by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 19 appears
in this issue.
“Sounds like you really pissed him off,” he said.
“You might say that.”
“Who was that, anyway?”
“Lieutenant Robert E. Lee.”
Thomas sat back in chair. “Whoa. What’s he doin’ here?”
“He’s going to prosecute me.”
“The court-martial is on, then? They’re gonna kick you out?”
“They’re going to try.”
“Them lousy bastards. They’re gonna ride you out on a rail. You must be resenting them an awful lot.”
“I resent them, all right.”
Thomas forked up the last dregs of his breakfast, and spoke while still chewing. “Can I trust you?”
“Of course. Why?”
Thomas waited a few seconds, as though arguing with himself. “All right, then, come on with me. I got something to show you.”
He took Edgar outside and behind the mess hall to a cluster of sheds and stables, all the while looking about to make sure no one was watching. Fishing a key from his pocket, he opened a padlock on one of the sheds. Inside were the usual collection of rakes, shovels and sickles used for maintaining the property. Coiled ropes smelling of tar lay in one corner. Edgar even recognized the hatchet, hanging on a peg, that Thomas had supplied for his prank with the goose carcass the night Ben was killed. With all the evil that had since transpired, his witless, sophomoric hoax seemed a millennium ago.
“I’m assigned to shovel snow from the walks this week,” Thomas said. “So nobody’s gonna be suspicious if they find us here. I’ll just tell ’em it looks like snow’s coming.”
“Good thinking, Tom. But what am I doing here? Surely you didn’t bring me here to show off your shovels.”
“Nah,” he said, laughing nervously. “I brought you over to see these.” He lifted up a section of canvas sailcloth thrown in one corner of the shed, revealing several clay jugs. “Lantern oil. Been buying it in town.”
“What the heck for?”
“Promise you won’t tell nobody?”
“My lips are sealed.”
Thomas smiled vacantly, his eyes on some inward vision. “We’re gonna burn something down.”
Edgar didn’t like the sound of that, especially the “we’re” part.
“You’re not making any sense, Tom. I don’t get your meaning.”
“We’re gonna burn down a building here at the Point, make it look like Thayer’s lost control. Then we can bring back Old Pewt.”
“Bring back Partridge? Why? I still don’t understand.”
“You been asking ’round about the Helvetian Society, right?” Thomas said. “Well, I’m not s’posed to tell you this, but I know about ’em... In fact, I’ve joined up with ’em.”
Edgar had already guessed that, although in his mind it lowered the caliber of the organization. Thomas wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer and he was known for being impulsive and hotheaded. But it was possible the Helvetian officers were using him precisely because of those traits. Edgar’s first impulse was to run, to get out of there. But of course this was exactly the kind of intelligence Lee needed.
“What’re you going to burn?” he asked, surprised at how quickly he adopted his spy role.
Dunno yet. Haven’t got my orders.”
“From the Helvetians?”
“Yep. They wanna torch somethin’ strategic-like.”
“Who gives these orders? Who’s in this society?”
“Settle down there, boy, you ain’t ready for that yet,” Thomas said, regarding him warily. “You gotta prove yourself. That’s why I’m enlisting you to help me with the burning when the orders come down. It’s a chance for you to show ’em you’re all right.”
Cold as it was outside, Edgar was soaked with perspiration. “I’ll help you,” he said. “I’ll show those jackasses they picked the wrong man to court-martial.”
“That’s the spirit, Eddy,” Thomas said. “We’ll teach ’em they can’t fool with us. We’ll kick ’em where it hurts.”
Edgar then tried to find out what the Helvetians’ plans were, but Thomas slyly told him he’d be contacted when it came time to strike. That’s the word he’d used: “strike,” like he was a soldier on a mission. His loyalty to the Helvetians made Edgar nervous. The society was apparently better organized and more entrenched than anyone suspected.
He was relieved when Thomas said he had chores to do, and lowered the canvas back over the jugs. When he locked up the shed and hurried off, Edgar walked back to the barracks alone.
Back at his desk, Edgar turned up the whale oil lamp until its mellow light was bright enough to read by. He always felt calmer and more at ease in the presence of books, even if they were only a worn copy of Leçons de français, a dog-eared mathematics text and some slight volumes of poetry. The real world outside their pages was sometimes too much to comprehend, and that was certainly the case now. He dove into his schoolwork, hoping to be carried along on its current. But his mind kept returning to his traitorous agreement with Thomas and his patriot’s pact with Lee. Should he tell Lee about Thomas tonight, or should he wait until the Helvetians chose a target for the burning?
He opened his math text to a section on plane geometry and slid into a cooler, more abstract world of points and lines and angles. He worked happily at the proofs and problems until the phosphor glow of early evening filled the room’s tall windows.
Christmas was almost upon them, and with Henry gone it was not a prospect he looked forward to. Thomas was also stuck at the Point for the holidays but he rarely stayed at the barracks, and Edgar hadn’t seen much of him since their meeting in the shed. “I’ll call on you when we’re ready,” he’d told Edgar one night before sneaking into town, but that was all. In fact, Thomas was practically living in the local taverns, or so he said. Maybe he was plotting with the Helvetians. Whatever his situation, Edgar had the room to himself and his isolation enhanced his concentration.
Although the barracks were deathly still, he found himself humming carols one morning while toasting his bread over the hearth. There was a bit of strawberry jam for his toast, and he ate it with a cup of strong tea while dreaming of Christmases past in Richmond.
His stepfather, John Allan, was not a believer in giving luxury gifts — Edgar usually got something practical, like clothing. But he did enjoy entertaining his business cronies, so there were always parties. Certainly they were not the grandest in Richmond, but they were more than adequate. His stepfather did not skimp on the food and decorations, and sometimes there were hired musicians and everyone would sing carols.
His mother, Fanny, loved this time of year and the change it wrought in John Allan’s temperament. Edgar could even now see her beaming like an angel as she hosted festivities at Moldavia, their grand estate overlooking the James River. Those were happy days in that great house with its pillared portico, mirror-lined ballroom and spacious dining room where the Christmas feast was spread.
Thoughts of food invaded his mind like a ravenous army as he finished his own meager repast. He could taste the smoked Virginia hams, oysters and other viands that were always in plentiful supply for the holiday, not to mention the abundance of muffins, Johnnycakes and pecan pies whose savory odors floated into every corner of the manse.
Why, he asked himself, had he forsaken all that for West Point? What had possessed him? A terrible homesickness came over him and even though it was not yet noon, he dug out his dwindling bottle of brandy.
To further take his mind off the past, he read an Evening Post he’d smuggled out of the library and was startled to find that the maiden voyage of The Best Friend of Charleston was scheduled for Christmas Day. The Post heralded the feat as the start of the nation’s first regular rail service.
Cheered that the Helvetians hadn’t succeeded in destroying the engine, he drank in celebration and soon passed out. A hellish dream followed in which he saw the black-clad locomotive shrouded in steam as it roared down the six miles of track between Charleston and Sans-Souci. Everyone on board — the passengers, the engineer and the mechanics — all wore executioner’s hoods, and when the shrieking engine collided with a steamboat, black-hooded heads flew like ravens in every direction.
He awoke from the horror drenched in sweat and reached for his bottle. The liquor soothed his prickling nerves and he drank more, dreaming of Fanny’s warm embrace until he fell into sweet oblivion.
When Christ’s birthday dawned on West Point for the year eighteen hundred and thirty, its buildings were dressed in snow and its trees limned with sun-refracting ice. The effect was exceedingly merry, and to celebrate, Edgar reached again for the ever-dependable brandy bottle.
January arrived in a gale of ice and arctic wind that swept down the valley from the north, scraping across the Point’s ancient cliffs and driving everyone indoors. Edgar spent much of his time huddled in his room close to the fire, the shutters smacking against the windows while drafts eddied through the chinks in the masonry.
Exams were given on a particularly nasty day, but the tests themselves were not that difficult. In fact, Edgar was confident he’d done quite well, although the mathematics section had been tricky. He needed the best scores possible to make his case when his trial began in two weeks, and he was sorry now that he’d missed so many classes, because his grades were in the gutter. Even though Lee had indicated the court-martial would be taken care of, Edgar had his doubts. For one thing, he hadn’t seen the man since their meeting in the mess hall.
But Lee and the Helvetians hadn’t been entirely out of his thoughts, and he decided finally to confront William about his involvement. William had a part in the plot, but Edgar didn’t know if his role was a major or minor one. He’d actually warned Edgar to stay out of the Helvetians’ way after the incident at the Beach Street warehouse, so maybe he wasn’t as loyal as other members; maybe he didn’t know about Thomas’ arson scheme. Edgar would talk some sense into him and he’d help gather intelligence for Lee.
After the math exams, he caught up with William strolling across the frozen ground toward North Barracks.
“We need to talk,” Edgar said. “About the Helvetians.”
William seemed to shrink into the upturned collar of his greatcoat and kept walking.
“I’m serious,” Edgar said, taking him by the arm. William shook him off.
“I’ve nothing to say.”
“You’ve got to help me against the Helvetians. They’re evil sons of bitches and you know it. They’re responsible for that explosion aboard the Kinderhook. They’re behind the murders and they kidnapped Eleanor, although I have no idea how any of this fits into their plans. But you do, don’t you? You know what skullduggery they’re up to. You can help me stop them.”
William kept walking.
“Thayer’s onto them,” Edgar went on, falling into step beside him. “The Army’s going to find out what’s what and your friends will pay dearly for their treason, maybe even hang. Don’t let that happen to you, William. I’m sure the old man will grant you amnesty. Break free of these scoundrels, I entreat you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” William said. “Now leave me the hell alone.”
“I know about Tom and the arson,” Edgar said.
William halted and swore under his breath.
“I can’t account for the actions of that fool,” he said, and resumed walking. “Now get away from me before I do you harm.”
Edgar didn’t follow him. It would have done no good. William’s allegiance was with the Helvetians, for whatever misguided reason, and he was taking a stand.
* * *
He found Lee in a small office in the back of the Commandant’s quarters. The door was ajar, and the lieutenant sat writing at a desk, his pen moving rapidly and decisively across the pages of a notebook. Edgar wondered at the words that seemed to flow so freely, guessing that Lee was an eloquent writer.
He knocked on the open door and saluted. Lee looked up and returned the salute, but didn’t rise to greet him.
“Come on in, Mr. Poe and have a seat,” he said, pointing to a chair in front of the desk. “I’m just making a list of provisions I’m going to need for a forthcoming excursion into the wilderness. You like salt pork? I can’t stand the stuff, but that’s all I’ll be eating for a week. Anyhow, what brings you here? Some word on our traitors?”
Edgar pulled the door closed behind him and sat down, impressed that Lee questioned him so directly. Here was a man who got straight to the point, no beating around the bush. That’s why he was such a promising officer: he was confident and efficient even in his language, and his mind was like quicksilver, you could see it working in his watchful eyes.
Edgar admired him for his talents, but at the same time despaired for himself. Lee was a natural leader, and Edgar thought his own abilities paled by comparison. What boyish impulse had ever led him to think he could become an officer in the United States Army? He could never measure up to a man as destined for greatness as this Lee. What was it like to look in the mirror and see that noble, handsome face? All Edgar saw when he looked at himself in the mirror was a boy haunted by petty fears and vain dreams.
“Tom Gibson is one of them,” Edgar said. “He has some plan to burn down a building, although I don’t know which one. He showed me the flammables. They’re in the groundskeeper’s shed.”
Edgar felt some shame in naming Thomas, but let it pass. There was no telling who might be hurt or what damage done if he let him proceed.
“Your roommate? Hmm, he’s not the brains behind this scheme.”
“You’re right about that, sir,” Edgar said, holding back a laugh. “He’s taking orders. I don’t know from whom.”
“Go along with him, then. Pretend you’re part of the plot. It’s a test. They want to know if you’ll join them.”
“Should I join them, sir?”
“If it’ll get you inside the organization. But I don’t have to tell you it’s dangerous. These men are murderers. I know it’s a lot to ask, but you’re a soldier and it’s a noble cause; you’re doing it for your country. And I promise, Mr. Poe, we will move swiftly to arrest these renegades once we know who they are. Tom’s plan may provide just that opportunity. Has he said when they’ll attack?”
“No, but I wager it’s soon.”
“The sooner the better. I want this over before anyone knows about it. We must keep any knowledge of the Helvetians a secret between the two of us. Superintendent Thayer doesn’t want the details of this unfortunate episode ever to make it into the lore and legend of the Point, much less the history books. It’s a blemish. Do you understand?”
“I do, sir. I will keep quiet on the matter, you have my word.”
“Good. Stay with Gibson and let me know as soon as you have any more information. We must root this evil out and put an end to it.”
“Yes, sir,” Edgar replied. “But there’s something else,” he started tentatively, and stopped.
“What then? Go on,” Lee said.
“Forgive me for thinking of myself at such a grave time,” Edgar said. “But preparations for my court-martial continue to advance, and I remind you, sir, of your earlier assurances.”
Lee squinted at him through a veil of blue cigar smoke, and let several seconds tick by, during which Edgar found himself growing ever more uncomfortable.
“Of course I trust you, sir, implicitly,” Edgar said when he could stand the silence no longer. “It’s just that I find this impending trial rather threatening and...” As he searched for words, Lee spoke up in soothing tones.
“Patience, cadet, patience. As long as you face a court-martial, you have credibility with these Helvetian turncoats. If we halt proceedings now, they’ll get suspicious and cut you off.”
“Of course, sir, I understand that.”
“Good. I knew you would; you’re a true-blue soldier and your loyalty shall not go unremarked. But you must stand fast and not yield an inch to the enemy.” Lee clasped Edgar’s shoulder, as if to say ‘we’re in this together’.
“Promise?” the lieutenant asked.
“I promise, sir,” Edgar heard himself say with apparent conviction.
There was something in Lee’s surety of purpose, in his steadfast and confident voice that left no other option than to oblige. “That’s why he is a leader of men,” Edgar thought, “and I am not.”
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott