by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 16 and part 17
appear in this issue.
“No, Henry,” Edgar said. “He’s miserable and sick and not long for this world. Let him suffer in this life; God will judge him in the next.”
“Don’t waste your sermon on me, you heard what he said about mother,” Henry said, his voice strained and high-pitched, like an adolescent’s. “You heard him desecrate her memory. I should kill him; I want to kill him.”
“I do, too, brother. But look at him. There’s no need — he’s already dead.”
Henry stared into his father’s blood-spotted eyes. David Poe seemed to vibrate with fright and a barely audible stream of gibberish gabbled from his lips. Leaning closer, Edgar realized it was part prayer, part begging chant. “My boys, my boys... hallowed be thy name... don’t kill me... our Father who art in heaven... please don’t kill me...”
The babbled words seemed to bring Henry to his senses, and his glassy-eyed killer’s mask changed into a look of disgust. He released his grip, and their father collapsed to the floor.
Henry wiped his brow, and out of habit withdrew his silver flask and took a swig. Only then did he stop to consider the flask’s filigrees and David Poe’s initials. He capped the bottle and tossed it on the floor where his father crouched, weeping.
“You forgot this,” he said. “After you’ve drained it, maybe it’ll fetch you a few coins.”
Then he walked away, pushing through a crowd of onlookers.
Edgar watched his father pick up the flask in his shaking hands and brush off the sawdust.
“I remember this,” he said beaming at Edgar. “She gave it to me on my twenty-first birthday. Ah, she was a rare flower — and a wonderful actress. Everyone fell in love with her. Everyone. But don’t believe the critics; I wasn’t half bad, either. I got a late start, is all. My father, goddamned General Poe, goddamned hero of The Revolution, didn’t believe in the theater. He said it wasn’t a manly way to make a living and he made me study law. When I quit for the stage, he all but disowned me. Cut me off, he did. Then I met Eliza. She helped me learn the craft, she was an all-round wonder.”
He stopped to shake the flask and smiled vacuously at the liquor sloshing inside. With bony fingers trembling, he uncorked it and took a swallow.
“She was so beautiful,” he said as the brandy thawed his memory. “I loved her like no other.”
He wiped his eyes and sucked from the bottle again. A trickle of brown liquor leaked from the corner of his mouth and dribbled into his beard. That was enough for Edgar. He backed away from the awful scene, then turned and fled outside where Henry waited coughing and spitting blood into the gutter.
After their visit to “dear old Dad,” as Henry liked to call him, life at the barracks turned into a succession of boozy card games, missed drills and long mornings spent walking off the night’s indulgences. Gant ignored him, except to send guards to drag him out of bed after he failed to show up for roll call. He pictured the lieutenant in his office, patting his Indian headdress and smiling smugly over Edgar’s mounting demerits, giddy with anticipation over the inevitable court-martial.
The days passed in a blur of monotonous slogs around and around The Plain for hours on end, the musket cutting into his shoulder at every step, his punishment for missing maneuvers and chapel and whatever else he neglected. The nights were lost to alcohol and opium, and Edgar didn’t give a good goddamn anymore. He stopped thinking about the Helvetians and he almost, but not quite, stopped thinking about Eleanor. Every day he promised himself he’d go see her, and every day he found himself more besotted than the one before.
He didn’t realize how far gone he was until the week before Thanksgiving, when an incident occurred during one of his drunken black-outs that was both comical and harrowing. Henry, once again, saved his skin, so to speak. But Edgar was sure his embarrassing action was bound to live on in West Point lore for at least a few years.
The way Henry told it — and Edgar got Tim and Charles to confirm the story because he couldn’t remember anything — it happened after yet another drunken night in Room No. 28. That morning, an officer went along the hallway rapping on doors and yelling for cadets to line up for inspection “in crossbelts and sword,” as Henry related it. Some dignitary or other was visiting and they wanted the men at their best. Henry, of course, just groaned and pulled the pillow over his head. He heard Edgar get up and blunder around the room, making so much noise that he told him to quiet down.
Hard as he tried, though, Henry couldn’t fall back to sleep and he peeked out from under his pillow just as Edgar was going out the door. What he saw jarred him awake, but Edgar was gone before he could stop him. Henry flew out of bed and pulled his trousers on as fast as he could. By the time he got to the hallway, Edgar was disappearing down the stairwell. Henry ran after him, shouting for him to stop, the floorboards cold under his bare feet.
Charlie came out of his room to see what was up, and he scrambled after Henry even though his full-dress uniform and sword made running difficult. They heard the leather slap of Edgar’s boots as he hurried down the stairs ahead of them, but didn’t catch him until they were outside the barracks and heading toward the parade grounds. The bright morning sunshine made everything seem even more unreal.
Fortunately, Tim was a dozen yards ahead of Edgar and he turned about when he heard all the fuss. His jaw dropped when he saw Edgar.
“Poe, you’re buck naked!”
Which, strictly speaking, wasn’t entirely true. Edgar’s sword hung at his side and he was wearing crossbelts, exactly as the officer had commanded. Other than those items and his boots, however, he was all gooseflesh and naked as a newborn.
Tim intercepted him and held him until Henry got there, even though Edgar tried to break free while muttering that he was going to be “late for inspection.”
Henry locked his arm around him and with Charlie’s help tussled him back to the barracks.
“If this don’t beat all,” Tim said in disbelief as he watched.
“I can handle him from here,” Henry told Charlie. “He’s still drunk, is all. Go on about your inspection.”
Charlie looked dubious, but was glad to get out of there. With a shake of his shaggy head, he went and caught up with Tim on The Plain.
Henry, meanwhile, got Edgar through the barracks doors, up the stairs and into his bunk, where he promptly fell back to sleep until guards came and pulled him out of bed for missing formation. Then it was back out on The Plain to walk it off again, marching around and around in full uniform, his rucksack and musket weighing him down, a bitter wind chapping his face.
When his comrades later told him about the “naked” episode, he didn’t believe them at first. They were pulling his leg, he figured, trying to pay him back for some of his pranks. But no, they insisted it was all true, and they finally convinced him. After the initial shock wore off, he found the incident as uproarious as they did, but also frightening. How often had he gone sleep-walking, and what else had he done while in a somnambulist state? He just wished he could remember.
By evening, every cadet at the Point had heard the story and it became more outlandish with each retelling. In one recounting, he made it all the way to the parade grounds and challenged Gant to a sword duel. Except in this version, Edgar brandished his own erect flesh instead of a saber.
Edgar shared in the joshing that went on for the next few days, but deep down he was worried about these blank periods. It was as though someone else inhabited his body, some stranger who periodically escaped to wreak havoc on his life.
One evening soon after the “nekkid swordfight,” as Henry dubbed it, the brothers went into the village for supplies, including a goose, a bottle of brandy, and more opium and tincture of laudanum from the village apothecary, now on special order for Henry. “Good for what ails you,” the jolly fellow behind the counter said as he gave the paper-wrapped medications to Henry.
“Then I’m ailing for life,” Henry answered, and let loose with one of his honking laughs, which then degenerated into a coughing fit.
There was a small celebration in room No.28 that night and they ate well and played black jack in front of a blazing fire. For the first time in weeks, if not months, a sense of well-being came over Edgar, and he never felt closer to his brother.
The next morning as they lay in their bunks stunned from the previous day’s excesses, the door splintered open. Before they could get out of their beds they were set upon by six black-hooded men who pinioned them to their bunks and bound their hands and feet.
“Who are you, what do you want?” Edgar shouted, but their masked captors ignored him.
“They’re a bunch of tongue-tied cowards,” Henry mocked, only to find himself pummeled until he nearly lost consciousness. When Edgar begged them to stop, one of them stuffed a rag in his mouth. Until they’d started pounding Henry, Edgar had thought it was all a half-friendly, half-scary initiation rite.
Then their captors wrapped them like cocoons in their blankets, lifted them into the air and bore them silently from the room, down the hallway and out of the barracks. While not quite freezing, it was extremely cold and Edgar was wearing only a nightshirt. Henry, as usual, had fallen in bed with his trousers and shirt still on, and Edgar was glad that he had some protection from the elements because his consumption had not improved of late.
The men carried them on their shoulders like logs toward the woods behind South Barracks. After some time, the folds in Edgar’s blanket sufficiently loosened for him to see out of his wrappings. Besides the hooded men, there was no one else in view; no one to come to their aid this early on what he realized was the Sabbath.
A few random snowflakes spun down from a sea-gray sky as they entered a thicket of pines. It was as dark as early evening under the canopy of trees, and the smell of pinesap and the winter-scrubbed air were like a reviving drink. The forest’s ancient floor was plush with pine needles, which dampened the men’s footfalls and created an atmosphere of eerie quiet.
“Where are you taking us?” Edgar called out. His captors only tightened their grip.
“Let them play their silly soldier games,” Henry said. “Boys will be boys.” In response, one of the men punched him in the chest, sending him into paroxysms of gasping and hacking. Edgar fought to free himself without effect and was yanked upright, a hooded man at each elbow. Henry was flung next to him, his head still hanging in agony, a trace of bloody foam on his lips.
“Leave him alone. Can’t you see he’s hurt?” Edgar cried.
He was about to say more, to call them yellow-bellied cowards who hid behind their masks when he saw the pit yawning in the ground before them. The squared-off hole was cleanly cut into the turf, as if with a straightedge. Deeper than a grave and twice as wide, a loamy odor of decay issued from the ground like the breath of eternity.
Fear streaked through his veins and woke his mind to every sound and movement in the forest. In one brilliant instant he saw everything with incredible clarity; the tiny blades of pine needles, his brother’s agonized face, their captor’s black hoods — even his own naked feet at the edge of the trench. And between the green-black pine boughs he saw patches of cold, marble sky. Never had he felt so alive; never had he felt so close to death.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the filthy bird in the branches, the raven messenger bringing news of his demise, waiting to rend his soul like carrion. Then, without warning, he found himself plunging into the pit and Henry alongside him, still choking and coughing. The grave’s dirt was deep and soft from ages of rotting pine needles and it broke their fall; but they lay on their backs, immobilized in a half-sitting position, their blankets as tight as winding sheets around them. They tried to recover their breath as they stared up at the trees and the fragment of sky framed by the rectangular hole. Six hooded men looked down on them, and then all but one moved out of sight.
With several shakes of his head, Edgar was able to free his head and shoulders from the blanket. He spit out his gag. “This has gone far enough,” he gasped. “Let us go now and I won’t report you.”
Above them, at grave’s edge, the remaining man snickered and unsheathed a saber, then lay down on his stomach and dangled it into the hole. The razor sharp blade came within a whisker of Edgar’s throat and hung poised in the air, waiting to drop into his jugular.
Then the sword was withdrawn and the hooded man was gone.
All was quiet.
“You all right?” he whispered to his brother, who’d stopped coughing. He turned his head for a better look at Henry, when a shovelful of dirt crashed down on them. Henry struggled to sit up to avoid the blinding cascades that followed, one after the other, a cataract of dirt and stones and rotting vegetation.
“The fuckers are going to bury us alive,” Henry screamed. “I’ll fuckin’ kill you when I get out of here,” he howled up at the men. “I’ll kill you!”
Edgar jerked and writhed in an effort to free himself from his bonds, even as the dirt kept coming. It stuck in their hair, choked their windpipes and crusted their mouths and nostrils, muffling their pleas in clots of soil. Edgar prayed that the men would show mercy and just shoot them before they suffocated.
For whatever reason, the dirt storm ended as abruptly as it started. A few minutes passed before Edgar was able to wriggle from his blanket and stand up. Even then, the top of the pit was still out of reach, fully another six inches over his head and try as he might, the rope around his wrists kept him from scaling the walls. But then Henry was standing at his side, gasping for air, his little knife flashing as he cut himself free. When he was done, he reached over and cut Edgar’s restraints.
Edgar started to climb up one side of the trench, but Henry held him back. “Stay down,” he said. “They could be waiting for us.”
“I don’t give a damn. Anything’s better than this grave. I’ve got to get out.” He tried to get a foothold and part of the dirt wall gave way.
“You’ll bring it down on top of us,” Henry said, laboring for breath. “Let me give you a boost. Just go slow and keep your head down.”
“You all right?” Edgar asked. “Can you breathe?”
“I’m right as rain, brother.”
Edgar put a bare foot into Henry’s cupped hands and his brother lifted him up. As soon as he cleared the hole and saw that no one was around, he pulled himself out. Still on his belly, he reached down for Henry and helped him climb out of the pit. Once above ground, Henry stood clutching his knife with one hand and his heaving chest with the other.
“Come back here, you sons of whores,” he screamed at the empty woods.
“They’re gone,” Edgar said, putting his arm around him. “You sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine,” Henry said, spitting a bloody gob into the snow. His face was drained of color and his breathing still ragged.
“Let’s get back to the barracks,” Edgar said.
“I’ll find those two-legged jackals and kill every one of them,” Henry fumed.
“They’re from the Helvetian Society,” Edgar said. “That was a warning. They’ll kill us next time.”
“Not if I get them first.”
“No, brother,” Edgar said. “It’s time for you to go home. Back to Richmond.”
“Are you mad? You need me more than ever.”
“I appreciate your concern, but these men might kill me yet — and you, too — if we keep meddling in their affairs. So you’ve got to go. This is my fight.”
“Not after today. This is my fight now, too. I owe these yellow dogs a whipping.”
“You’re going home.”
“Don’t argue with me. These men are dangerous.”
“Exams are coming up and so is my court-martial; I’ve got to prepare my defense. There isn’t time to pursue these cowards.”
“Somehow, I don’t believe that,” Henry said. “You know too much, and I can tell you want to know more. You want to stop them. You want to be heroic.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott