by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 6 appeared
in issue 186.
“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.
Edgar tried to visualize, in his mind’s eye, the sequence of events that had led to Dupin’s death. First of all, Dupin must have been dead drunk. He was a huge man, a military man, who could easily have fought off his attacker, or at least have made a terrific racket. Which meant his assailant probably had a pistol, or other weapon, and threatened him. That would have kept him quiet until the gag was in his mouth and his hands were tied behind his back.
Edgar went closer, searching for clues. Despite the awful nature of the death, he couldn’t help but think that Dupin looked ridiculous. He dangled in the air like a colorful, slightly deflated silk balloon caught on a tree branch, and one of his absurd pointy-toed slippers was missing. Edgar scanned the room and found it near a sofa under one of the windows. Perhaps Dupin had lost it when his tormentor woke him and forced him drunk and stumbling across the room.
Then he noticed something irregular about the costume. At least two buttons were missing from the shirtfront, and their threads stuck out as though the buttons had been plucked off. He strained for a better look in the weak light and saw slashes on the harlequin’s shirtfront. So Dupin’s killer had a saber all right, and from the look of the cleanly cut fabric, it was razor sharp. Before the villain hoisted him into the air, he’d taunted him, jabbing at him with the sword and using it to pick the buttons off.
Edgar walked behind the body, where he found tiny blood spots on the yellow cloth covering one buttock. The malefactor had evidently pricked Dupin several times as he prodded him toward the chandelier, where no doubt the rope was waiting. Then he’d held the blade to his throat, or maybe he’d had a gun and used his free hand to throw the noose around Dupin’s neck. Once the rope was on him and his hands were tied, he gagged him. Then it was all over.
And what of the gag? There was something odd about it. Edgar stretched to his full height for a better look and saw it wasn’t cloth, but paper. His heart leapt as he discerned it was a page, or several pages, stuffed into Dupin’s mouth. When he reached up and tugged at the gag, the dead man’s jaw slackened and the wad of paper fell soundlessly to the floor. Edgar scooped it up with his handkerchief as Douglas came into the room with Jacob.
“It’s Dupin, then?” Douglas asked.
“Yes sir, it is,” said Edgar, slipping the paper into his pocket. “Lord have mercy on him.”
“You knew him well, sir?” Edgar asked, wondering what Douglas’ connection to Dupin was, and hoping for an answer that might explain how his crumpled writings came to be there.
“We had business dealings. He was helping me with my mining operations, acting as a translator. I was trying to bring more scientific help over from France, from the École Polytechnique. I need engineers to make my iron mines more efficient and Dupin knew some people, that’s all.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Edgar said. Like many, Douglas was following industrial developments in Europe with an eye out for expanding his commercial interests, and it made sound business sense for him to bring over men with technical expertise.
Douglas stared mournfully up at Dupin in his pathetic jester’s suit. “I can’t bear to see him there. Help me take him down.”
“Think it’s wise to disturb the body before the constable gets here?”
“What matter? The man’s dead, for heaven’s sake. He’ll still be dead when the police get here.”
Edgar didn’t argue with him.
“Catch him as I lower him,” Douglas said, disappearing into a hallway at the back of the ballroom. There was the clank of unwinding chains and the garishly clad body descended into Edgar’s arms.
Constable Grey arrived an hour later. The rustic was obviously not too keen on investigating Dupin’s murder. “I can’t remember a year when we seen three killings around here,” was the first thing he said when he saw the dead man. “First Old Ben, then that whore, now this feller.” He shook his head. “Seeing’s how he’s from the Point, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask for their help.” The constable was immediately suspicious of Edgar.
“Yer the one found Old Ben’s heart under the floorboards. What the hell you doing here?”
Edgar started to explain, but Douglas came to his aid, saying it was highly unlikely the murderer would have remained at the house. “There were more than a hundred people here last night,” he said. “The killer’s long gone.” This seemed a logical assumption, and Douglas was not a man to be challenged.
But Grey still asked Edgar for his name. Thankfully, Douglas interceded again telling the lawman it wasn’t necessary. How Grey or his police brethren around the country ever solved any crimes was a mystery to Edgar. Unless they caught their man red-handed, they lacked any semblance of investigative powers to track down a criminal. And they apparently had no interest in applying scientific methods, or the kind of ratiocination techniques taught at West Point that might help them make an arrest.
Douglas took Edgar by the elbow and insisted that Jacob take him back to the Point, and he was soon aboard a surrey, rocking and swaying along the road, the bloody poems burning in his pocket.
Jacob dropped him off near the Point’s entrance. The sky had cleared, and he walked through the woods along the edge of the parade ground where a phalanx of cadets was in the midst of morning drill. He’d missed another formation and roll call, and the tac officers would be on the lookout for him.
The trees around him were fast losing their leaves and if any of the cadets or officers had peered into the woods, they might have seen him among the trunks and branches. But they didn’t, and he was soon safe in his room at South Barracks.
With the door bolted behind him, he dug the poem from his pocket, his hands trembling as he unfolded the blood-stained paper. The words were his, cut or ripped from his first edition just like the title page found on Old Ben and the fragment from the prostitute. This was from “Tamarlane”:
I know — for Death who comes for me
From regions of the blest afar
Where there is nothing to deceive
Hath left his iron gate ajar...
The next line was obliterated in blood and the torn page ended ominously with “A snare in every human path...” He indeed felt caught in a snare, waiting like a witless beast for the hunter to show himself and deal a killing blow. What deviant mind had entrapped him in this nightmare? Why was this creature trying to pin the murders on him?
Outside on The Plain he heard drumbeats and bugle blasts and officers shouting dismissals. He hurried to change his rumpled, pine-tar smeared uniform. Then he gathered his books, holding them in one hand as he buttoned his tunic with the other. He practically ran from the room and out of the barracks.
He’d reached the alley between South Barracks and the Academy Building when Gant and Ridley confronted him. He was late for class and no one else was in sight. “Mr. Poe,” Gant said as Ridley came up alongside and elbowed Edgar toward the alley. “We’d like a word with you.”
“I’m late for mathematics, sir,” Edgar said, as he tried to hurry past.
“The lieutenant said he wants to speak with you, cadet,” Ridley snarled, grabbing his shoulder. “I think you better pay attention.”
“I’m late,” he said, shaking Ridley off. “Don’t worry about your asinine class,” Ridley said, shoving him into the alley. Edgar stumbled and his books flew from his hands, landing in the dirt.
“There was no need for that,” he said, trying to gather them up. Ridley answered with another, more forceful shove. This time, Edgar backed further into the alley, which was a mistake. Ridley rushed at him and smacked him in the head, but Edgar stood his ground and faced him, staring without fear into his pig-like eyes. He hadn’t come to West Point to be slapped around by a sawed-off runt.
Ridley cocked his arm and Edgar went into the defensive posture he’d learned during two years of boxing in the Army, ready to flatten the runt’s nose with his bare knuckles.
Gant caught Ridley’s arm. “Enough. Let me talk to the boy.”
“If your man lays another hand on me, I’ll give him a thrashing he won’t soon forget,” Edgar said.
“Very good,” laughed Gant, holding back Ridley, who tried to get loose. “I commend your courage. But we just want to talk to you about Professor Dupin. It’s a terrible thing that’s happened. Douglas’ man, Jacob, stopped by to tell us about it and he mentioned you by name. We thought maybe you could throw some light on the situation.”
Edgar’s hands were down now. There was no denying he was at the ball; they’d seen him there. So they had him for leaving the Academy without authorization, which could mean a court-martial.
Gant grinned like a torturer who enjoyed his work. “Isn’t it true, Mr. Poe, that Dupin humiliated you in class yesterday?”
So they’d already made the rounds and asked questions; he wondered who had told them about the tongue-lashing he’d received from Dupin during his French lecture. It could have been any of his thirty or so classmates.
“Are you inferring, sir, that I had something to do with his murder?”
“It’s true you didn’t like the man, isn’t it?”
“Not enough to kill him. I’m not mad.” The words were hardly out of his mouth when Ridley exploded and rammed his shoulder into him, driving him further into the alley and up against the stones of the barracks wall. “Mind your manners when addressing an officer, boy,” he spat, and Edgar caught the strong smell of cheap liquor.
“What were you doing at Douglas’ house?” Gant asked from behind his lackey. “I heard they were giving dance lessons.” Gant gave Edgar a quick, expert punch just below his ribs. The pain was excruciating and Ridley made his contribution by slamming Edgar’s head into the wall.
“I’ve read your diseased poetry,” Gant growled. “Only someone as perverse as you could have dreamt up Dupin’s murder.” Then he punched him again.
Edgar doubled over in pain, but Ridley yanked him upright. “And it’s not your first, is it?” Gant said. “Didn’t you rehearse Old Ben’s killing for your friends at the barracks? I heard it was quite an elaborate production, pretending to chop off the old boy’s head.”
“It was a prank,” Edgar said, incredulous.
“What a howler. So, I suppose it’s just a coincidence that venerable Old Ben was killed a few hours later in just that manner, with his head neatly separated from his body?”
“This is madness. I haven’t killed anyone.”
“Confess and I’ll see you get a fair trial. And when they hang you, I’ll make sure you won’t feel a thing.”
That was enough. Edgar threw Ridley off and knocked Gant away. “I’m not guilty,” he shouted as Ridley picked himself up from the dirt and came back at him. Edgar sidestepped and delivered a hard right to his kidney. Ridley crumpled and Edgar went into his boxer’s stance, but was too late. Gant struck him in the back of the head and he felt his knees give way.
As he was going down, he saw Ridley coming at him again and he was helpless to defend himself. Then they were both on him, kicking and punching, and the blue strip of sky above the alley dimmed and went black.
When he came to, the alley was crowded with cursing, lunging bodies. It was an unbelievable scene: Charlie and Tim were trading blows with Gant and Ridley. William was there, too, moaning on the ground.
Edgar leaped to his feet and hauled Ridley off Tim, who’d lost his spectacles. He gave Ridley two quick hard-knuckled punches and watched him hit the dirt like a sack of manure. He didn’t get back up.
Charlie had Gant wrapped in his iron arms, a wild look in his eyes as he crushed the life out of him. Edgar shouted for him to let go, but Charlie’s face contorted in rage and he just squeezed harder. Gant gasped for air as he feebly tried to free himself, but Charlie had lifted him a good six inches off the ground.
Edgar rushed over and pried at Charlie’s powerful arms. “Let him down! You’re killing him.” The light returned to Charlie’s eyes, and he eased his grip. Gant fell to the ground in a heap.
“He hit me,” Charlie said with disbelief. “Right in the face. Pa always told me to hit ‘em back. I almost killed him.”
Gant got shakily to his feet and dusted himself off without a word. Ridley, too, stood up slowly and rubbed his jaw. “Goddamn, you’re lucky your friends came along or we’d a settled this for good,” he said without meeting anyone’s eyes.
Gant had regained his composure by now and was brushing off his tunic, which was missing several brass buttons. With his hair rumpled and his uniform a mess, he seemed older and frailer, although only in his forties. The gray that tinged his hair had leached into his cheeks, and his eyes were as cold as tarnished pewter. “I want you all on The Plain, walking it off for the next three hours. And then I want you, Cadet Poe, in my office tomorrow morning at seven.” He dusted off his trousers, and rubbed at a dirt-stain on his knee.
“Now forget that this incident ever happened. That’s an order.” He turned and strode out of the alley with Ridley slouching after him, red-faced and cursing, but staring at the ground.
Edgar wasn’t sure if he was relieved that Gant had left without dragging them all off to the stockade, or afraid. The fact that they’d struck an officer was immediate grounds for dismissal. So why didn’t Gant follow through and prosecute them? What was he up to?
Tim was the first to speak when Gant and Ridley were out of sight. “Fighting with officers. We could be court-martialed.”
“Should’ve thought of that before you jumped in,” William said. “But Gant’s not going to report us. Officers aren’t supposed to assault cadets, either, you know. Anyway, his business is with Edgar, isn’t it?” He looked at Edgar for an answer.
“What do they want with you?” asked Charlie. Edgar nursed a welt on his cheekbone and didn’t respond. “C’mon, what’s going on here?” said Tim. “Maybe we can help.”
“I don’t know,” Edgar said. He didn’t want to talk about Dupin’s murder; they’d find out about it soon enough. “I honestly don’t.”
“That’s an ugly bruise you got there,” William said. “Come on back to my quarters and we’ll put a something on it.”
“I need to get back to my room for a drink,” Edgar said. “My nerves are shot. I’ll meet you on The Plain.” He placed a hand on Charlie’s heavy shoulder. “Thanks for saving my neck. Thanks, all of you.”
Before anyone could say more, he was out of the alley, a gaunt and fleeting figure hurrying across the open square. “He’s a spooky one,” said Tim as they watched him vanish into South Barracks.
After marching around The Plain with muskets on their shoulders for three hours in the cold weather they were all sore and exhausted when they returned to the barracks. Back in his room, Edgar sat at his desk and tried to keep his mind off the murders as he studied. He was in excellent standing in both French and mathematics, at the top of his class in fact, and he’d decided to keep it that way despite these latest intrusions. He tried to convince himself that the killer would be discovered and that when the dust settled, he’d still have to make a living.
West Point was his only hope of a life with dignity, and he couldn’t let his ambitions be thwarted by some madman. He’d come to the Point to finally give his messy life some order; it was his only chance.
At twenty-one he was already older than most cadets, and they sometimes jokingly called him “the old mossback.” But they all came from well-to-do families that sent plenty of money and made life easy. He had to rely on the stingy help of his flint-hearted stepfather, John Allan. Lord knows the man was rich enough. He was one of the shrewdest businessmen in Virginia. But he just didn’t like Edgar and probably never had. “Stop your dreaming. Keep your mind on your job, boy,” was the constant refrain he’d heard growing up.
No, his stepfather had never, ever, cared for him. After all, it was Allan’s wife, Fanny, who had wanted to adopt Edgar after his mother died, not John Allan. Fanny had loved him like her own son, the only true, unspoiled, unstinting love he’d ever known, besides his mother’s, of course. And now Fanny was dead and it was just he and Allan.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott