by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 13 appears
in this issue.
That’s when the so-called Thayer era really began. He was a tough soldier who demanded obedience and discipline and cared for little else, and he soon restored order to the place. But he was not as omnipotent as some believed. President Andrew Jackson openly disliked him and thought him a tyrant, especially after he harshly punished the president’s own nephew.
Old Hickory had already reversed any number of Thayer’s dismissals, so if a cadet had an advocate in Washington — as William did, for instance — there were still some rules he could flout with impunity.
“There’s rumor Partridge is coming down from Vermont,” Tim went on. “That Thayer’s on his way out.”
“I don’t believe it,” Edgar said. “Somebody’s got their head up their ass on that one. The Secretary of War thinks Thayer’s doing a fine job.”
“Don’t get all jumpy on me, I’m just telling you what I heard.”
Bringing Partridge back would be a big mistake, as far as Edgar was concerned. After leaving West Point, he’d founded the Vermont Military Academy in Montpelier and some of the Point’s cadets and officers had left to join the rival institution. From all reports, Partridge’s Academy was on its last legs, which raised the possibility that there was some truth to the rumor. After all, he’d have to go somewhere, why not come back here? But Edgar didn’t buy it. Thayer was a smart and honorable man, and while Edgar hadn’t exactly been an ideal cadet, he respected the superintendent and understood that it was his leadership that had restored West Point’s reputation.
“Why would he want to come back?” Henry asked, surfacing from his stupor.
“Partridge loved running the Point, and he always said he’d be back,” Tim said. “He wants his rightful throne.”
“He’s incompetent,” Edgar said. “There’s no chance they’d reinstate him.”
“Would they take him back if there was trouble here?” Henry asked.
“What’re you getting at?” Edgar said.
“I think you know,” Henry said, falling into a laughing fit that ended in a series of staccato coughs.
Tim and Thomas looked at Edgar as if to ask what in blazes was wrong with his brother.
* * *
After lunch, Edgar decided it was time to talk to William.
“Be persuasive,” Henry said as Edgar headed out the door.
The walkways were crowded with cadets headed to their next class. It was a mild day for November, and Edgar didn’t bother to button up his coat against the breeze that blew off the river. He was on the walk in front of the Academy Building when a woman’s voice called his name and he turned to see Eleanor waving to him from a surrey by the side of the road.
“Where have you been, I’ve missed you so,” she said when he leaned in under the carriage’s canopy. She was as beautiful as ever, but drawn and tired.
“Studying for exams,” he lied. There was no reason to upset her with the truth. “I was falling behind.”
“That’s not what Thomas told me,” she said. “Why are you ignoring me like this?”
Edgar sighed and looked back at the Academy. Through the lower set of windows, he could see cadets at their desks, heads bent over their work. William would have to wait.
He pulled open the surrey door and climbed in. “Let’s go over to the walk. We can talk there.”
Eleanor whipped the reins lightly against the horses’ flanks and they were off.
Flirtation Walk was a series of paths that ran along the river side of West Point and cadets liked to take their girls there for romantic rambles. The view was spectacular, but more importantly there were quite a few secluded spots that lent themselves to a more intimate encounter, although that wasn’t what Edgar had in mind today.
Eleanor hitched the carriage to a post near the Kosciusko monument, a stark Greek column that stood out whitely against the wilderness like the trunk of stone in Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” a last lonely fragment of a forgotten empire. Ironically, as Edgar knew, it was a symbol for a new empire.
Edgar took her hand and they strolled down the path to the cliffs. Far below, the sun-splashed river eddied among rocky outcroppings and small promontories that projected from the shore.
“I’m in trouble,” Edgar said when the monument was no longer in sight. “I face a court-martial any day now.”
“Oh, Eddy, don’t say that.”
“I’m out of money,” he stuttered, not wanting to lie anymore, but still needing to protect her. The less she knew, the better. And anyway, he was running out of funds. He’d gone through most of the money Henry had given him, and his stingy stepfather had completely withdrawn financial support. “I can’t properly attend my studies and meet all the responsibilities of a cadet if I don’t have the money,” he said morosely, for there was truth even in his lie. Most of his friends were from well-to-do families, and none of them ever worried about money. Or so it seemed.
“I can give you all the money you need,” Eleanor said. “But you musn’t leave West Point. Not in disgrace. I won’t permit it.”
This wasn’t what he had wanted to hear; he wasn’t asking for her money. He was just trying to avoid telling her about more pressing problems.
“I can earn my own way, Eleanor,” he said. “I’m going to New York. Not right now, but in a month or two.”
He stopped walking and held both her hands in his.
“It’s the only way for me to salvage my life. I can make a living writing if I hit it hard. There are all kinds of newspapers and magazines in the city where one who’s able with a pen can earn a livelihood.”
“But you’d make such a fine, handsome officer.”
He was about to answer, when he heard someone coming up the footpath behind them. They were at a point where the path zig-zagged along the cliffs every few feet, so he had to walk back a few paces and peer around a boulder. There was no one in sight and no one on the ridge above either, where a battery of black-snouted cannon poked from the brush and silently menaced the river below.
“Is something the matter?” Eleanor asked.
Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have worried about footsteps but classes were in session, so it was doubtful they belonged to another cadet. And with the threat of this damnable Helvetian Society hanging over him, he was on edge.
Eleanor saw he was ill at ease and put her hand on his arm. “Do you really want to give all this up for the city? Look around. It’s so beautiful and peaceful here.”
The view of the river was breathtaking, with its cliffs and forests stretching north and south to the horizon.
“And chasms and caves and Titan woods,” Edgar recited from one of his poems, shouting so the words echoed among the cliffs and boulders below. He waited for the echoes to subside and then turned to Eleanor, thinking his shouts would give pause to whoever was coming up the path — if there was anyone.
“I hate this wilderness,” he said. “It makes me physically unwell.”
“You don’t really mean that.”
“I just don’t know how much more of this soldiering routine I can stand, Ellie.”
“It’s only for a few years, and then your whole life is before you.”
“And how much time is that?”
“Don’t talk like that; you’re a young man.”
“Exactly. And I should be applying all my youthful energy and talents to what I do best, and it isn’t marching around with a musket on my shoulder.”
He wasn’t sure how the conversation had veered off in this direction, but he didn’t try to change it. Yes, he was lately frustrated by his military career, but obviously the murders and now this business with the Helvetian Society were his main concerns.
“Before you make up your mind, why don’t you talk to Superintendent Thayer. He’s taken an interest in you. Maybe he can give you some guidance.”
“I’ve been thinking the same thing,” Edgar said.
What he didn’t say was that he’d made up his mind to tell Thayer about the Helvetians and his growing belief that its members intended to destroy the West Point Foundry. That’s why William had that third scroll showing the foundry’s floor plan, he realized with sudden clarity. It wasn’t to help him guard the place; it was to find its weak points.
The afternoon sky was dimming and again he heard the faint crunch of footsteps behind them, as though someone was sneaking up, and it worried him.
“We better get back before they send out a search party,” he said, taking Eleanor’s arm. Or a firing squad, he thought.
“I hope I haven’t gotten you in trouble,” she said.
Edgar had a laugh at this. “I’ve done a pretty good job of that myself.”
She held him close then and gave him an unexpected kiss, which was exciting but also made him feel worse. Their budding relationship confused him; he really didn’t have much to offer her if he left the Corps.
Sylvanus Thayer was only in his mid-forties, but to the cadets, he was “the Old Man.” Though his wiry hair was as gray as tree bark, he was strong and vigorous and had twice the energy of men twenty years his junior. There was no fooling his blue-gray stare, either, which seemed to seize on a man’s very soul. Edgar wondered what Thayer saw in him as he sat in front of the superintendent’s desk. A supreme failure, no doubt.
Ridley had once called Edgar a spring colt, an insult that meant he couldn’t cut it at the Point and would be gone from the Corps by May. And now it appeared he was right.
Thayer dug through some papers on his desktop and found what he wanted. He put his signature on a document, slid it in an envelope and sealed it with red wax. Then he shook his head and smiled sadly.
“We have a good relationship, you and I,” he said in his deep, kind voice. “We both appreciate the arts and literature, and I genuinely believe you have talent.” He stopped talking and Edgar heard drums in the distance, like hammers pounding the final nails in his coffin.
Thayer gave a disappointed sigh.
“I like you Edgar. Always have. There’s something very fine in you. But there’s also something else. Something dark and troubling, and I’m sorry to say, unreliable.”
“Yes, sir,” Edgar said.
The superintendent stared at him, though not without compassion. “It has come to my attention that you’ve missed several classes and maneuvers, that you do not attend chapel, and that you leave the grounds without permission. And then there are the pranks.”
“Sir, I can explain,” Edgar said, wanting to tell him of his suspicions.
Thayer raised his hand. “That’s not all,” he said. “Senior officers are talking about a court-martial. Now tell me, why would you throw away your opportunity here at the Point?”
“I don’t want to throw anything away, sir. There are mitigating circumstances, events you should know about.”
Thayer waved his hand. “Don’t bother with excuses; I’ve heard them all. Just straighten up.”
“But sir, they’re plotting against you.”
Thayer scowled. “What on earth are you talking about? Be quick about it.”
“The Helvetian Society.”
Thayer furrowed his brow and seemed to hold his breath. “Those troublemakers?” he said after a moment. “They’re long gone.”
“No, sir. They’re still here. The Helvetians continue as a secret society and its members are scheming against West Point. Against you.”
“Explain yourself,” Thayer said, shifting in his chair.
Edgar told him everything he knew or suspected. He even told him that he believed all the murders were somehow linked to the Helvetians, and he ended with the Cold Spring foundry, which he told Thayer was their next target.
When he finished, there was silence.
“Those are grave accusations, young man,” Thayer said at last.
“Yes, sir, I know, sir.”
The superintendent was quiet, almost contemplative, his elbow on his desk, his chin propped on his hand. He shook his head.
“I don’t know. If anyone else were telling me these things, I’d be alarmed. But you have such a, how shall I put it, romantic sensibility, I don’t know what to believe.”
“I’m telling you the truth, sir. I am not a liar.”
“I didn’t say you were a liar. I just need some time to think about these very serious allegations. We’ll meet again soon to discuss them. Until then, say nothing to anyone.”
“Yes, sir. Do you believe me, sir, about the Helvetians?”
“You are dismissed, Mr.Poe,” Thayer said, although not unkindly, and returned to signing the documents on his desk.
* * *
As soon as Poe was gone, Thayer took a key out of his pocket and unlocked a desk drawer. He lifted a sheaf of papers, placed them on the desk and thumbed through them until he found what he wanted: information on the Vermont Military Academy — Partridge’s fort. Then he made some notations and put the papers back in the drawer, locking it again. When he was done, he went to the door, stuck his head out in the hallway and called for Lee.
Lieutenant Robert E. Lee was only recently graduated from the Point, but he’d been marked as an exceptional soldier, and the Secretary of War himself had chosen him for this assignment. He was the kind of young man the country needed to secure its future greatness.
Lee appeared in a doorway at the other end of the hallway. He was six feet tall with broad shoulders, dark flowing hair and dramatic mutton-chop whiskers, a style that many young men were adopting these days. His blue Regular Army uniform was tailored to fit, and it was no wonder that cadets used to call him “the model.”
“Sir?” Lee inquired, throwing a salute.
Thayer didn’t bother to return the gesture, instead motioning for him to come into his office. When Lee was safely behind closed doors, Thayer frowned.
“We’ve got to put more guards at the foundry, lieutenant. Something’s afoot.”
“Right away, sir,” Lee said, all business. “Is that where Partridge’s men plan to strike next?”
“I don’t know. But it’s vulnerable.”
“I’ll put an extra squad of men on every shift.”
“Take Parrott with you. He knows the foundry and may have some thoughts on its protection.”
Lieutenant Robert Parker Parrott was a physics instructor at the Point. An 1824 graduate, he wasn’t much of a soldier, but he knew all about ordnance and cannon design. He was even now involved in a secret military program to find raw materials — iron ore, primarily, but limestone and charcoal, too — for improving smelting techniques at the foundry.
He’d already identified a rich source of magnetic ore about twenty miles east of Cold Spring, at the Tilly Foster and Daisy Lane mines in the Town of Southeast, and he was now looking further upriver. His work was important if the U.S. was going to be a world power. No one wanted to repeat the debacle of 1812, when the country didn’t have any foundries and had to buy its cannon and munitions from foreign governments that hated the British.
Parrott was also secretly assigned to see if this newfangled locomotive had potential as a war machine. There was talk of mounting cannon on the damn things and running them on tracks all over the country like land-bound battleships. Only a handful of men in Washington even knew about the plans. Which was just as well. If the general public ever got wind of them, they’d think the loonies had taken over the asylum.
Someday Lee was going to be a general, and the country needed soldiers like him. But men like Parrott, who could improve the science of war, were equally important. Thayer only wished he’d live long enough to see what these two young lions would achieve.
Edgar walked back to the barracks with his mind in tumult, barely aware of his surroundings. When he got to his room, he was too tired to do anything but sleep. He threw his greatcoat on a chair and was about to drop on his bunk when he noticed a folded piece of paper placed neatly in the center of his pillow. He picked it up and opened it with some trepidation; but it was only a note from Henry: “Bored. Gone to town,” it read.
He’d signed it “WHP” in his spindly script. That would be William Henry Poe. He never used his first name, but those were the initials he signed at the end of the stories and poems he published in magazines such as The Southern Literary Messenger.
He wished Henry had stayed put at the barracks. It really wasn’t a good idea for him to be traipsing about, at least during the day. He didn’t know what kind of condition the Griswald brothers were in, and they now had all the more reason to shoot him on sight. And if Henry was caught sneaking around West Point, well Edgar would get another demerit. Not that that was such a big deal. What the hell; bring ’em on. Let’s see how many he could collect before they gave him the boot.
He fell back on his bunk and closed his aching eyes.
When he came to, Tim and Thomas were back in the room and they’d brought Charlie and Lucian with them.
“You ever going to class again?” Thomas ribbed him as Edgar tried to rouse himself.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott