,” Edgar said, his gloom returning.
“Really? How intriguing. Who was snuffed out?”
“The tavern owner, Old Ben. He was a good man. I can’t understand why anyone would take his life.”
“I’m sorry. It’s a rough business, dealing with drunks and gamblers, strangers. Anything could have happened.” He kicked at a stone in their path. “Did they catch the killer yet?”
The more worldly Henry, unlike Edgar, had seen men shot down in front of him and watched them die — Edgar had heard the stories many times. Henry knew how debased human nature could be; he’d witnessed it first-hand. Edgar, however, found the whole concept of taking a life, of murdering another soul, terrifying and shocking.
“They have a suspect, a local lad,” Edgar said. “But I’m not convinced he’s the right man.”
“A mystery, then. How challenging. Let’s hope the police can handle it.”
“I, for one, don’t think they’re up to the job,” Edgar said, and they lapsed into silence as they continued hiking along the muddy road. After a while, Henry spoke up again.
“I’ve published some more stories in the Messenger, and I’ve been thinking we should collaborate. You have a lively imagination and I bet you’d take to the short-story form.’’
Edgar was always amazed at his brother’s prodigious creativity. Somehow, despite his daily debaucheries, he found time to sit down and write. Whenever Edgar felt pride in his own accomplishments, he had only to think about Henry and his nearly supernatural abilities.
“I’ve no luck writing stories,” Edgar said. “If I have a beginning, I can’t find the ending. If I have an ending, I get lost in the middle.”
“I can teach you, brother, just like with ‘Tamerlane.’”
Suspicion sliced through Edgar like a blade; “Tamerlane” was the poem crumpled around Ben’s heart. Who else but half-mad Henry would taunt him with such clues? He now realized why his brother’s sudden arrival had been nagging at him: Henry was the killer! His sickness had gone to his brain, deranging him and unshackling the murderer within.
Edgar caught himself, surprised at how quickly he had concocted a case against his own brother. No, it was too farfetched, he told himself in an effort to settle his nerves. Henry was innocent. His arrival shortly after the murder was nothing but a coincidence; the universe was filled with such random, mysterious events.
“The poems in ‘Tamerlane’ are mine,” Edgar said flatly. “Your contribution was very small; insignificant, really.”
“That is a bald-faced lie.” It was Henry’s turn to be taken aback.
“All right, so you suggested a few changes. They were minor.”
“Changes? Come, brother. I provided the inspiration for your best ideas.”
“Not this tedious argument again.”
The brothers fell into a sulky silence as they plodded down the road. At length, Edgar spoke again.
“Why did you bring up ‘Tamerlane’?” Even as he said it, he could see Ben’s heart wrapped in the dripping pages. “Why that poem?”
“I just thought it was a good example of the work we’ve done together. I was hoping we could repeat our success.”
Henry’s insolent eyes were mirthful, and he let loose with a ridiculous horselaugh. It was cut short by a coughing fit that started deep in his chest cavity and burst from his throat, violently shaking his slight frame. He clutched at Edgar for support.
It took him a minute to recover, but when he did, he straightened up, spat in the road and laughed.
“Why the long face, brother?” he said. “We’re going to have some fun, just like the old days.”
Maybe it was Henry’s smile, or the open, guileless way he spoke, but Edgar felt foolish for thinking, even for a moment, that he might have murdered Ben. After all, this was his brother, his own flesh and blood; he was closer to him than any other living soul.
Edgar thrust his suspicions aside.
“Ben’s murder has affected my mind,” he said. “I’m going mad thinking about it.”
“Then let’s take a break from thinking,” said Henry, holding up a silver flask that gleamed like a mirror in the morning sun. “And embrace the madness.”
Edgar skipped his mathematics class and was late for French. Professor Dupin’s glare as he came through the door was enough to make him want to run outside again.
Dupin was a tough old bird. He’d served with Napoleon as one of his master engineers; he’d helped design the bridges and build the roads that moved the conqueror’s armies. Rumor had it that he was now overseeing some secret work at the West Point Foundry across the river in Cold Spring, but details were scant.
The Point’s superintendent, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, wanted his academy to offer the most advanced military and scientific training in the world. To achieve that end, he had imported teachers from the continent and paid them handsomely. But Dupin, a former instructor at the L’Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, had found himself doing double-duty, teaching not only engineering but rudimentary French to the crude, unruly sons of American aristocracy, and he was not happy about the situation. Any poor cadet foolish enough to earn his ire found himself in deep trouble.
Arriving late and flustered, Edgar knew he’d caught the old Frenchman’s attention. Dupin’s porcine eyes followed him as he held his course to his seat and sat down next to William. But the professor then thumbed through a book at his lectern and seemed to forget him.
“Where’ve you been?” William whispered.
“My brother’s in town,” Edgar whispered back.
“Your brother? I didn’t know you had a brother. Where’s he staying?”
“The whorehouse? He’s as amoral as you are. How charming.”
Edgar didn’t answer because Dupin was staring at them over his bifocals. He hoped the old man didn’t come over because he’d surely smell the bourbon on his breath. Getting caught drunk in class would get him at least several demerits and possibly a court martial if Superintendent Thayer wanted to make an example of him. Not that cadets didn’t drink before class. His own roommate, Thomas, liked to have a nip or two before French, saying it helped with his accent.
Edgar didn’t need any help with his accent; he was doing well with his French studies and they were reading Voltaire, whose work he enjoyed. But Dupin, a rigid taskmaster, didn’t play favorites and he was not about to let him off the hook.
“Bonjour, Monsieur Poe,” the professor said. “I am so glad you have decided to honor us with your presence.”
“Sorry, sir,” Edgar said, sinking in his chair.
Dupin stroked his side-whiskers, teasing them so they framed his leonine face like a mane. “Open your book to page forty-nine, Monsieur Poe, and give us the pleasure of listening to you read in French.”
Dupin saw he didn’t have his book, of course. There’d been no time to run back to the barracks after his meeting with Henry. To his right, William slipped him his copy of Candide, and Edgar slyly snatched it up, keeping his eyes on Dupin. He hoped the row of cadets sitting in front of him had screened the exchange, and in fact Dupin didn’t seem to notice.
“I’m waiting,” the professor said, impatiently grooming his whiskers again.
“Yes sir,” Edgar said, opening the book.
“I’ve changed my mind,” the professor said. “Close your friend’s book. I wish you to recite last night’s lesson from memory.”
Edgar flushed with embarrassment. He’d read the assignment, but memorize it? That hadn’t been required.
“I’m sorry sir. I can’t do that.”
“You didn’t read the assignment?”
“Yes sir, I did, but...”
“Then let’s hear it, mon ami.”
“I didn’t memorize it, sir.”
Dupin glowered, his whiskers standing out from his face so that Edgar half-expected him to roar. And then he did.
“What manner of dunce are you to think you can come in here late and without your book?”
“I’m sorry sir, but circumstances...”
“The deuce with your circumstances. There is no room here for fools or idiots or circumstances.”
Edgar was thoroughly humiliated and a quick glance around the room showed that many of the cadets shared his mortification — except for Thomas and Lucian. They were sniggering.
After class, Edgar glumly followed his companions to the mess hall.
“The professor gave you a right good whipping,” Thomas said. “He’s a real jackass when he’s pissed.”
“Why don’t you lay off,” William said. “Just be glad Dupin left you alone for once.”
“I am, I am. The old ballbuster’s always picking on me and I’m glad Eddy was his target today. What a friend.”
William gave Thomas a push that sent him sprawling and Charlie shoved him when he tried to get up. Edgar ignored them and walked in front, his hands in his waistcoat, his jaw set.
“Aw, it wasn’t that bad,” William said.
“It was hell,” Edgar said. “Who does he think he is, talking to me like that?”
“He’s a professor and an officer, and you’re a cadet and a nobody,” said Lucian. “And take your hands out of your pockets, plebe! That’s against regulations.”
“Damn the regulations,” Edgar answered, digging his hands in deeper.
Lucian was right about his place in the Academy’s hierarchy, of course, but he was still indignant. “Dupin will get his comeuppance one of these days,” he fumed.
The sky was now overcast and nearly as gray as the cadets’ woolen jackets. The earlier sunshine had fled, as was wont to happen in these accursed northern climes, Edgar thought bitterly to himself. In the distance they could see The Plain, the broad plateau above the river where all parades and maneuvers were held. Even now, cadets were marching in tight formations, back and forth, back and forward, spurred on by guttural, inarticulate commands.
Beyond the expanse of The Plain, humped and sullen mountains heaved up against the low-lying clouds. As they passed the Academy Building with its Greek columns and arched windows, it occurred to Edgar that its design was far too civilized for such a wild, lonely place. As if to punctuate the thought, an icy wind cut from the northwest and blew directly into the cadets’ faces.
Fortunately, the mess hall was just a short distance from the Academy and they were soon through its doors, welcoming the radiant warmth from the kitchen. “Boiled beef and potatoes again,” said Thomas. He was constantly carping about the chewy meats and bland vegetables that bore little resemblance to his mother’s cooking back in Indiana.
“It’s soldier’s slop,” said William, picking up a tin plate from a stack on a long counter where scullery workers stood scooping and serving. “What did you expect? Oysters and caviar?”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott