by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 4 and part 5
appear in this issue.
Instead of lunging for William, Henry only laughed and let himself be pulled away. As he passed Ben’s coffin, sorrow seemed to overcome him. “Death stalks us, does it not Eddy? Remember mother’s funeral? Did I ever tell you that I kissed her forehead? She was so cold, colder than those stones we used to skip across the James in winter, remember? So cold.”
His face collapsed into a tearful grimace and he leaned heavily against Edgar. “I’m sorry, brother. I’ve made a mess of things, haven’t I?”
A violent cough shuddered through his body, then another and another. Edgar held him as he bent over and shook, spitting blood into a handkerchief. Glowering, Zebulon went ahead of them into the hall.
“It’s all right, Henry, it’s all right,” Edgar said as he helped him toward the door, worried that his consumption had progressed beyond a cure.
Eleanor was at Edgar’s side. “You don’t have to leave. He can rest in the parlor.”
“I’ll take him back to his room,” Edgar said. “I apologize for the disruption.”
They were in the hallway now, where a scowling Zebulon held the door as Edgar led his brother out into the night. The door slammed shut behind them.
With Zebulon gone, Henry pulled away from Edgar and did a little jig along the flagstones. Edgar stared, dumbfounded.
“Now that I’ve got us out of that tedious obligation, come with me to a tavern I’ve found,” Henry said without slurring a word. “We’ve got to talk, and we can drink our way to euphoria while we’re at it. Ever been to Euphoria? A lovely part of the world. My horse is over here.” Henry reached for a black mare tied to a hitching post at the end of the walkway.
Edgar stepped back in anger.“You’re not drunk? That was an act in there?”
“Well, I’m never entirely sober... and acting does run in the family, you know. I certainly meant everything I said about mother. But I had to get you out of there, don’t you see? My day’s been hell.”
“You’re mad. I was paying my respects to that family. A loved one of theirs is dead. Don’t you have a shred of decency?”
“The dead don’t give a damn about your respect. And the living don’t need it, believe me.”
“Listen to me,” Henry said, taking a fistful of his brother’s lapel. “I’m suspected of murdering some whore in town. Some maniac cut her to pieces. Or maybe it was me, I don’t know. I was drinking that goddamned absinthe and smoking opium.’’
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re not listening,” Henry went on, his voice desperate. “The local constabulary interrogated me and I got the distinct impression they don’t like me or Southerners in general. If the other whores hadn’t vouched for me — and thank God I spent the time getting to know them all — they’d have taken me to jail and probably lynched me by now.”
He started to cough again, pulling a cigar from his coat pocket and then a small tin cylinder. “Good for my throat,” he muttered, holding up the stogie.
Edgar watched as he opened up the container and extracted a spindly stick about the length of his finger. Lifting one foot off the ground, he scratched the stick on the sole of his shoe. It flared into a sputtering ball of flame and Henry quickly lit his cigar with it, immediately sucking in a deep draught of smoke. An acrid smell lingered in the air.
“Lucifers,” Henry said, using the common name for the match. Edgar had only read about them; leave it to Henry to have the latest in smoking accoutrements.
“Where’d you get those?”
“New York City. They bring them in from Britain. Only been around a couple of years. Here, take some.”
He tapped out half the contents of the cylinder into Edgar’s hand. Edgar gave them only a cursory look, noting that the ends of the sticks were bulbous with some kind of chemicals. Then he stuck them in his coat pocket. By this time, the sweet smell of good Virginia tobacco had replaced the Lucifer’s poisonous odor. Henry coughed into a handkerchief and Edgar recoiled at the wadded cloth, which was black with blood in the moonlight.
“Is your cough really that bad, or is that an act too?”
“The cough’s real enough. But this isn’t my blood,” he said, unwrapping the cloth as he puffed on the cigar.
With thumb and forefinger he held up a piece of paper. Some of the text was smudged and indecipherable, but when Henry lit another match, Edgar could clearly see his own words.
“It was night and the rain fell; And, falling, it was rain, But having fallen, it was blood.”
The Lucifer sputtered out, and Henry flicked it away.
“Where did you get this?” Edgar asked with alarm.
“From the murdered whore. It was in her dead and dainty hand.”
Edgar pondered this latest revelation with apprehension. Where was the logic? A fragment of his juvenilia is found on a dead man in a tavern and another on a slain prostitute. The only common denominator was standing before him, reeking of liquor: his brother.
“Did you kill her?”
“Maybe. I have murderous impulses and I blacked out back there from the drink. But I had no reason to kill her. And this poem — why would I do that, unless I was completely insane?”
Henry laughed his old laugh, the sharp-witted, honest laugh Edgar knew from their boyhood. Just hearing it almost set his mind at ease. Almost, but not quite.
“I didn’t kill anybody,” Henry said finally. “Someone wants us both to think we’re mad. And we are. But we’re not that crazy; we’re being set up, Eddy.”
“Must be your enemies. I left all mine in Baltimore.”
“I have no enemies. I’m a lowly plebe, a nobody.”
Henry struck another Lucifer and held it to the shred of poetry. Flames quickly devoured the paper and he flicked away the still burning ash.
“Somebody doesn’t think so,” he said.
When Henry learned that Edgar was sneaking off to a ball that evening, he insisted on going. “Strength in numbers,” he said. “Anyways, after a day like today, a man needs some diversion to help him forget.”
They rode together on the mare that Henry said he’d won in a card game at Madame Hopkins, and the masquerade ball was going strong when they arrived at Douglas’ mansion. Every window in the great house was lit up and waltz music floated in the chill air. Men and women in carnival masks whispered and flitted among the gardens and hedges that spread out in front of Douglas’ estate. A woman dressed as an angel with gossamer wings swept past them arm in arm with a devil, the Evil One’s horns poking through two neatly cut holes in a stovepipe hat.
“A lovely pair,” said Henry as he watched them pass.
A drunken cadet, his head between his knees, sat on the broad steps that led up to the mansion’s front doors. When they got closer, Edgar recognized Thomas. “You feeling all right, Tom?” he asked.
“Too much punch,” he moaned and held his head.
They left him there and a servant ushered them through the ornate doors into the spacious ballroom with its lofty, vaulted ceilings and crystal chandeliers. The party was as near to pandemonium as any Edgar had ever attended. Whatever gentility had existed earlier had evaporated, replaced by a strident debauchery.
The chamber orchestra played loudly and raggedly and revelers thronged the room, jostling and laughing and misbehaving in ways they’d never consider during daylight hours. Nearly everyone was drunk and even Douglas stood with a full glass, zlaughing with a group of like-minded cohorts.
Edgar was reminded of an illustration he’d once seen of hell, where the damned engaged in every loathsome activity known to man on their way to the pit. But maybe he was moralizing too much. These were all good people enjoying themselves and their newfound prosperity. After all, Douglas was a self-made man, a merchant prince who’d bought his way into the upper class. If he was a little rough around the edges when judged by the standards of Southern aristocracy, so what? He’d worked hard and earned the right to throw any damned party he wished.
Contemplation of the rich always made Edgar glum, since his livelihood depended solely on the twelve dollars a month the government paid cadets and, of course, the few measly dollars his stepfather, John Allan, sent him. Now there was a man who would have been shocked by Douglas’ extravagance and lack of breeding. Allan, too, was a wealthy, self-made man. But his bearing was always of the starkest rectitude no matter what the occasion. And every penny was accounted for, even the few he threw Edgar’s way. Yes, this bacchanal would have drawn his contempt.
For the first time in hours, Edgar smiled; maybe there was some merit in this party for rabble. As the evening wore on, he found himself in front of the crystal bowl again and again. The drunker he got, the sorrier he was that he’d come. All he could think about was Eleanor. She had loved her father deeply and was suffering, and he should be by her side.
He thought about going back to her house, but then decided to wait. If someone reported him missing and officers arrested him at her home, he’d never forgive himself. No, he’d never put her through that. So here he was at the ball, trying to remain in good spirits, but slipping irrevocably toward despondency — and the punch bowl.
Everyone else was extremely merry, however, and it seemed to him that William and Charlie danced with just about every woman in the room. Henry was keeping his distance from William, and so far they’d ignored each other.
Meanwhile, Tim appeared to have struck up a conversation with a petite young thing who was hanging on to his every word.
Edgar also spied Lucian slinking about near the orchestra, a glass in one hand, a canapé in the other, his eyes on the angel-woman. Her devilish escort was standing at the punch bowl, refilling his cup, when Lucian asked her to dance.
Edgar searched the crowded room for Henry, who he’d last seen waltzing with a slatternly looking girl. He was probably having his way with her right now in some dark alcove deep in the recesses of the house.
Just then, Mrs. Douglas led two more West Pointers into the room, startling Edgar from his alcoholic haze. He watched as Lieutenant John Gant and Sergeant Arthur Ridley swaggered across the floor, both in full-dress uniform, sabers at their sides, medals and ribbons on their chests, carrying themselves like generals.
Gant took the lead and did all the talking, apologizing for so late an arrival, while Ridley, the smaller of the two, trailed behind. Edgar was sure that if they saw him, or any of the others, they’d face a court martial before morning. He put his glass down on a table and was about to warn the others when Gant caught his eye, nodded and smiled. Edgar didn’t know what to make of the acknowledgment, but it occurred to him that maybe the lieutenant didn’t have permission to be there, either. If he wasn’t mistaken, they were both supposed to be on duty directing the guard detail at the West Point Foundry.
Gant motioned for him to wait and then crossed the room. A tall man, he was every inch a military officer right down to his trim mustache and gimlet eyes. Ridley scuttled after him, ever the faithful lapdog.
“Cadet Poe,” Gant said with a salute. “What a pleasant surprise to find you and your comrades here.”
“We were just heading back to the barracks, sir,” Edgar said after returning the salute. Ridley hovered at Gant’s side, grinning.
“Oh, no need for that. You boys need a furlough now and then,” Gant said. “Please avail yourselves of our host’s many amenities. Enjoy yourselves.” With that, he waved to a young woman nearby and excused himself with a smart salute.
Ridley hung back. “Have a good time, plebe,” he said menacingly before turning and tagging after Gant.
Edgar was unsure what to do next. He saw William dancing in the middle of the crowd on the ballroom floor and raised his hand to get his attention, but Will slipped back into the swirling mass.
Edgar finished his punch, his head spinning. Gant and Ridley no longer seemed so important, certainly not as important as another drink, and the evening began to blur. William then caught up with him, and at his urging Edgar danced several desultory minuets with women who all looked like Eleanor.
Gant and Ridley occasionally reared up from the crowd, laughing or waltzing with the ladies, but he ignored them. Finally, he found himself too soused for any semblance of grace on the dance floor, and he retreated to the punchbowl again.
At one point the leering wolf bumped into him and growled. Then a portly man in a mask and red-and-yellow jester’s costume laughed in his face and pranced away with surprising alacrity. After that, it was back to the punchbowl.
Someone poured him a glass and later there was wine and then some ale from kegs. Soon faces and colors began to fuse dizzily together and he became disoriented. He found his way through an arched doorway into the kitchen and then out behind the mansion, where he stumbled into a couple necking in the shadows.
“Henry, is that you?” he asked, but the man swore at him as the girl took her partner’s hand and pulled him back in the house so that Edgar was left alone with the muted waltz music as stars flashed overhead.
He shambled away from the mansion toward a copse of pines that offered refuge from the chaotic sights and sounds of the ball. His stomach was heaving and if he could only get to the trees, he felt everything would be all right. When he reached the grove he lay down on the ground and breathed in the cool, anesthetic air.
A screaming hawk awakened him; at least he thought it was a hawk. He sat up wondering what he was doing in the woods, and then remembered leaving Douglas’ party. As he tried to get his bearings there was a second scream, and this time he realized it was the sound of a terrified woman. He straggled to his feet, shivering in the morning mists that enveloped the pines.
Another scream rent the air from the vicinity of the great house. Without thinking he pulled himself together and ran around to the front of the mansion, where he came upon a clutch of people halfway up the stone steps. Douglas was at the center, kneeling on the flagstones with his wife in his arms while two other men looked on helplessly.
“Who are you?” demanded one of them, an older, balding fellow with sideburns, as he caught sight of Edgar.
“Cadet Poe, sir. Is the lady all right?”
Douglas looked up from where he held his wife, who was in a nightgown and jerked his head toward the house. “She found the poor fellow in the ballroom. He’s dead.”
Edgar wasn’t sure he’d heard right, but before he could say anything, Douglas spoke again, this time to the older man. “Jacob, go get some compresses for the lady. And Edwin,” he addressed the younger man, another servant, “take a horse from the stable and get Constable Grey.”
“But what of this man?” asked Edwin, who Edgar now saw aimed a pistol at him.
“He’s a cadet, for Chrissakes. Get going!” The command was meant to be instantly obeyed, and young Edwin was off and running.
Two other guests who had stayed the night came out of the house, obviously frightened. “Douglas, what happened in there?” blurted one. “That man, he’s been hanged.”
“I don’t know, damn you. Help me with my wife.” Both men hurried to Douglas’ assistance as Edgar went up the steps, through the parlor and into the ballroom, where he found the fat jester in the red-and-yellow costume hanging from a chandelier. The poor man dangled in midair several feet above the dance floor, his cap and bells still on his listing head, the bells tinkling like garden chimes in the breeze from the open doorway.
Edgar overcame a gnawing fear and went closer for a better look in the feeble light that came through the ballroom windows. The harlequin’s mask was gone and a gag of some sort was crammed into his mouth, further distorting the bloated face, which was somehow familiar even under some artistically applied greasepaint. With a start, he recognized the dead man: Professor Auguste Dupin.
He froze in front of the grotesque scene, his head still pounding from last night’s excesses, his mind working feverishly to comprehend the nightmare before him. A thick rope, of the type common in stables, cut into Dupin’s blubbery neck and was lashed to the chandelier. The chandelier itself was suspended from the ceiling by a heavy chain.
Edgar had seen similar ballroom fixtures in the home of a family acquaintance in Richmond, and he knew there was a winch-like mechanism, usually concealed in an adjacent room, that could raise or lower the assembly so the lamps could be lighted and the brass polished. Someone had lowered the chandelier, thrown a rope around Dupin’s neck, and then winched him off the ground.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott