by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 7 and part 8
appear in this issue.
Edgar was transfixed. If William ever put pen to paper, he’d make quite a writer: the scene he described was indeed hellish, and yet somehow inspiring. The foundry had always attracted Edgar’s curiosity, and he wanted to see it for himself. Built in the early 1820’s to forge cannon, it was among the largest in the States, and certainly the most important. During the War of 1812, when the U.S. had to import much of its heavy ordnance from abroad, it became clear that more foundries and arsenals were needed if the nation was to remain secure. So President Madison had them built in Pittsburgh, Georgetown and New York — and in Edgar’s hometown of Richmond.
But the West Point Foundry was the most advanced. With the Academy across the river, the latest gun designs and ideas were applied there first. And lately the foundry had taken on other industrial jobs, like casting boilers for steamboats and, most recently, the manufacture of the locomotive The Best Friend of Charleston. Most cadets were proud of the foundry’s reputation as one of the most innovative in the world. As far as Edgar was concerned, they were literally forging the country’s future right there on the Hudson.
But William obviously saw things differently. Judging from his remarks, which were laced with Biblical references and apocalyptic forebodings, he thought the foundry signaled the end of civilization. When he’d finished with his rant, his eyes were burning.
“You don’t believe me, do you?”
“Believe what? That the foundry’s the gateway to Hades and the Hudson’s really the river Styx?” Edgar gave a short laugh. “No, I don’t. It’s the future, William. It’s going to make us one of the greatest nations on earth. Don’t you see that?”
“I don’t. And neither will you if you visit the place. I’m on duty tomorrow, and we’re down a couple of men. Volunteer for the day and I’ll show you around.”
Edgar hesitated. Going to the foundry would mean missing some classes, and he was beginning to fall behind.
“I don’t know,” he said.
But William wasn’t going to take no for an answer. “Well then, it’s agreed,” he said. “You’re on guard duty with me in the morning.”
* * *
Edgar left William’s room with his mind still fogged by opium and brandy. He couldn’t wait to fall on his bunk and drop off. But when he opened the door to his room, there was a surprise waiting for him; a cadet he didn’t recognize was sitting at his desk, his back to him. He stopped to check the number on the door, momentarily thinking he’d walked into the wrong room.
Then the cadet twisted around to look at him and he saw it was Eleanor, a puckish smile on her lips. She had thrown one of his roommate’s tunics over her shoulders and put her hair up under a cadet’s slouch cap. He stood stock still and gaped at her until her laughter broke the spell.
“Close the door,” she said. “I can’t stay long.”
He came into the room, pulling the door shut behind him.
“How did you get in the barracks?” he asked, although he knew it wasn’t that difficult; bolder cadets, like William and Lucian, sometimes smuggled prostitutes in on weekend nights.
“Just be glad I’m not the enemy,” she said, “because I could have slain everyone in their beds.”
“Thankfully, we’re not at war with beautiful women right now,” he said, going over to her. Underneath the unbuttoned tunic, she was wearing a silk blouse that clung to her like a second skin. He brushed the ridiculous cap off her head and kissed her as her hair fell to her shoulders. It was a long, hungry kiss and she wouldn’t let him pull away. When he was able to, he whispered in her ear: “You can slay me in my bed any time you like.”
Later, with a nearly full moon floating in the sky, they walked together along the path to her house. She clung to his hand and they impulsively stopped several times to hold each other close and kiss, the warmth of their bodies a delight in the frosty air. Overhead, the night sky was deep with stars, and he had never felt so close to a woman, so close to happiness — so close to eternity.
Edgar and William hunched in the back of the skiff with two other cadets as the boat’s skipper guided it past Constitution Island and toward Cold Spring. The Hudson was calm in the misty dawn and Edgar wondered where the wind was coming from to fill the small craft’s single sail. The whole world — river, land and sky — was as gray as the cliffs behind them. None of the cadets spoke, and every sound seemed magnified. He listened to the water purling against the boat, the occasional snap of the canvas sail and the morning cries of hungry gulls that swooped and dove around the foundry dock.
The foundry’s jumble of red brick buildings and smokestacks spiked through the fog like a small city as they approached. A wing of black smoke was already unfurling across the gray sky from the largest stack as their boat bumped up against the dock, which projected fifty yards out into the river. The main building was in front of them, on a creek known as Furnace Brook that flowed into the Hudson. An enormous waterwheel churned in the stream and pumped the foundry’s gargantuan bellows, which then fed air to the blast furnace, according to William. Although he couldn’t see them yet, there were already men inside laboring in intense heat, pouring molten metal from smoking crucibles.
The cadets stepped out of the boat and onto the swaying dock and then walked its boards to shore. They stopped to watch a group of burly men wheel a newly minted cannon across the yard. The men wrestled the big gun into position near the dock and aimed its barrel across the river at Storm King Mountain, a wall of rock rising a thousand feet straight out of the water.
“What’re they doing?” Edgar asked.
“They’re going to fire at the mountain,” William said, pointing to Storm King’s fractured face. “But we don’t have time for that right now. The others are waiting.”
They were met in front of the main building’s towering doors by two tired looking cadets who gave their replacements perfunctory nods and headed straight for the waiting skiff.
William and another cadet hauled back one of the massive iron doors and Edgar got his first look at the foundry’s cavernous interior, a hellish scene of drifting smoke and red-roaring furnaces that threw giant shadows against the far corners of the vast room. As they entered the five-story chamber, a wave of face-flushing heat struck out at them, almost physically pushing them backwards.
William was already shedding his wool tunic, and Edgar gladly followed suit. At the other end of the enormous space several men labored in front of the open blast furnace, gripping the wooden handle of a massive iron bucket that hung from the ceiling by a chain with links as big as a man’s head. The workers, stripped to the waist and glistening with sweat, tipped the bucket’s molten contents into foot-deep stone molds embedded in the floor where the liquid metal boiled and hissed, shooting streamers of steam into the air.
Rows of recently cast cannons lay on the floor with cannon balls stacked in pyramids behind them. Edgar recognized some kind of milling machinery, and there were also box stoves, cranks, shafts, flanges, gudgeons, wheels and plummer blocks scattered throughout the great room.
“See that over there,” William said, indicating a riveted boiler and framework of wrought iron with wagon-like wheels nearly as tall as a man. “That’s the Best Friend of Charleston, the locomotive. Or at least pieces of it. Quite a horror, isn’t it? We’re sending it down the river on the morrow, to the city, for assembly. They’re so diabolically efficient at the Beach Street plant, they’ll put the thing together in about a week.”
Edgar didn’t think it was a horror, but nor was it beautiful. There was something new and disturbing about it, something that didn’t look quite right, something shocking; it was alien and unnatural, even in this place. He went over to where it lay in pieces, and touched the cool iron spokes on one of the oversized drive wheels.
“It runs on tracks like a living thing across the landscape,” he said to William. “Strange to think it’ll do that under its own power, mechanically, without animals to pull it or God to guide it; it’ll change everything.”
“You’re right about that,” William said. “It’ll creep and roll and spew its fire and filth around the world, a latter-day horseman of the apocalypse.”
“You don’t really believe that?”
“Like hell I don’t. Why’s it here, at the Academy’s foundry?” William said, as if the answer were transparent. He didn’t wait for a response. “They’re studying it for war, that’s why. The generals plan to fit these things up with cannon and soldiers and they’ll send them thundering over the earth like battleships, laying waste to everything.”
William stared at him, waiting for him to agree the machine was a nightmare. Edgar had to admit the prediction was plausible, but the locomotive was nonetheless thrilling. He was about to tell him that, when Gant materialized out of the spark-flecked gloom.
“What’s he doing here?” he said, pointing at Edgar, his face crimson with heat.
“We were down some men, sir, and I asked him to volunteer,” William said. Edgar could tell by his defensive tone that he was in trouble.
“I want you out of here now, Mr. Poe,” Gant said. “Go wait on the dock for the next boat. I’ll see you at the Point.”
“But, sir...” Edgar started.
“Don’t ‘sir’ me. That was an order, cadet,” Gant yelled above the din of hammering. “Get out of here.”
William watched helplessly as Edgar backed away and then hurried out through the great doors, which guards held open for him. Once he was outside, the heavy doors slammed behind him and he stood in the last of the morning mists staring across the river at the sheer cliffs of Storm King on the other side. Sunlight was just beginning to dazzle the blue-gray sky when an explosion disrupted the tranquil scene. Near the dock, a puff of white smoke scudded above the cannon as a shell whistled across the water and smashed into the scarp at Crow’s Nest, Storm King’s neighbor. There was a thunderous, rock-splitting crack and stones flew from the cliffs like a flock of frightened birds, plummeting into the river.
From the sound of it, and the effect it had on his nerves, Edgar guessed the ball was a ten-pounder. The men around the big gun hooted and hollered at their enterprise. But Edgar sided with the mountain: it was ridiculous, even insulting, to bombard such a magnificent work of nature. Like spitting in the face of God, he thought, as the men happily reloaded.
Out on the river, the skiff that had carried him over was too far gone to call back. To the north, two sloops, their sails limp, struggled against the currents of Martyr’s Reach.
His eye followed the course of the road in front of the foundry as it traveled northward along the river, and then around a bend where he could see the roofs and steeples of Cold Spring through the trees. He’d wasted more than a few hours in some of the taverns there. One of his favorites was right down near the water’s edge; you could sit on the porch and watch the waves lap against the shore while you knocked back your grog. He gazed back out at the river and the receding skiff, and then with longing toward Cold Spring. It was going to be a beautiful day. He started walking toward the village.
He was already out on the road that ran beside the river when the great doors to the foundry swung open again and William stepped out. Edgar didn’t see him and William raised his hand to hail him, but then changed his mind and just watched as he disappeared around the bend.
The coach slowed as it went down the steep hill toward South Dock. Inside, Ridley, the lone passenger, squinted out at the sloops and fishing boats crowding the iridescent river. A wilderness of trees stretched along the opposite shore, ablaze in autumn reds and oranges.
Ridley tenderly touched his bruised chin and winced, then checked his pocket watch. He had a ferry to catch, and he didn’t want to miss it. Gant had relieved him of guard duty at the foundry to take care of some business, and once he was done with it, his day was his own.
“Hurry up, will you, dammit,” he called out the window to the driver. The hack swore and cracked his whip, and the coach sped up.
Ridley leaned back in his seat, his thoughts returning to the fray in the alley with that whelp Poe and the other cadets. He still smarted from the whipping he’d taken at the hands of that young no-account. Who did that plebe think he was, striking a superior?
He gingerly fingered his chin again. He’d heard that Poe was in the Regular Army before coming to the Point, but he hadn’t expected the skinny prick to fight like a trained soldier. Jesus, it was embarrassing to be knocked around like that in front of Gant and the others. Next time he’d use a blackjack on him and kick him in the goddamn balls.
He grunted disgustedly and stared out the window again. He was glad it was a nice day, but all this sunshine was giving him a headache, making him antsy. All he wanted to do was get on that ferry and get over to Cold Spring where a certain young lady waited for him in a hotel room. He’d bring a bottle with him and draw the shades, and then try to forget this day ever happened.
The ferry was at the dock when the coach got there. The big boat belched smoke from its twin stacks as it rocked gently on the river. For Ridley, the ferry had a comical aspect and reminded him more than anything else of a floating house, as though a piece of the town had just broken off and drifted out onto the water. He rather liked and appreciated its efficiency. But he was only supposed to make a delivery, not sail on the boat, if sail was the right term for taking a trip aboard a steamboat.
He patted the shoddy leather bag at his side. Damn thing was heavy. He undid the buckles and belts around the bag and, surreptitiously slid his hand inside, touching the two cold metal bombs. He straightened their fuses with his fingers, then closed and buckled the bag again. He’d be disembarking at Cold Spring, but the bag would stay aboard.
If Gant ever learned that he’d taken the boat across the Hudson, even for so short a trip, he’d be extremely agitated. The man hated engines of all sorts: the smoke, the sparks, the great gnashing noise of it all. He’d have none of it. “Keep it pure and simple,” he’d said. “Take a sloop across and let the God-given wind speed you on your way,” or some such nonsense. He was always good for a speech about the evils of the modern world, and he didn’t want his men too spoiled by its innovations.
Ridley smiled, thinking that Gant was a bit of a crackbrain. But as the cab approached the dock, he found himself making sure the lieutenant wasn’t anywhere in sight. You really didn’t want to cross that one. The coach stopped and he gripped the handle of his heavy satchel, pushed open the cab door and stepped out.
* * *
The taverns opened early along the waterfront and it didn’t take Edgar long to find a suitable place. The Klinkersberg Alehouse was a ramshackle pile of skeletal gray planks right next to the wharves. One could peer through the greasy window or between the rotting slats that made up its walls and see the river with its forest of masts and sails. But this morning he preferred to stare into his smeary mug and dream about Richmond and the days when he was a celebrated young man about town, a man of talent and promise, a hero that it was said had swam the James like Byron swam the Hellespont.
Those were good times; now he was nothing but an overage soldier boy, marching about on endless drills. Every day it was the same: Up at dawn and out on the parade ground, half-awake in the cold fog with some devil shouting “present arms!”
Then there was the constant, grinding study. And God help you if you turned away from the gun manuals and mathematics texts to try and read something interesting, something nourishing for the soul. They’d have you “walking it off” on The Plain for hour after endless hour. Yes, as hard as he was trying to apply himself, the Point was definitely wearing on him. Well, damn the place anyway, he was going to have some fun today thanks to the money Henry gave him. He reached in his pocket and fished out some coins, dropping them on the counter to summon back the barkeep, a ruddy balding fellow who was not the least bit merry, despite his leprechaun looks.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott