by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 21 appeared
in issue 191.
“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 thrust the pistol back in his coat and ran the quarter-mile back to Eleanor’s house, slipping twice in the snow on the way. When Zebulon opened the door, his eyes were mean and bloodshot and he aimed his shotgun at Edgar’s chest.
“What about Douglas?” Edgar said, out of breath from running.
Zeb looked at him, perplexed. “What’re you jabbering about?”
“Douglas — you said he brought nothing but trouble.”
Zebulon, lowered the shotgun, but only an inch or so.
“My brother invested some hard-earned money with that old pirate in that cockeyed Tilly Foster mine across the river. They were going to supply iron to the foundry, or some such foolishness. Douglas was going to make Ben rich, is what he said. Instead, Ben’s dead and Douglas is living it up in France. Did you know that? He left the country within a fortnight of Ben’s murder. Maybe he’s the murderer, eh? Good luck bringing a rich man to justice.”
He raised the shotgun again. “I’ve said all I’m gonna say, so git movin’. G’wan, git.”
Edgar got out of there with as much dignity as he could muster under the circumstances, while Zebulon stood in the doorway backlit by candlelight watching his retreat.
As he hiked through the woods this time, his thoughts were filled with images of murder: Old Ben, Ridley, Dupin, the prostitutes. Their death masks all floated on the path before him, and a pattern began to emerge.
Ridley, Dupin and Ben all had ties to the West Point Foundry, a connection for which Edgar was sure they died.
Ridley was in charge of guards at the foundry, Dupin was the engineer who oversaw some of the more secret work there, and Ben had invested in a mine with Douglas that shipped ore to the plant.
So Douglas knew there was a plot. Why else would he have fled so soon after Dupin’s death? Ben’s murder had raised his suspicion, and Dupin’s had confirmed it: he was next on the list.
But what exactly were they involved with at the foundry that drew the Helvetians’ attention? Then he remembered stumbling through the woods on another night like this, except that it was autumn, not deep winter. William had ranted on about steam power and that “infernal engine,” The Best Friend of Charleston.
It was William who’d worked under Ridley at the foundry, it was William who had the diagram of The Best Friend in his possession, and it was William who was familiar with Edgar’s poetry and who might have left behind the bloodstained scraps. This was a conclusion Henry had hinted at weeks before, but Edgar hadn’t dared to entertain. In any event, those who had seen the killer described him as having dark hair and mustache, and the man Edgar had glimpsed fit that description.
William, however, had straw-colored hair and was without whiskers, other than sideburns. But along with the engineering diagrams in his cabinet there were theatrical props, including a dark wig and a mustache he could glue on with resin, a common enough actor’s ploy. Edgar redoubled his pace through the woods.
A bugle was blowing the evening tattoo when he got back to the barracks, and many of the cadets had already turned in. He went to William’s floor and knocked on his door.
“Hold on, hold on,” someone said inside. There was a rattling at the lock and Lucian poked his head out.
“What?” he said with annoyance, his breath a gust of stale beer and scorched opium.
“He’s not here.”
Lucian started to close the door, but Edgar put his shoulder to it and forced it open.
“What’s the matter with you?” Lucian said.
“Shut up,” Edgar snapped, his pistol in his hand. “Where’s William?”
The gun seemed to wake Lucian up. “He left. He went to Washington to see his father.”
Edgar’s eyes swept the room with its opulent curtains, paintings and teak bedsteads. William’s bed was neatly made, the plump, vaguely effeminate pillows tucked tightly under the plush coverlet.
“No he’s not,” someone said behind him.
Edgar turned to find Gant and the red-headed cadet standing in the doorway, pistols drawn.
“Put down the gun,” Gant said.
Edgar looked at the pistol in his hand and his surroundings came into a strange and preternatural focus, as though he were peering through a telescope that revealed heretofore undreamed-of clarity. If ever there was an opportunity to end his life, this was it. At this range, their Minie balls would rip clean through him, instantly sending him into the next world. It was an enticing proposition.
“Drop the damn gun,” Gant said. “Don’t give me an excuse to kill you.”
The room was quiet, except for Edgar’s breathing.
“Damn you Gant, you’re making a mistake,” Edgar said, and let the pistol slip from his hand. It clattered to the floor and Gant’s cadet sprang for it.
Gant stepped up to Edgar and struck him on the side of the head with the butt of his gun. Edgar went straight down and lay semi-conscious on the floor until he felt himself yanked back to his feet.
“This time, you’re going to stay locked up,” Gant said.
They were outside the barracks and halfway across the yard when a group led by Superintendent Thayer and several Army Regulars intercepted them.
“Attention!” barked one of the Regulars, an officer Edgar didn’t recognize.
Gant let go of Edgar and saluted.
“What’s all the commotion?” Thayer thundered. “Why am I roused from my work at this hour to investigate ‘trouble’, as someone put it, and why, pray tell, are there guns here? Explain yourselves.”
“I sent no one to disturb you, sir,” Gant said.
“I never said you summoned me, officer. I have my own eyes and ears, I know when there’s something afoot. Now what is the matter this time?”
“This man’s committed treason,” Gant said. “He burned down the shed and I believe he was planning to torch the Academy Building. I caught him holding a gun on another cadet when I arrived shortly after someone tipped me that he was in the barracks.”
A full minute passed before Thayer spoke again, and Gant didn’t dare say a word.
“You’re accusing Cadet Poe of attempting to burn down the Academy Building? Where’s your evidence, lieutenant?”
“An informant of mine saw him running from the fire at the shed.”
“Bull, sir! We’ve interviewed your man, Miller, and he saw no one.”
“I’ve someone else, sir,” Gant said.
“Who’s this new informant, then?”
“I can’t say in the open like this.”
“Yes you can. I order you to.”
Gant saw that Thayer meant it. “Cadet Gibson said he was with Poe, sir. Poe goaded him into setting the fire.”
“That’s it? That’s the best you have?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “So we’re to court-martial Poe on the word of a known arsonist? Didn’t Gibson start a fire in his own room a few months back? Wasn’t he a suspect in that other fire at Fort Putnam? “
“Well, yes, sir,” Gant hesitated.
“Then I don’t want to hear any more until you’ve got evidence. Cadet Poe stands accused of various other transgressions, however, and he will be prosecuted on those charges.”
With a gloved hand, he signaled the Army Regulars to take Edgar into custody.
“You are dismissed, lieutenant.”
Humiliated, Gant turned on his heels and Edgar was led away.
Once in Thayer’s office, the superintendent asked him to sit down. The only light in the room came from a fire in the hearth, which turned Thayer’s face into a haggard mask of creases and crevices. His efforts to resurrect the Point’s reputation since Partridge got the boot in ’17 had exacted a toll, and most people would have guessed he was ten years older.
As if privy to Edgar’s thoughts, Thayer groaned like an old man and settled back in his creaky chair to stare into the fire. He was quiet for so long that Edgar finally spoke up. “Is something wrong, sir?”
Thayer swiveled his leonine head to meet Edgar’s eyes. “Of course something’s wrong, Mr. Poe. You wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
“Too late for that, young man.”
When Thayer spoke again it was with sadness, not reproach. “I truly believe you are an exceptional young man. You hold much promise. But there’s something in you, a bad streak, a melancholy vein that interferes with your destiny. Or maybe it is your destiny, I don’t know. That said, I like you and I want you to succeed, so what I have to say next is painful.” He sighed and went on. “You do not belong here.”
The words resonated in the room and they made Edgar heartsick because it was true: he didn’t belong there. He was lost. The dream he’d once had of testing his mettle at West Point, of becoming an officer and maturing into manhood with direction and purpose, was gone: broken, smashed, nullified.
Thayer saw the stricken look on his face and tried to ease the hurt. “I’m sorry, but I can only be forthright. As I say, you have other talents and it’s best you follow them wherever they take you.”
Edgar fought to compose himself. He wasn’t going to let this great man see him break down like a child.
What about the court-martial?” he asked. “Lieutenant Lee told me it might be dismissed.”
“Yes, Lee and I both hoped that everything could be tidied up neatly. But since then the situation has gotten quite out of hand in more ways than one. Your record is such that letting you off with a reprimand would raise questions.”
“Questions, sir?” asked Edgar in astonishment. “But I'm just one cadet among many...”
“Nonetheless,” Thayer replied firmly, “questions. In Washington, my opponents will use any appearance of inconsistency as a political weapon. But that's my concern. Yours is your life. Others will become even more suspicious. If you stay, you will certainly be murdered.”
Edgar needed no explanations. He followed Thayer's lead. “At my last meeting with Lieutenant Lee we discussed William. He’s at the center of a conspiracy to destroy the foundry and give Partridge the opportunity to oust you. That’s the plan, I’m telling you.”
In his anxiety Edgar had let his voice rise almost to a shout. “I'm sorry, sir. The world is mad, not I.”
“That’s the most sensible thing you’ve said since coming in here,” Thayer said. “The world has gone mad. And some of us are here to prevent it from getting worse. That’s why West Point exists, son. To keep the world spinning in its proper orbit.”
He came around the desk and stood in front of Edgar. “I’m not supposed to say more, but to keep you from doubting your own sanity I will tell you that you’ve done an excellent job in helping rout these so-called Helvetians. The foundry is no longer threatened and plans to destroy The Best Friend and other locomotives have been foiled. We have the situation well under control.”
Edgar started to speak, but Thayer raised his hand. “You will listen, and that is all. Once I’ve spoken, there will be no further discussion.”
He took a breath and continued. “William Wilson is in Washington for a couple of weeks. He’s to graduate this spring and will come back for the ceremony. But then he’s going west to Oklahoma Territory to help implement President Jackson’s program to relocate the Indians. I’m sure you know that William is related to the Secretary of War...” he trailed off. “His orders came from the very top.”
“But William might be a murderer, sir.”
“I said you were not to interrupt. In any event, there’s no evidence that William is connected to anything that’s transpired over the last few months. None at all, except for your claims.
“And who are you, anyway, Mr. Poe? You are a spring colt, an errant cadet who is not even going to complete his first year at West Point. In other words — and it hurts me to say it — you are a nobody and no one will believe anything you say, especially with your record as a prankster and chief jack-a-ninny.”
His harsh words were too disconcerting for Edgar to even formulate a reply.
“So go back to your barracks and stay there until you’re summoned to court,” Thayer said. “Forget about Lee, forget about William. There’s nothing more for us to say. Go now.”
Edgar stood up, saluted, and left the room.
As soon as he was gone, Thayer’s stony features softened and he slumped forward on his desk, his head in his hands.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott