by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 12 appeared
in issue 188.
“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.
Henry sprang to his feet as Zack reached into his pocket, no doubt for a gun or knife. Henry caught him with a punch to the kidney, and Zack folded, the wind knocked out of his sail.
Henry moved in and brought his fist down on the back of Zack’s neck; the ruffian hit the floor face first and there was the sound of breaking teeth. Then he kicked him twice in the head for good measure.
Big Matt was still whimpering and gripping his knee as he crawled toward his gun, which had landed under a table upon which sat a low-burning whale-oil lamp that cast the entire scene in a jaundiced, sickly light.
Henry got to the pistol first and picked it up. “Twitch and I’ll fucking kill you both,” he said.
Matt was weeping as he sat on the floor holding his leg. “It won’t stop, I’m gonna bleed to death,” he cried. Sure enough, his pant leg was drenched with blood, which was pooling darkly on the floor next to him.
Henry was already backing toward the broken door, gun in one hand, knife in the other. He folded the knife against his leg and slipped it into a vest pocket, then reached down and picked up a leather portmanteau which was packed with everything he owned, including another tailored suit he wasn’t about to lose to these yahoos. He always kept his bag ready to go; you never knew when you might have to leave town in a hurry.
“You know what a tourniquet is?” he said to Zack, who was on his belly, staring stupidly at him. “You better tie off that boy’s leg if you’re the least bit fond of him.”
Then he backed through the door and into the hall and went down the stairs two at a time. But the Griswalds weren’t following, and he slowed his pace. By the time he reached the lobby with its candlelit chandeliers, he’d smoothed out his suit and for all appearances was just another dandified young gentleman on his way up in the world.
He hurried across the lobby half-expecting to hear the Griswalds baying like hounds behind him. But he was soon out on Main Street, where the frigid night air sent him into a coughing fit that lasted all the way down to the docks.
Edgar didn’t get back to the Point until late afternoon and he was surprised to find that no one was waiting for him at the barracks. He’d at least expected one of Gant’s minions to come and tell him that he’d missed the morning drill and classes, further clinching his court martial.
It had been quite a night. He’d caught a steamboat from Manhattan at five in the morning, and hadn’t slept a wink. Stretched out on his bunk he shut his eyes and tried to catnap, a headache banging away in his skull like a parade drum. His eyes were dry and grainy and he caressed them with his fingertips, hoping it would help him sleep. But he remained as alert as ever, peering into the void behind his eyelids. When he felt a cool breeze on his cheek, he thought nothing of it because the room was full of drafts. Something, however, made him open his eyes -- and there was William standing over him.
“You scared the bejesus out of me,” he said, propping himself up on an elbow.
William stepped back from the bunk without a word, and Edgar swung his feet to the floor and sat up. “Were you here all the time, you sneaky fucker?”
“Sneaky?” William said. “Doesn’t that appellation better suit you?”
“How do you mean?”
“You had quite an adventure last night, didn’t you Eddy? If you’re looking for trouble, I can promise you you’ll find it.”
“And if you are caught, William, they’ll hang you.”
“You don’t know anything about it,” William said. “That machine, The Best Friend, is nobody’s friend. It’s a purveyor of death, and so is that foundry across the river.”
“I’ve said too much already. Just stay out of our way.”
“Out of whose way?”
“I think you know.”
“The Helvetian Society?”
William turned to go.
“You sound like a street-corner crank,” Edgar called after him. “The Luddites failed more than fifteen years ago. You can’t stop the future.”
The poor deluded man needed a better grasp of history, Edgar thought. How could he forget the furor caused by the bloody uprisings in England when they were boys? It was not so long ago, and Edgar remembered the sensation it caused in the States when the news first came ashore. Some clever Englishman had invented a crude device that could do the work of croppers in the woolen industry. When they started replacing men with the things, the workers formed a secret league that went about the countryside smashing the newfangled machines. In one of the bloodier battles, more than two hundred men attacked a mill. Finally, dragoons were brought in and the Luddite leaders were arrested and tortured. Nearly a score were hanged, which pretty much put an end to the short-lived revolt.
William stopped on his way out of the room and recited a verse:
“‘When the web that we weave is complete,
And the shuttle exchanged for the sword,
We will fling the winding sheet
Over the despot at our feet,
And dye it deep in the gore he has poured’.”
Ever the actor, he let the words hang dramatically in the air. “That’s your own Lord Byron, writing about those very Luddites.”
“What’s that have to do with anything?”
“I like you, Edgar,” William replied. “But you’ve seen too much, and it’s dangerous. You’d do best to shut up. I’m not sure how long I can protect you.”
“Protect me? From whom? This Helvetian Society of yours?”
William had his back to him again. “Leave it alone,” he said over his shoulder, and opened the door to collide head-on with a civilian who’d been waiting outside. It was Henry.
William gave him a searching look, as though trying to determine how much he’d heard through the door. Then he hurried away down the empty hallway, his boot heels echoing on the floorboards. When he’d disappeared into the stairwell, Edgar took his brother by the arm. “I owe you an apology for my asinine suspicions,” he said.
“I accept. I’m used to your erratic behavior, anyway. What’s this ‘Society’ he’s jawing about?”
Edgar led him inside and locked the door before recounting the story of the Helvetians and the riot at the Point. Then he told him about the steamboat explosion, William’s rants against machines, and his own misadventure in New York the night before.
When he finished, Henry passed him his whiskey flask and Edgar took a long pull. As he wiped his lips, he couldn’t help but admire the pattern of vines and flowers embossed on the silver decanter. The raised initials “DP” jumped out at him from the center of the floral tangle.
“This was our father’s?” he said in disbelief.
Henry reached over and traced the monogram with a finger. “David Poe, Esquire,” he said. “Failed law student, failed thespian, failed paterfamilias — but highly successful drunk.”
Edgar looked at the flask as though it was some rare and invaluable artifact from a lost civilization. “How on earth did you get this?”
“Auntie Eliza gave it to me. She found it in the attic and thought I’d want it as some kind of memento of happier days.”
Despite Henry’s sarcasm, Edgar knew the flask meant more to him than any of his possessions. “Tell me again what you remember of him.”
“Oh, he was a fine husband and father. The kind of man who leaves his sickly wife to feed and care for three small children while he runs off God knows where to drink and carouse and indulge his artistic temperament. A charming character, that Davey Poe. He gave up a good career as a lawyer to flail about on the stage.”
Henry took the flask back, capped it, and continued with his denunciation. “He really wasn’t a very good actor, you know. The critics treated him harshly. But they loved mother, and I think he hated her for that. Yes, she had all the talent. It’s our intemperance we get from him.”
“He was only twenty-four when he disappeared. Your age, Henry,” Edgar said.
“The same age as mother when she died,” his brother answered.
“There was time for him to change. Just like there’s time for you.”
Fury flared in Henry’s eyes. “Don’t apologize for him. He was a lowly shit and our mother died because of him.”
Edgar was quiet, and then asked again, “What do you remember?”
“I was four when he left,” Henry said. “He had dark hair and eyes like us. If I close my eyes, I can see him smiling at something I said and then picking me up and tossing me about, laughing. Mother’s there, too. She looks on, proud of us all, her handsome husband and her beautiful boys.
“But there are other memories too, darker ones. Late-night memories, like bad dreams, of waking to a clatter and shouting. I get out of my bed and creep up on the drawing room. I can’t get my legs to move faster because I am so scared. I stand in the doorway and I see mother cowering in a corner, her hands covering her face, crying. The furniture is thrown about. Father is standing over her his face red and distorted, spouting ugly words. ‘Whore’ is one I distinctly recall. I hear her meekly say, ‘It’s the whiskey David, I know you love me’, which enrages him even more.
“Then he sees me and comes toward me yelling as though he’s going to beat me. And then mother is on his back, hitting him with her small fists. He shakes her loose and strikes her hard with an open hand, murder in his eye. A couple of constables arrive just in time and our gallant father high-tails it out the back door, the police at his heels.”
Henry smiled ruefully. “A lovely domestic scene, eh?”
“It’s quite horrible,” Edgar said.
“Well, that was our illustrious father. And you know what? He was just like you and me; we’re made in his image and we’re just as reckless, irresponsible, drunk and no good.”
“We may have the same semblance of our father, but we’re not him,” Edgar said. “We have our own destinies.”
Henry grunted and took his pipe out. “Believe what you want,” he said, as he pushed a twist of opium into its bowl. “We’re all cut from the same black bolt.”
Henry leaned over the room’s small fireplace and ignited one of his smelly Lucifer’s on a burning log. Then he lit his pipe, drawing in the flame and closing his eyes as the opium took hold.
“The members of this secret society are going to try and kill you, Eddy,” he said after a while. “You know too much.”
“I’m not sure I believe that.”
Henry laughed aloud, his eyes open now. “That’s a good one, brother. How many people have they already snuffed out?”
“I don’t know that they’ve killed anyone.”
“Who murdered Old Ben? And that professor, the not-so-jolly jester? And Ridley? Are you paying attention here?”
“You really believe the Helvetians murdered these people?” Edgar asked, unconvinced. He knew the society hated machines, and that it was very likely behind plans to destroy The Kinderhook and the Best Friend. Yet, he was not ready to accept that its members, that West Point men, were capable of such such nihilism.
“Of course they killed them.”
“Don’t be thick; use your head.”
“It has something to do with the steamboat and the locomotive. But what? Ridley was investigating the murders with Gant, so maybe he learned something he wasn’t supposed to. But the professor and Old Ben, what’s their connection?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” Henry said. “But mark my words, they’re tied to this. There’s a method to this madness and you’ve fallen into the shit, if you’ll forgive my French.”
Edgar sat down at his desk, found a sheet of paper, and dipped his pen into the ink well. He wrote down the names of the deceased. Old Ben, Professor Dupin, Ridley. They all, in one way or another, were involved with West Point, so whatever evil was behind their deaths may have indeed emanated from the Academy. All right then, that fit with Henry’s theory.
But what about the women, the prostitutes? Madam Hopkin’s house was a favorite of some cadets and officers alike, so that fit. Then there was Ridley and his lady friend. Did Ridley or another member of the Helvetians disclose information about the conspiracy while in the throes of passion? Edgar thought that possible, but unlikely. If this secret society was only now surfacing, its discipline was too good for its members to idly tell tarts about their plans.
“What of the whores?” Edgar said.
“I don’t know. Maybe one of the Helvetians slipped up and told them about the plot. Somehow, though, that doesn’t seem quite right. The killer took too much pleasure in the slaughter and my guess is he’s a bedlamite who enjoys the blood and the hunt, not just plotting to destroy steam engines.”
“Someone,” Edgar picked up, “who loves the drama and mystery, the power and fear he holds over others. Someone who cares nothing for human life and who relishes the role of killer as much as the actual killing.”
“Shall we go over the suspects?” Henry said.
“I don’t know who’s in the society, except for William.”
“Then he’s at the top of the list, isn’t he? He knows your poetry, too, I’ll wager.”
Edgar remembered William quoting his “Sonnet to Science.” “He does,” he said, “but he’s my friend, my colleague. He even said he was trying to protect me from the others.”
“You believe him?”
“I do. There’s no way he’s capable of this evil. Maybe he’s a member of the Helvetian Society. I could see that. But a killer? Impossible.”
“All right then, who else is in this infernal club?”
Edgar was stumped. He couldn’t imagine who would join their ranks, or why. But then, he really didn’t understand why William was involved, either.
“I heard voices inside the Beach Street warehouse last night, but I didn’t recognize them,” he said. “They could have been anyone.”
Henry tapped the ash from his pipe into his hand and licked the burnt residue from his palm, wincing at the bitter taste.
“William is the key, then, isn’t he?” he said. “We have to persuade him to talk. Do you want to chat with him, or shall I?”
Edgar had seen that look in Henry’s eyes a few times, usually just before he went berserk and broke somebody’s nose or beat them senseless.
“I’ll talk to him.”
“Suit yourself,” Henry said. “But do it soon.” He yawned and sat down on Edgar’s bunk. “I’m going to have to stay here a day or two. The Griswalds found me at the hotel this morning. It was not an amicable reunion.”
“It’s against the rules to have civilians here,” Edgar said with a smile. “Make yourself at home.”
When Tim and Thomas returned from classes an hour later, they agreed to let Henry stay. The fact that he had a flask of brandy and was able to produce another full fifth of Tennessee bourbon eased their decision.
“You haven’t been to class, or parade or chapel in a coupla days, and everybody’s wonderin’ if you’re still in the Academy,” Thomas said after a few swallows of whiskey.
“I’ll answer that question when I figure it out myself,” Edgar said, and took the bottle from him.
They drank and played cards while Henry slept on the bunk. Edgar had missed lunch call at the mess, so when he got hungry he took some potatoes and carrots and bits of beef his roommates had swiped and made hash, cooking it on a tin plate in the fireplace while the others slouched around the hearth. They never got enough to eat at the Point, but Edgar’s hash, liberally spiced with black pepper and onions, took the edge off their appetites. Soon, the fire, food and liquor had warmed them all.
“Have you heard the rumors about Old Pewt?” Tim asked as he downed another swig of whiskey.
“Naw,” said Thomas. “What’s the old bugger up to?”
“Old Pewt” was Captain Alden Partridge, the former superintendent of West Point. His bloodless visage and thatch of pewter-gray hair gave him his nickname. Back in eighteen-seventeen or so, the newspapers had railed against the Point and its reputation as a playground for the rich and rotten sons of American aristocracy. That’s when the muckety mucks down in Washington had decided Partridge was doing a lousy job keeping discipline, although a good many of the cadets loved him.
According to legend, Partridge practically had to be forced to leave at gunpoint, and Thayer was not exactly welcomed. In fact, Old Pewt did return and carried out a kind of bloodless coup of his own devise, declaring himself in command. Rather than confronting Partridge directly, Thayer fired off a letter to the Secretary of War explaining the situation, and then caught a steamboat to New York, probably avoiding a bloody mutiny. He didn’t return until Partridge had been arrested and removed from the Point.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott