by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 15 appeared
in issue 189.
“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.
He remembered the Lucifer sticks Henry had given him and struck one on a rock. The first thing he saw was a mason’s trowel, its blade crusted with mortar, lying in the dirt near the entrance. The Lucifer’s sputtering light also revealed half-erased footprints all over the cave floor and a stone fire-ring that still smoldered in one corner.
He went over to it and with the palm of his hand felt heat still rising from the ashes. He cast a nervous glance at the cave’s entrance and struck another Lucifer. Charcoal sketches of copulating fauns, satyrs and minotaurs flared on the pale dolomite walls. They were in a fine, steady hand and seemed to prance around the surface of the rocks with a mocking, carefree grace.
He spotted an extinguished torch of stick and rags on the ground and picked it up. The rags reeked of naphtha and when he dipped the makeshift torch into the ashes, it burst into flame. In the flickering firelight, the pagan images danced in ecstasy across the cave’s walls.
There was nothing else except loose stones and talus at the rear of the cave; rubble from a rockslide. He took a last disgusted look at the animalistic drawings and threw down the torch, where it spluttered in the dirt as he stepped out of the cave. He was sure that Eleanor was somewhere on the path nearby, and he prayed she was alive. He had gone only a few paces, when he heard a strange sound.
At first he thought it was a gull or a feral cat living among the rocks. But then it came again, a barely audible, ghostly plaint, possibly a cry from somewhere downriver. He held his breath and listened and the next time he heard the sound, it came clearly from the cave.
He rushed back inside, picked up the torch and held it up to the grotesque walls. The cry came again, a muffled but human wail. He went to the back of the chamber, to the wall of rubble. There were no drawings here, only piles of brick-sized rock and debris. He held the torch closer and saw mortar between some of the stones.
There came another moan, low and haunting, this time from behind the loosely cemented rocks. He moved his torch along the wall until he found a gap between two stones, whereupon he fell to his knees and pried at the opening with one of his hands, holding the torch high in the other.
“Eleanor! It’s me, Eddy,” he called. “I’m here! I’m going to get you out.”
Still on his knees, he picked up a rock and bashed it against the wall. The hole widened to twice its size. He hacked at it again and again until it was big enough to step through and into a hidden cavity behind it. Eleanor was there — and alive, thank God! — but bound and trembling on the ground. He set his torch on a ledge and took her in his arms.
“You’re safe now, my love,” he whispered. “You’re safe now.”
Even as he spoke a shadow filled the hole in the wall and a large stone was slammed in place. Another followed, nearly closing the opening. He was on his feet kicking at the stones when a saber poked through the gap, missing him by a hair’s breadth and forcing him back.
“By God, you are a cowardly dog, whoever you are,” he raged. There was no response, of course, only the singing of steel against stone as the saber drove in and out of the opening like a serpent’s tongue. If the blade found its mark, he’d bleed to death while Eleanor died from exposure. Then they’d be entombed together, forever, in this cold and lonely sepulcher. It was not a fate he was prepared to embrace, and he decided then and there that he wasn’t going meekly.
“I’m not going to die like this,” he yelled at the top of his lungs and rushed the wall. But the sword came jabbing through again and he had to leap aside. Another rock was jammed into the open socket.
Frantically, he wracked his brain for an escape plan even as his torch guttered out. Reaching into his greatcoat to warm his bruised hand, his fingers closed on a small pistol. In his haste to run out to the cliffs he’d thrown on Henry’s overcoat, and Henry — lovely, vicious Henry — never went anywhere without a gun.
He could feel the derringer’s twin barrels side by side like a shotgun’s and he comforted himself with the knowledge that Henry kept them both loaded.
He aimed the gun at the opening, now only as large as a fist, and fired. There was a deafening blast and a ball of fire lit up the chamber.
“I’m coming out and I’m going to blow your fuckin’ head off,” Edgar erupted and kicked at the wall, sending stones crashing into the main chamber and opening the hole. Their tormentor wasn’t about to charge at him with a sword if he had any brains, because he’d take a bullet. With new confidence, Edgar kicked an even larger opening, wide enough for him to see that the cave was empty — the coward had fled.
He gave the wall another kick and a whole section collapsed. Derringer in one hand, he lifted Eleanor as gently as he could and stepped over the remains of the wall. Outside the cave, dusk was thickening among the cliffs and there was the sound of retreating footsteps. Even though he feared the maniac might ambush them, he staggered up the path with Eleanor on his shoulder, his pistol cocked and ready to fire.
He’d gone only a few yards, when high above them on Flirtation Walk he saw cadets in shako helmets. He shouted for help and several other men appeared on the escarpment. Somewhere behind them he heard Gant barking orders.
Eleanor was safe, but he was in trouble, and this time there was no way out. He felt an enormous sense of relief, mingled with hopelessness.
“You’ll face a court-martial as soon as I can schedule one,” Gant said from behind his desk. “You’ll pay for your foolishness.”
Edgar ignored him; Gant didn’t need to tell him what he already knew. There was only one thing on his mind.
“How is she?” he asked.
“She’s ill. The doctor doesn’t know if she’ll make it.”
“You’re a liar,” Edgar said and started to rise from his chair, but two guards shoved him back down.
“More insubordination. Should I add that to the list of black marks against you, Mr. Poe? Why bother, eh? You’re leaving here in disgrace soon enough — if we don’t hang you first.”
“Tell me the truth, Gant. Is she all right?”
“Stop your pathetic maundering about the girl. She’s going to die, that’s all you need to know. And it’s your fault.”
“You shit heel,” Edgar spat. One of the guards, a red-haired man with empty eyes, stepped up and slammed him with his fist in the side of the head.
Edgar shook off the blow. “The man in the cave, did you catch him or lose him, you horse’s ass.”
He took another punch.
“You need to hurry,” he said. “The murders — Old Ben, Dupin, Ridley — they’re all related. Don’t you see that?”
“They’re related, all right,” Gant said. “They’re all related to you. You’re the killer.”
“You’re wrong. Round up the members of the Helvetian Society and arrest them. They’ll give you all the evidence you need.”
Gant burst out laughing.
“Why do you keep bringing up those miscreants? What does that bunch of drunken rabble have to do with anything? A handful of rowdy boys — they were taken care of years ago.”
Edgar was staring at the floor now, wishing he’d kept his mouth shut. There was no telling how the incompetent Gant would mess up an investigation by Thayer.
“It’s nothing. I misspoke,” he said.
“How you come up with these mad fantasies, God only knows,” Gant said, his face now in Edgar’s. “I find it highly unusual that you found the girl in that cavern. In point of fact, I believe you spirited her away and then made yourself the hero of this little drama when it suited your twisted purpose.”
What happened next was like a waking dream, an opium-induced trance. Gant’s poison words and his stinking spit in his face were too much for Edgar and he struck out, catching Gant on the jaw and sending him backward on the desk. He was at Gant’s throat and then the guards were on him, led by the ginger-haired man who grunted with every punch he threw.
By the time Gant called off his flunkies, Edgar was barely conscious. They hauled him from the floor and flung him into the chair. Gant was rubbing his swollen jaw, his eyes shining with pain.
“None of these unfortunate events must taint the Academy,” Gant said through pursed lips. “You’ve dishonored the Point and you’ll pay the price.”
He was marched back to the barracks and this time the guards left the premises as soon as they delivered him to Room No. 28. They weren’t necessary; his court-martial was inevitable. He could leave the Point forever if he wanted, or he could stay and fight. That meant exposing the Helvetian Society and showing Thayer and Gant there was a plot. He didn’t have much to go on, but as Henry had noted, everything pointed to William. He was the key. Where was he anyway? Edgar hadn’t seen him since before Eleanor disappeared. Eleanor... Gant had said she was deathly ill. He hadn’t believed him at the time, but now he wasn’t so sure. What if he’d been telling the truth? A new fear began to tighten in his chest.
* * *
Snow was falling against a backdrop of black and leafless trees when he arrived at Eleanor’s house. The nearby tavern was shuttered and forlorn, and it was hard to imagine how such a decrepit place had hosted parties of drunken cadets. All the life was sucked out of the scene and the swirling snow only added to the desolation.
The house, too, seemed drearier and a flock of crows watched morbidly from a nearby elm. What was it his stepfather used to say about crows? If it’s big enough to throw a saddle on, it’s a raven. He scooped up a handful of snow and flung it at them. They didn’t bother to fly away. Damn filthy birds; they haunted him like specters.
Old Ben’s brother, Zebulon, answered the door and Edgar braced for the worst. Zeb was a drunk and a hard case who’d worked for Ben since he was thrown out of West Point. Not much of a businessman, he helped with the bartending and did the odd repair job around the tavern. Eleanor didn’t like him and said her father kept him employed only because they were family.
But today there was grief in the giant’s red-rimmed eyes, and it was touching in such a rough-barked man.
“She’s been a callin’ yer name,” was all he said as he let Edgar inside.
The door to Eleanor’s room was open, and he could see her lying on her great canopied bed, her eyes closed, her black hair spread like wings against the pillows. Her mother was praying at her side and the same elderly physician who’d tended to him stood over her. Edgar crossed the room and Eleanor’s mother looked up with tears in her eyes.
“Is she going to be all right?” he asked, taking Eleanor’s hand.
“She has pneumonic fever,” the doctor said.
Edgar waited for him to say more, to say something optimistic, but he didn’t. Instead, Eleanor’s mother spoke. “Thank you for finding her, Mr. Poe. At least now she has a chance.”
“I only pray God makes her well again,” he said. “To see her like this is torture.” He leaned over and kissed her forehead, which was hot with fever.
“She called your name several times,” her mother said. “As though talking to you. As if you were right here in the room with her.”
“It’s true, sir,” said the doctor. “She spoke your name with affection.”
“Did she say anything else?” Edgar asked. “Anything about her kidnapper?”
“Nothing. She only called out for her friends and loved ones.”
The doctor, slightly abashed, looked to Eleanor’s mother. “Well, yes,” he said. “She called for her mother and Zeb here, and another male acquaintance from the Point, William, I believe his name is.”
“He wasn’t a suitor,” Eleanor’s mother added hastily. “Just a pleasant friend who would stop by occasionally to say hello and help Zeb with the chores.”
“Of course,” Edgar said. “William is gentleman and a helpful sort.” But he was disturbed that Eleanor had never mentioned his visits to the house.
Eleanor’s mother came over to the bed and fussed over her daughter, tucking her under the covers.
“Please, sir,” the doctor said, as if on cue. “If you want her to recuperate, you musn’t stay any longer. She needs her rest.”
“Of course,” Edgar said. He kissed Eleanor’s cheek once more and turned to her mother. “Please, ma’am, when she wakes tell her I love her and that I’ll be back soon.”
“You’re always welcome under our roof, Master Edgar,” she said. “Thank you for saving our beautiful child.”
She broke down in tears as she hugged him good-bye.
* * *
Back in his room he found Henry lounging on his bunk, a suspicious pipe in his hand and looking like he owned the place.
He didn’t move from the bed and without a word handed him the pipe. Edgar put it to his lips and drew on it until the lozenge in the bowl glowed like a tiny sun. And indeed, it was like breathing sunshine as the drug’s warmth suffused his body and lit up his brain with carefree thoughts.
“Feeling better?” Henry said after a while.
“Much. I’m finished at the Point, though. Done.”
He started to pass the pipe, but his brother motioned for him to keep it.
“Sorry to hear that,” Henry said.
“It’s probably for the best. John Allan hasn’t sent me any money in months. Since he remarried, he’s forgotten me; I have nothing.”
His stepfather had ignored his last letter imploring him for a few dollars to help make this place more tolerable.
“So you’ve spent what I gave you?” Henry said. It wasn’t an accusation.
“Most of it. I was robbed on the docks.”
That was enough for Henry, he didn’t pursue the theft. “We can earn what you need playing cards,” he said.
“I’m through with gambling, Henry. That’s what got me kicked out of the University of Virginia. Anyway, I don’t think I can beat the court-martial.”
“What if you prove the conspiracy?”
“Maybe. I don’t know if that’s possible; it’s all a tangle.”
“If there’s a chance, then I’ll help you.” Henry was animated now. “Together we’ll unmask these outlaws. Once what’s his name, Thayer, knows the truth, he’ll drop the charges against you.”
“I may have done myself too much damage already,” Edgar said, thinking about his earlier discussion with the superintendent. He wasn’t sure Thayer believed him. He sank down in his chair, and even the tranquilizing drug wasn’t enough to conceal his despondency.
“You know, Eddy, part of your problem is that you’re just not getting out enough and having a good time. I propose we go over to Madam Hopkins right now and indulge ourselves in the various pleasures that place has to offer. Did I tell you that you can get absinthe there?”
“Do you think that’s wise?”
“Drinking absinthe? You won’t go mad if you exercise moderation. That’s my motto: moderation in all things.” He slapped his leg and laughed at his own joke.
“I didn’t mean the absinthe. Do you think it’s smart for me to leave the Point to go whoring with everything that’s going on? What about the Griswald brothers? And the Helvetians are planning something; I just don’t know what.”
“Let’s forget that nonsense for a while,” Henry said, swinging his legs off the bed and reaching for his boots. “We’ll deal with it later, together, from a fresh perspective. And don’t worry about the Griswalds. They’ve gone home, if they have any sense. Nobody fucks with the brothers Poe and gets away with it, I’ll tell you that.”
Edgar had to laugh. “Sure, Henry. Together we almost make a whole person.”
Henry was busy pulling on his boots and didn’t seem to hear him. “Come on, let’s go treat ourselves then,” he said, jumping up from the bunk and swatting Edgar on the back. “I need a woman; I’m all backed up.”
“I’m too worried about Eleanor to go chasing tarts. Have some decency.”
“Well then, come along for the drink. I’m buying.”
His offer, like the opium, was too tempting to resist.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott