by Jack Alcott
Table of Contents|
Part 18 appeared
in issue 190.
“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 was right, of course. This league of devils had some overall design on West Point and he intended to find out what it was and expose them. And yes, if he revealed their plot his actions might overturn his court-martial. He might even earn special military honors, maybe even a medal. It was a long shot, but the thought of victory woke him from his emotional torpor. He even vowed to himself not to drink too much — and to go to Eleanor as soon as possible. He could still set things right; there was still time.
Henry read his thoughts. “You’ll be a national hero; they’ll put up a damn statue in Washington.”
Edgar had to laugh at that. Somehow, he couldn’t quite see himself cast in bronze or carved in stone.
When they got back to the barracks they did their best to hang the door back on its hinges and fix it, but it wouldn’t quite lock. Finally, they just closed it and pushed the desk up against it.
There was no sense in reporting the attack. For one thing, it would bring attention to Henry. For another, Edgar — whose reputation for pranks was well established — wasn’t sure anyone would believe him. More than likely they’d think he’d dreamt the whole thing up and even dug the hole in the woods, so eroded was his credibility.
He was on his own, and he had to send Henry packing to Richmond. When he told him again that he had to go, his brother refused, saying he wasn’t going anywhere as long as Edgar was the target of killers. Henry checked and loaded his two derringers as they talked.
“Anyone tries to harm you, Eddy, I’ll scatter their brains all over creation.”
Edgar was touched by his loyalty but insisted he leave. They were still arguing when Gant pounded on the door and demanded to be let in.
They moved the desk away from the door and the lieutenant barged in with the ginger-haired cadet at his heels. Gant scanned the room, his glance settling first on the busted door and the out of place desk, and then moving on to Henry.
“Who’s the civilian, Mr. Poe?”
“My brother, sir. He’s visiting for the holidays.”
“Guests are not permitted in the barracks.”
“Yes sir, but he was unable to find lodgings elsewhere.”
Gant raised his hand. “Those are the regulations.”
Gant inspected the room again and locked eyes with Henry.
“I want him out of here today,” he said.
“And a Merry Christmas to you, too, Admiral,” Henry said, winking at Edgar.
Gant ignored him and walked out the door. His cadet looked over his shoulder with a scowl and Henry made a rude hand gesture. The redhead’s skin glowed an angry pink.
“You heard the lieutenant,” Edgar said as soon as Gant and his toady were gone. “You’re going home.”
* * *
The next morning found Henry inside a coach, squeezed up against a girl of about eighteen. He enjoyed her proximity and introduced himself. Her name was Virginia, aptly enough, and she was traveling with her Aunt Beulah to Asheville, North Carolina. Auntie was a mummified hag with saddlebag jowls who sat unsmiling across from them on the coach’s brocaded bench seat.
“Virginia’s a beautiful name,” he told the girl. “It’s also my home state and a lovely place, though not as lovely as you.”
Virginia giggled but her auntie scowled, her sour puss a map of wrinkles. A middle-aged man napping next to the crone seemed to perk up at the flirtatious remark, opening one eye to give Henry the once-over.
“And where are you headed, Mr. Poe?” the aunt asked a trifle too politely.
“To perdition, ma’am, and probably sooner than later.”
“Oh, dear,” the old woman responded.
The gentleman next to her gave Henry the hairy eyeball, but he ignored him. The stage rumbled down the road, its occupants pitching about with every bump and pothole. At one point Virginia was thrown up against Henry and he took the opportunity to grope her silk-clad thigh, something he liked to do with his whores. She reacted as he had expected, gasping and apologizing for falling against him. Her thigh was delightful under his hand: strong, young and yielding.
The next time she tossed against him, he let his hand linger on a breast; she let out a surprised squeak and swatted his hand away.
“Are you all right, dear?” the old battle-axe asked, her myopic eyes full of hatred for Henry.
“He touched me,” Virginia said in the tiny, hurt voice of a girl who’s just learned how awful men can be. Her matron aunt didn’t wait to hear more, but started screaking at the top of her lungs for the coach to stop.
It didn’t take long; Henry thought God in heaven probably heard the old bat’s squawking. The coach came to a standstill in the middle of the road and a small door just above the seat behind the middle-aged passenger slid open. The hack peered in from his perch out front. “What’s goin’ on in there?”
“This man — this animal — is pawing my niece,” the aunt yapped back.
“You heard me, sir. We won’t travel another inch until you throw this villain off.”
The coachman considered this and slid the door shut. Henry could hear him swearing as he climbed down. The door flew open on Henry’s side and the coachman, who was well over six feet and must have had a hundred pounds on him, simply lugged him off.
“Think yer cute grabbin’ at the ladies, you mutt,” he said. “Well, not on my watch.”
With a mighty stiff-arm he sent Henry flying into the gutter. “You start walkin’ now, you’ll make it back to town in fifteen minutes. And there’s no refunds for mashing young girls, neither.”
Then he was back on top of the coach and whipping the horses. Henry didn’t bother to get to his feet until the conveyance was a hundred yards away. Then he stood up, dusted the snow off his frock coat, and smiled.
With bleak November at an end, Edgar tried to visit Eleanor at her home, but Zebulon thwarted him. The giant planted his hulking body in the doorway and informed him that she was too ill to have visitors, except for her doctor and immediate family. No one else was allowed to see her, and so on. It did no good to raise his voice; Zeb was as implacable as a tree trunk.
Edgar wrote letter after letter to Eleanor’s mother pleading with her to let him visit, but heard nothing in response. He could only conclude that the missives never reached her because Zebulon, in his well-meaning but clumsy way, was trying to protect the family.
He tried to stick to his resolve to uncover the Helvetians, but there were no more incidents, and the masked men who’d attacked him and Henry made no other appearances. He remained vigilant, but he didn’t have enough evidence to go to Thayer with proof of a conspiracy. Even William’s drawings of the steamboat and locomotive were not enough.
By now, he’d fallen into a deep depression and would spend his afternoons walking the streets of Buttermilk Falls, dreaming of Eleanor and hoping he might run into her mother while she shopped for the household, but he never did.
One gray afternoon he thought he saw Henry going into a pub about a block away. He charged down the street past strollers and shoppers to get to him, his emotions a confusion of anger and elation. On one hand, he wanted Henry to obey his decision to go home; on the other, he missed him sorely and was overjoyed. When he pushed his way into the dank interior of the pub, none of the men inside even faintly resembled his brother.
He stayed to have a few beers and then stumbled back out onto the street, upset and disoriented. He felt oddly detached and out of step with reality for days afterward, and when he was able to control his drinking he kept his sanity by burying himself in his studies.
His colleagues, in deference to his grief over Eleanor’s illness, left him alone and he made no effort to socialize. With Henry gone, Room No. 28 was no longer a place for entertainment, and his roommate Thomas hardly showed up until the tacs called for lights out.
In that way, the first weeks of December passed in a haze of pain and loss. He drank brandy and smoked the last of the opium that Henry had left behind. He was glad when it was gone because he craved the intoxicant like no other and needed to keep his head clear and mind sharp for the upcoming exams. He had to score high so he could bolster his case and fight the court-martial. Even if he was ultimately dismissed, the scrapper in him had reawakened and for honor’s sake he would make them sweat to remove him. To that end, he bent over his texts hour after hour, single-mindedly memorizing French lessons and practicing geometry proofs.
When he was immersed in his studies, the outside world had little hold on him. His chilly room and all his hungers, cravings, and worries were forgotten while his mind was engaged. But as soon as he ended a chapter or finished a section of problems, his body woke up to its wants and deprivations, his mind to its troubles. When that happened, he plunged back into his studies. In this fashion, he covered hundreds of pages.
He was also diligent about going to class and maneuvers for the first time since late October. Not that this would help during the trial when prosecutors would lay out all the previous classes he’d skipped; but it couldn’t hurt.
He was reading alone one morning at a table in the mess hall when Thomas sat down next to him with his breakfast.
“You sure have been hitting the books, Eddy,” he said. “Every time I come back to the room, you’re reading. I bet you’ll ace your exams.”
“I hope so,” Edgar said between bites. “Aren’t you worried about your grades?”
Thomas answered with a self-deprecating shrug, which confirmed what Edgar already knew; he was failing.
After several more forkfuls of eggs and bacon, Thomas leaned over his plate and whispered, “I know something about the Helvetians.”
Edgar wasn’t sure he’d heard right.
“The Helvetians,” Thomas said again, seeing that Edgar was mystified. He peered nervously around the mess hall. “I know who they are and I know what the plan is. They want to bring back Old Pewt.”
“Where’d you hear that?” Edgar said. “That’s preposterous.”
Thomas didn’t get a chance to answer. A young officer strode up to the table and without a word set his plate down. He unceremoniously tapped Thomas on the shoulder.
“If I might have a few words alone with a fellow Virginian,” he said, nodding toward Edgar.
“Yes sir.” Thomas said with a salute, getting to his feet so quickly he upset his plate, spilling his knife and fork on the floor. “Sorry, sir,” he said, picking up the utensils and scurrying to a table across the room.
The officer sat down and extended his hand. A faint smell of bay rum and wood smoke clung to him.
“Lieutenant Robert E. Lee,” he said. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Poe.”
Edgar shook his hand. Everyone had heard of Lee. He’d graduated at the top of the Class of ’28, and he’d been at the Point during the year of the riots. Still in his early twenties, he was tall and long-boned, and he projected strength even while sitting down. Chestnut-brown sideburns framed his face and he swept his longish hair straight back to reveal a prematurely receding hairline, which only added to his noble bearing.
Too noble, according to those that disliked him. Lee, the story went, was such a straight arrow that he’d avoided the drinking party that led up to the riots, and was in his barracks room studying when fellow Southerner Jeff Davis was arrested.
“You’re probably wondering what brings me back to the Point,” Lee said, using his fingers to untangle a gold-fringed epaulet at his shoulder. “It’s a great place to be a young man, isn’t it? I can’t convey to you how much I miss this institution.”
He stared fondly about as though he were in Valhalla. All Edgar saw were stone walls, scarred-up oak tables and cadets eating their morning mush.
“But I’m not here to wallow in nostalgia like a hog in slop,” Lee said. “No, sir, I’m here to talk about your future.” He paused. “Yours and the Academy’s.”
“Did Thayer put you up to this?” Edgar asked, dumbfounded.
Lee’s dark eyes fastened on him from under his slightly prominent brow-ridge. “I think you know what I’m getting at.”
“The Helvetians,” Edgar said.
Lee drank from his mug and studied him. “We’ve put more guards over at the foundry,” he said, setting the cup down and spearing some egg on a fork. His manners were precise and impeccable, every movement calculated, yet graceful.
“Several casks of black powder were found near the forge and no one knows how they got there. That place is hotter than Hades, and we’re damn lucky the heat didn’t set them off. It was your tip that alerted us, and we’re thankful for that. In fact, you’ve been recommended for a medal, Mr. Poe, although for obvious reasons that’s to remain a secret at this time.”
This was too much for Edgar, who had to keep from laughing at the absurdity of it all.
“I am telling you the truth,” Lee said, as though offended.
“Sir, if I may say so, it sounds ridiculous. A medal? Do you know I’m facing a court-martial? My career here is about to end.”
“We’re aware of that,” Lee said.
“You keep saying ‘we’, lieutenant. Who are you talking about?”
Lee didn’t answer right away, choosing instead to finish his eggs. When he was done, he pushed his plate back.
“Can’t tell you that. What I can tell you is that I’m here at the superintendent’s behest.” He leaned across the table and lowered his voice. “Thayer is grateful that you reported the existence of the Helvetians. He asked me to personally thank you.”
He let this sink in, and then continued. “They are up to some devilment; we just don’t know what exactly, or why. But someone has convinced a few of our weaker-minded cadets that they should join up with them. We intend to find out what they’re plotting and punish them. That’s where you come in.”
Edgar could only stare at him blankly, his head a hive of senseless, flitting thoughts.
Lee misinterpreted his bafflement.
“Look here, we’re not asking you to spy on your friends,” he said. “These are men who, as you know better than anyone, have been after you, probably to do you harm. Thayer told me you know too much about them, which means you’re in trouble. Their only recourse is to get rid of you. Not a pretty thought, considering the recent rash of murders. On the other hand, there’s a way you can help yourself, and us, if you follow me.” He looked across the table at Edgar. “Go ahead and join them, infiltrate their lines. And then keep us apprised of their movements.”
“Begging your pardon, sir,” Edgar said with some astonishment. “But I’m not equipped for this kind of intrigue. I’m just a cadet, sir.”
“Nonsense. Let’s not be modest,” Lee said taking a letter from his pocket and unfolding it on the table. “You come from good stock. I know all about your grandsire General David Poe and his heroic deeds in the Revolution. On top of that, you were in the U.S. Army for two and a half years before coming here, and by all accounts were a fine soldier.”
Lee smoothed out the letter on the table. “I have a letter here from Lieutenant Colonel Worth at Fortress Monroe in Virginia, where you were stationed for some time. He writes, and I quote, ‘I have known and had an opportunity of observing the conduct of the above-mentioned Sergeant-Major Poe some three months during which his deportment has been highly praiseworthy and deserving of confidence’.”
“That’s very impressive, Mr. Poe,” Lee said, folding the letter up and tucking it back inside his tunic. “I know Worth, and he’s a keen judge of character. If he says you’re a soldier, then you are.”
He looked at Edgar with an approving eye before continuing. “You will be rewarded, of course, and all charges against you forgotten. Can I count you in?”
Edgar heard himself say “Yes, sir,” but his words sounded as if they were coming from afar, a voice carried on the wind.
“I’m heartened to hear that, cadet,” Lee said politely. He cast his eyes around the sparsely populated mess hall, and Edgar saw Thomas watching from his table. “Forgive me, but for the time being I must make it appear that you are in grave trouble with the Academy.”
With that, Lee quickly stood up, almost upending his chair. He towered over Edgar, his eyes full of black lightning. “Your court-martial has been set for the end of January,” he boomed. “Make your case then, sir.”
He saluted curtly and stamped out of the mess. Cadets within earshot sat at their tables in awe, whispering among themselves. Thomas gaped from across the room and as soon as Lee was out the door, he picked up his plate and hurried over.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott