by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 22 appears
in this issue.
January 28th was one of those balmy, teasing days that sometimes occur in the middle of even the most severe of New York winters. The sky was cruelly sunny and birds were singing as though it were May. Edgar was amazed at how false it all seemed, coming on the day of his court-martial. Fortunately, he’d found a good-sized crumb of opium in his desk drawer that morning while looking for an inkpot. Henry had probably put it there and forgotten about it. Edgar had immediately fired up a pipe.
The anodyne worked its magic and he entered the courtroom feeling quite at ease, despite the two uniformed cadets in lockstep at his side. He actually had to suppress a smile, lest members of the grim-faced military tribunal interpret it as a smirk.
The high-chambered room, or gallery, was still except for a few hushed murmurs and the rustle of clothing as spectators squirmed on their hardwood benches, breathing in the astringent odors of soap and lye, along with the lanolin smell of perspiration-soaked wool. Some folk sighed thankfully whenever a newcomer came through the courthouse doors and refreshed the room with a blast of cold air.
The cadets marched Edgar to the front of the room, stopping before the judge. After that, the procedure was all a blur and he went in and out of consciousness as he stood on the docket listening to his prosecutor, one Lieutenant Thomas J. Leslie of the Corps of Engineers, ordinarily a decent enough chap. The judge was another officer whom Edgar faintly recognized under his ridiculous powdered wig, but whose name evaded him.
Four cadets were on the jury and a scattering of officers and cadets sat watching the proceedings from the pew-like benches in the gallery. Among them was Gant, who unflinchingly met his gaze. Thomas Gibson was also there, no doubt a witness against him. He looked away when Edgar winked at him.
There was a period of waiting that went on forever, and Edgar thought he was about to pass out when Leslie cleared his phlegmy throat.
“Stand at attention, sir,” he commanded. Edgar rose from his chair at the front of the room.
“Yes, sir,” he replied, his tongue logy with opium.
“And stop your mumbling,” Leslie ordered. “Be precise in your speech and manner; your honor depends on it. Do you object to being tried by these men?” He indicated the bench.
“No, sir,” Edgar answered, thinking “NO, NO and NO. Get it over with. Throw me out and let me be free of this place.”
The courtroom was filled with an echoing stillness that was punctuated by a single, suppressed cough from somewhere in the back, and then Leslie began his assault: “Then the court will proceed with the trial of Cadet E.A. Poe of the U.S. Military Academy on the following Charges and Specifications: Charge, first: gross neglect of duty. Specification, first: Cadet E.A. Poe did absent himself from the following parades and roll calls between the seventh of January and the twenty-seventh...”
Edgar couldn’t recall every date, but he had certainly absented himself on January the nineteenth, his twenty-second birthday. He’d had a proper celebration, just him and a bottle, and he’d gotten stinking in his barracks room. He’d lost the next day, too. So what?
Leslie continued with his nasal droning and after a while Edgar was only vaguely aware of the accusations as he lost himself in an opium-addled ecstasy, envisioning himself in New York City ensconced in some literary salon, reading poetry and deflowering adoring women.
Still, random bits of Leslie’s “specifications” intruded, and he heard mentioned several dates in January when he was allegedly absent from roll calls, evening parade, reveille, guard mounting and even church. The charges, many of which were undeniably true, went on interminably. There was so much information in fact, that a squadron of Gant’s minions must have run around harassing professors and tac officers for their record books just so he could build an ironclad case against that lowly excuse of a man and soldier, E.A. Poe. There was also something in there about “disobedience of orders,” followed by another long ramble. It was all a shameful litany and if it hadn’t been for the opium, Edgar was sure he’d have given a damn.
So seductive was the drug that not even the witnesses kept his attention. When Thomas took the stand, Edgar tried to listen, but it was all so tedious. Thomas was hanging by a thread at the Point, and he’d say anything to save his own neck. Edgar couldn’t blame him, either. When he went into a tortuous description of the night they pulled off the prank with the goose and the fraudulent severed head, Edgar dove back into his dreams. By the time another witness, Cadet Miller, was called to give his account of Edgar’s sins, his eyes were half-closed with drowsiness. “Morpheus,” Edgar muttered to himself and was startled when Leslie called his name at the volume of a pistol shot.
“Sorry, sir,” Edgar said woozily. “Were you addressing me?”
The chamber’s walls resounded with laughter.
“I apologize for waking you, Cadet Poe,” Leslie said. He let the room go silent until all eyes were on Edgar. “Now stop your slumping and stand attention! I ask you again, sir: What is your plea?”
“My plea?” Edgar repeated, barely audible in the large room.
“Stop your mumbling and answer the question.”
Edgar straightened up at the podium. “Not guilty to the first specification of the first charge, sir,” he said, fully awake now. “I did not miss on all those dates, sir. Only most of them.”
A titter went through the courtroom.
“And the other charges?”
“Oh, yes sir,” Edgar said. “I’m definitely guilty, sir.”
This was too much for the cadets in the courtroom and they loosed a barrage of laughter that continued until a glowering Leslie stifled them with raised hands.
“Do you have anything else to say for yourself before deliberations, cadet?”
“Just that I’m sorry for my wrongs and that I have tried to honor both the Academy and my country. I have tried, sir, to do the right thing.”
In the gallery, Gant rolled his eyes.
“That’s all then?” said Leslie.
“Then let deliberations begin.”
Edgar was left standing while the jury members convened among themselves. He stayed alert for a while and then slipped into another daydream. He was a famous and handsomely paid author on a speaking tour of the United States. Everywhere he went, he was greeted with admiration and applause and when he wasn’t reading his poems in front of thousands of ardent admirers, he was writing in his Boston mansion. Servants fell all over themselves to minister his every whim, and he wore only the finest habiliments ate the most delightful meals and drank the best wine. That was his destiny, his future and his reward — he was sure of it.
There was a lot of shuffling and shouts of “call to order” and when his mind returned to the courtroom, Leslie stood in front of him. He spoke with an almost laughable gravity. “Cadet E.A. Poe,” he said, “you are dismissed from the service of the United States and cease to be a member of the Military Academy after the sixth of March, eighteen thirty-one.”
And that was it; his glorious military career was over. He was just another civilian now. No drums, no bugles, no marches, no pennants in the wind. It was as though a heavy door had slammed behind him while another opened before him, and he was giddy with expectation. Almost against his will he found himself smiling at Leslie, who was not the least bit amused.
As he walked out of the courtroom and into the chilly sunshine, his head buzzed with the after-effects of the drug and the daylight dazzled his eyes.
Charlie and Tim were waiting for him.
“You never stood a chance against those bastards,” Tim said. “Far as I’m concerned, you’re one of the finest soldier-scholars to ever come to this forsaken place. I salute you.”
“He’s right,” Charlie said, his face florid. “The blackguards stacked the deck against you.”
Still in a daze, Edgar thanked them. But he wanted them to go away so he could be alone. “I brought it on myself. If I’d just stuck to my studies, everything would be different.”
“How can you say that?” Tim said. “Everyone knows the Helvetians are behind this. Rumor has it that several of them have been arrested and that our William helped break up the gang. That’s why he’s down in Washington; he’s under round-the-clock guard to keep him from being assassinated.”
“Don’t believe any of it,” Edgar said.
“I just got a letter from him,” Charlie said. “The Army’s sending him out west to herd Indians. Old Hickory’s moving them all to Oklahoma. And Will says the Helvetians are suspicious of you, Edgar, that you’re still considered an enemy. He wanted to warn you.”
“He’s a liar. He’s as much a part of it as anyone.”
“He’s your friend. He’s stopping back here before he goes west because he wants to see you.”
“That’s a fine sentiment,” Edgar said. “But I don’t want to see him. Tell him if he comes near me, I’ll wring his fucking neck.” He raised his hands, as if to push his friends back. They stared at him, stupefied.
“I want everyone to leave me alone. Just leave me alone.”
He stalked away toward the barracks, but was soon on the path to Eleanor’s house, tripping over roots and rocks along the way. He would see her today and her rummy uncle better not come between them, he didn’t care how big he was.
A small flock of crows followed him through the woods, screeching and scolding from the branches, reminding him of the raven at Shockhoe Cemetery all those years ago when Fanny died. This time, though, the graveyard memory also brought thoughts of another woman, of Jane, his first real love. She, too, was buried in Shockhoe, which was fitting, for it had been one of her favorite haunts when she was alive. They had gone there many times together to read the epitaphs and admire the peaceful necropolis.
And they had made love there, too; his first time. She had treated him so tenderly there among the bracken and daisies behind a forgotten mausoleum. He had realized then that she was not sane, a married woman of thirty defying all social conventions to lie with a fifteen-year-old boy in the shadow of a crypt. But it was exciting beyond anything he’d ever experienced, and she was a true beauty, with the palest skin and darkest eyes he’d ever seen.
After that, they saw each other often, trysting in their secret nest among the graves through an entire spring and summer. She loved poetry almost as much as lovemaking and she taught him much about both arts. And then in the fall, as the foliage lost its color, she changed, too, turning morose and caustic, and then incoherent.
In the end, her family sent her to a sanitarium and she died frail of mind and body in her thirty-first year. He was heartbroken; but also deeply ashamed. For she was a married woman, a Christian — the mother of one of his school chums.
In the years since her death, he’d often wondered what part her own guilt had played in her insanity. Was she so ashamed that it drove her mad? Or was it simply God’s retribution for their sins?
* * *
As he neared the clearing around Eleanor’s house, he was startled to see a great black carriage waiting out front. He watched from the shelter of the woods, his heart shivering in his chest as two black-clad figures, one of them Zebulon, came out the front door. They busied themselves about the death wagon, pulling back its dark curtains in preparation for its hideous cargo. Edgar saw them exchange words but could hear only “We’ll have to fetch it, I reckon.” Zebulon shrugged. The two men mounted their horses and rode off at a brisk trot.
“Don’t let it be Eleanor,” he said to himself, as he bent over and ran around the back, seized by a terrifying panic. But with Zeb alive, that left only Eleanor or her mother. The back door was locked and without hesitation he smashed out one of its windowpanes, fumbled open the latch, and stepped inside, where the faint, sweet, overripe odor of death was waiting for him. He had expected it, and it wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but every living particle in his body was repelled as he made his way along the darkened hallway toward its source.
And then he was in the parlor and there on its throne was the open coffin, and in the awful onyx box was his beautiful Eleanor. He went to his knees as if struck a blow. There was no one else in the shuttered room to hear his wail or see the tears that scalded his cheeks and it seemed that he cried into his hands for hours before he found the strength to stand again and go to her.
He kissed her still and oval face over and over with all his being, tasting the coolness of her skin and the rouge on her cheeks. Nothing mattered now except that he loved her and she was gone. Gone. His tears splashed on her pale forehead, and in the recesses of his mind he hoped his fiery grief would revive her.
Then, unable to help himself, he climbed into the oblong box with his darling and held her close, determined to go with her into the underworld. Crying and shaking and calling her name he caressed his love for what seemed hours, at length falling exhausted into a soothing dream where the death-weary present disappeared and they were holding hands and laughing again on Flirtation Walk, the Hudson a ribbon of blue sunshine below.
And then he was ripped bodily from his swoon by Zebulon, who swore at the top of his lungs about blasphemy and eternal hellfire as he dashed him to the floor. “I’ll kill you, you sacrilegious scum,” Zebulon boomed and smashed a hard-knuckled fist into Edgar’s chest. With Eleanor’s mother keening in the background, Zeb ran from the room howling for someone to get him his shotgun. Edgar got unsteadily to his feet.
“Get out of here, now!” Eleanor’s mother cried. “He will surely shoot you if he finds his gun.” She took him by the hand and led him to the back door. “Go on,” she said. “Run.”
He ran for the pines, which stood like dark guardians against the wintry sky.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott