by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 13 and part 14
appear in this issue.
“I could drowse away every day and still get better grades than you,” Edgar said only half-joking. Everyone knew he was near the top of his class in French, despite the missed classes. And he ranked nearly as high in mathematics. But his truancy was hurting his academic standing and his ranking would soon begin to slip. Yet he felt no alarm, only resignation. There were too many other things going on in his life, and the schoolboy considerations just didn’t seem important anymore, no matter what Thayer said.
Thomas was already busy at the fireplace poking the ashes and trying to fire up a couple of fresh logs. The others had all brought back scraps of meat and potatoes from the mess, and Charlie was mixing them in a pan for more hash. A bottle of whiskey was making the rounds.
“A little something to eat, and then we’ll play cards,” Thomas said. “You in?”
Edgar didn’t answer. He was in front of his desk, where there was another note next to Henry’s. He couldn’t figure out how he’d missed it. One of the boys must be playing tricks on him. He looked over at the card players, who were ignoring him, and picked up the note and unfolded it. The words scrawled on the paper instantly cleared his head.
“And chasms and caves and Titan woods
With forms that no man can discover...”
He wheeled around. “Who put this here?”
They all gave him uncomprehending stares.
“What are you yapping about?” Thomas said.
“This note,” Edgar said holding it up. “Who put it on my desk?”
“Jesus, man. Get ahold of yourself. What are you worried about?”
But Edgar was already throwing on his coat and heading for the door. Whoever had left the note was probably the same person who’d followed them on Flirtation Walk, and Eleanor was in danger. He started running as soon as he was in the hallway.
* * *
The night sky was devoid of clouds and the moon was as hard and bright as bleached bone when Edgar reached her house. It was a lonely, unnatural sight, this house and the nearby tavern all by themselves off a dirt road in the thick woods. Inky shadows hovered like criminals around the lighted windows.
Edgar slipped around the back to Eleanor’s room, where he saw her through gauzy curtains. She was at her desk in a nightgown, writing by candlelight. He watched her for a minute, glad she was all right. She was beautiful and it stirred him to spy on her like this, to see her naked neck and arms.
Feeling guilty for his voyeurism, he rapped lightly on the window. Startled, she pulled a shawl around her shoulders and parted the curtains just enough to see him. He was heartened to see her smile, and she unlocked the sash and opened the window.
“What in heaven’s name are you doing here?” she asked, although it was clear she was happy to see him.
“Someone left a note with my poem on it at the barracks. The ‘Titan woods’ verse... It’s the killer. He’s threatening us. He wants us to be afraid.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, Eddy, this is so strange.”
She reached out and touched his face. The warmth of her hand was welcome and he leaned in the window and kissed her.
“It’s cold,” she said, softly pulling away after a long, voluptuous moment. “Meet me at the side door. Mother’s gone to bed and we’ll be alone.”
She quietly closed the window and he made his way through the dark toward the door, a tingle of guilty anticipation in his groin even as another foul thought rose from the depths of his mind as he crept through the dark: he was lucky Old Ben wasn’t around this night. He was immediately sorry for thinking it, but it was true. He also hoped Zebulon had returned to his own home, for if the old Golem caught him bedding his niece, he’d face certain extinction. Nonetheless, he assured himself he was meant to be with Eleanor like this because he could better protect her.
He’d almost reached the door when the shadows seemed to rush at him and he abruptly found himself oddly removed from his body, looking down at it from above. Helplessly, he watched himself sprawl in the dirt, one of his hands clutching at the back of his head.
* * *
There was nothing but darkness for a long time. Then brightening mists through which shapes moved in and out of his vision like souls melting in and out of limbo. A death mask hovered over him and then receded, and the air hummed as though a thousand hornets buzzed nearby. Then the death mask floated into view again, coming closer as if to kiss him with its withered, blistered lips, its putrescent breath smelling of the grave.
Then he was awake, coughing and spitting blood. The foul odor of death in his nostrils was actually smelling salts, and the bony mask was the face of an elderly doctor.
Behind the doctor was a tall man in uniform, his eyes sullen and full of hatred: Gant.
Edgar was lying on a settee in Eleanor’s parlor, but where was Eleanor? A searing pain shot from the back of his head and when he touched the area, he felt a bloodied bandage.
Through the haze of pain, he saw that Eleanor’s mother was also in the room, dabbing at her eyes and crying into a handkerchief while another woman, a servant, consoled her.
“Where is she? Where’s Eleanor?” Edgar asked weakly.
Gant came toward him, his jaw set, his accusing eyes as cruel as any killer’s. “You tell us where she is, you son of a bitch.”
“I don’t know,” Edgar replied. “Someone came up behind me... hit me,” he stuttered, recalling the moments before he blacked out.
A wail went up from Eleanor’s mother and then he understood that Eleanor was missing, that someone had taken her.
Gant struck him in the face and there was a white-hot explosion in his head. He began to retch as the doctor pushed past Gant and tried to help him
“Easy on him,” the old physician said. “He’s injured.”
“I’ll go easy on him, all right. He better know where the girl is. Guards!”
Three soldiers came into the room.
“Get him back to the Point.”
“That’s most decidedly not a good idea,” the doctor protested, but Gant paid him no heed.
The men pulled Edgar to his feet and hauled him away as though carrying a body off the battlefield. He clinched his eyes against the swelling fear and nausea; where was Eleanor?
* * *She awoke to the sound of a spade digging into dirt. A blindfold robbed her sight and she was in utter darkness, lying on her side on the cold ground. She tried to reach up and tear the blindfold off, but her hands were bound behind her.
The digging continued, steady and rhythmical and she heard the heavy breathing and grunting of a man at work.
“It’s a grave, he’s going to bury me here,” she thought, her terror mounting. She wanted to scream but held back, afraid her assailant would come over and smother her with that awful-smelling chemical.
She’d gone to meet Eddy at the back door, but when she got there he was motionless on the ground. She’d thought he was playing one of his silly, morbid pranks and that he’d pop up and make her heart skip. As soon as she knelt beside him though, she realized he was really hurt and that it was no game. Then there was the foul-smelling rag over her face, and her lungs had burned with horrid chemicals.
And that was all she remembered until the digging and scraping. As she lay on the ground collecting her thoughts, the shoveling stopped and her abductor came over and nudged her with his foot. She didn’t dare move or open her eyes. After prodding her several times, he was apparently satisfied she was still senseless and went back to his digging.
A hairline opening at the bottom of her blindfold let in a sliver of the world, all dirt and firelight. Slowly, she shifted her head toward the sound of the spade so that she could see more. The growing mound of soil was sandy and washed out, so she was down by the river. She’d played on its banks often enough in the summer to recognize its texture.
The digging continued as she moved her feet, checking to see if they were tied. They weren’t. For the first time since waking, her predicament was crystal clear and she knew exactly what she had to do to escape this nightmare. She moved her head ever so slightly, straining her eyes until she saw she was in a cave and that there was a way out.
Then she was on her feet, charging. He was caught by surprise and went down yelping like an animal. She fell on top of him and he was laughing and she still couldn’t see because of the blindfold. He had her hair bunched in one of his hands, his free arm wrapped around her waist as they tussled in the sand. Then he overpowered her and pulled her closer.
Edgar was behind bars in the basement of the Quartermaster’s Office, sitting on a wooden bench that also served as a bunk. The place was as cold and damp as a mortuary vault and groundwater seeped through the walls, streaking them with a crusty, yellowish niter.
He was cursing the day he’d entered the Point, when he heard boots scuffing down the stairs and Thayer’s voice resonated through the musty, underground chamber. “I can’t believe you threw the lad down here,” he was saying. “He’s not a suspect in her kidnapping. You told me he was found unconscious.”
“That’s true, sir,” came Gant’s voice. “But he left the Point without permission, and that’s a punishable offense. And I don’t think he’s really hurt, sir. You know his reputation.”
“I want him out of here. You can confine him to his barracks.”
Thayer and Gant were in front of his cell now along with two guards.
“Attention!” Gant’s voice whipsawed the air. Edgar leapt to his feet and stood as straight as he could, although still nauseous from the blow to his head.
“At ease, cadet,” Thayer said, and turned to one of the guards who held a ring of jangling keys. “Unlock the door,” he ordered.
The guard inserted the key in the padlock and swung the door back. Edgar was relieved, but it didn’t last; Thayer was glaring at him.
“Why’d you leave the Point and go to her house?” he demanded. “You knew the consequences.”
“To warn her, sir. I had reason to believe we... she... was in harm’s way.”
“What in God’s name are you blathering about?” Gant said, advancing on him.
Thayer held up a white-gloved hand. “Go on, Mr. Poe,” he said.
“I found a note on my desk, sir. It was a line from one of my poems. A line I’d recited only that afternoon while on a walk with Eleanor. So whoever left the note must have overheard me, and I believe followed us on the walk, sir. For what reason I don’t know, although I suspect the worst.”
“So you went to warn her?”
“Yes, sir, that was my intention. But I was followed, or someone was already at her house, waiting, and they blindsided me.”
“What a pile of horse dung,” Gant said.
“Quiet,” Thayer told him sharply, and then addressed Edgar again. “Who is after you, and why would they take Eleanor?”
“I don’t know, sir, although I’m convinced it has something to do with the Helvetian Society and the murders.”
“What in hell are you talking about?” Gant said. “He’s babbling.”
“Be quiet!” Thayer thundered. “I won’t ask you again, lieutenant.” A vein was throbbing in the superintendent’s neck, and Edgar was glad he wasn’t the object of his wrath. Then again, maybe he was.
“What else, cadet Poe?” Thayer pressed.
“That’s all, sir. Other than our discussion about the foundry.”
“That nonsense?” Thayer scoffed and motioned to the guards to take him out. “You are under house arrest, Mr. Poe, and this time I urge you to stay in the barracks.”
* * *
Heavy snoring was coming from Thomas’ side of the room when Edgar’s escorts marched him in. Thomas didn’t even flinch, thanks to the panther piss he liked to swill.
Edgar was tired, too, and his head smarted something fierce. But he was worried about Eleanor, and had to find her. A spike of pain went through his skull when he touched the bandage on the back of his head, and he lay down on his bunk, closing his eyes. He’d rest for a few minutes, and then go find Eleanor.
He felt the bump on his head again; he should have gone to the infirmary with a knob like that. He’d probably die during the night of a burst blood vessel. They’d find him stiff and cold in the morning, and that’d be the end of Edgar Allan Poe. He could see his crumpled corpse on the floor next to his bunk. Somehow the thought was comforting and he drifted off, dreaming of his own funeral.
He came to with Thomas shaking him. Edgar pushed him off and pulled the covers over his head.
“You’re going to miss class,” Thomas said.
“It doesn’t matter. Go away.”
Thomas didn’t bother him anymore and in a little while he heard him leave the room.
He was wide awake now and all he could think about was Eleanor. He had to find her and to hell with West Point. He threw the covers off and got out of bed. There, on top of the Leçons de français text on his desk, was Eleanor’s gold locket. He’d seen it many times in its rightful place nestled close to her breast — and she was wearing it the night she was taken. The sight of it sent a chill through him; it was dear to her and she’d never part with it without a fight.
He picked up the heart-shaped locket and gingerly opened it. There was a mirror in one half and a bit of paper stuffed in the other. He unfolded the paper, knowing already that it was a fragment of poetry, another message from his tormentor.
“With forms that no man can discover,” the words taunted. When joined together with the earlier stanza the lines read: “And chasms and caves and Titan woods,/With forms that no man can discover...”
His adversary, whoever he was, was baiting him again. He’d recited only the first verse while out on the path with Eleanor, prompted by the rugged beauty of the Hudson highlands. Yet, his tormentor meant the words to have some deeper meaning, to provide a key to her disappearance: The answer to this riddle was somewhere along Flirtation Walk.
In his haste to get out of the barracks, he nearly knocked over a tac officer in the hallway. The officer yelled that he was under house arrest, but Edgar kept going. The threat of a court martial meant nothing to him; only Eleanor mattered.
Outside, the sky threatened rain and a stray bugle note hung in the air like a war cry. He ran faster. Once on the walk, he hurtled along its well-worn path, his eyes on the rocks and the river below.
When he reached the knoll where he’d stood the day before and delivered his wretched poetry, he stopped and studied the terrain. A few yards ahead he noticed a footpath that branched off the walk and wound its way down the hillside to the cliffs. It was nothing but a break in the crabgrass and low-lying mountain laurel that clung to a long descent among the rocks.
Holding onto the laurel branches and other scrubby bushes that lined the path, he started down. He was soon among the broken boulders he’d seen from above and he slowed, searching for handholds on the granite and feldspar outcroppings.
Near the bottom of the steep slope, he came to a level area and the path, perhaps some kind of animal track or old Indian footpath, went both north and south along the cliffs. He followed it north for fifty yards, clinging to the rocks. A cold-fingered wind pried at him as he inched among the boulders, his hands scratched and raw. He made it around one block of mossy stone only to find an ancient rockslide in the way. He was forced to double back, despairing of ever seeing Eleanor again and wondering what madness had led him out here to land’s end.
He was soon back where he’d started, and he went south this time. He’d only gone a few steps when he saw a strip of cloth caught on the thorns of a briar. Not more than two inches long, he would have missed the blue and white flannel if not for the wind that whipped it like a tiny flag. He kept going until he came to a boulder that jabbed toward the river like an arrogant chin. Other boulders, some twenty feet across, were scattered about forming various crevices and shallow caves.
One of the caves was easily tall enough and wide enough for a man or woman to pass through. Without hesitation he stepped inside and found himself in a chamber not much smaller than his barracks room. The cave’s roof was only inches from his head, leaving just enough room to stand. Light was scant and he waited for his eyes to adjust.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott