by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 24 appears
in this issue.
But he put such thoughts out of his mind and concentrated on collecting subscriptions and putting his book in order. He didn’t even attend the season’s card parties and drinking fests, although he probably could have raked in more money for his book. On the other hand, if he got too crocked he might have gambled everything away. So he stayed in his room at night and dreamed of literary fame and good times in New York.
Meanwhile, the month of February ground on under a slag-colored sky that closed on the world like an iron lid as screeching winds funneled down the Hudson from the north, squalling along plutonic cliffs while icicles sprouted like swords from the barracks’ eaves. He spent his time wrapped in his Army-issue woolen blanket, sitting in front of the fireplace and endlessly reading.
As “The Day of the Eclipse” — as Edgar now thought of it — drew closer he could almost feel its pendent shadow. When the morning of February 12th did finally arrive, it was exactly like a succession of other pale dawns. He threw more logs on the burned-out husks in the fireplace and crouched on the stone hearth under his blanket. Then he hung a kettle over the fire for tea and went to his desk to arrange more pages in his book.
He gave the eclipse no more thought until nearly noon, when Tim and Charlie banged on the door. “Come on out and watch the eclipse, you crazy hermit,” Charlie yelled through the door. “Fifteen minutes till curtain time.”
“No thanks. I’ll wait here for the apocalypse.” Edgar said, only half-kidding and getting the expected laughs.
“Suit yourself,” came the response.
From his window Edgar saw the courtyard was already filled with cadets peering heavenward, where the clouds had parted slightly as if in harmony with the cosmic event. Some of the men were squinting through lenses of smoked glass; others were joking and talking, their tone bolder than usual. Edgar thought a fair number appeared nervous and fidgety, but maybe they were just cold.
They all grasped that the eclipse was a purely natural event, driven by the mysterious yet mathematical laws of the universe. Their instructors had seen to that. But no one really knew what, if anything, it portended. Maybe the world was about to end in a shower of fire and molten rock. Maybe a herald of angels — or more likely, demons — was about to appear in the blackening sky. What of their paltry dreams then? What of their hopes and aspirations when they came for them from the underworld?
Even as he assured himself that his fears were absurd, the noonday sky thickened into an unnatural twilight and there was an outcry from the crowd. All eyes were on the heavens and no one spoke as they watched the darkness descend.
Edgar couldn’t bring himself to look at the moon-stained sun, afraid of what he might see, of what might be waiting for him. Instead, he squeezed his eyes shut. But the sun burned into his eyelids and resolved itself into the hawk-like cameo of his stepfather, John Allan. Feeling more bereft and abandoned than ever, he pressed his forehead to the cold and soothing windowpane in hopes of staving off his emotions; but the tears came anyway.
* * *
He was sitting on the floor under the window when a ruckus in the hall brought him around.
Tim came into the room. “Lucia... Lucian’s hanged himself,” he stammered out, his eyes red and watering behind his gold-rimmed spectacles. “During the eclipse.”
They ran up to the third floor, where cadets crowded the hall in front of Lucian and William’s room. Charlie and two other cadets were trying to revive Lucian, who lay limp on his bed in a blue silk robe, a violent red welt ringing his neck like a scar. At the far end of the room a noose drooped from a rafter under a desk he’d turned into a scaffold.
But why? Nothing Lucian had ever said gave hint that he was melancholic or suicidal. On the contrary, he was always full of an aggressive vitality. So how had they missed the signs? Were they all so callow that they failed to perceive he was troubled? Or were they too stung by his insults to ever dream he was vulnerable? An empty decanter of brandy stood upright on a nearby table, next to an overturned glass.
“Help me, Eddy,” Charlie said.
Edgar bent over Lucian and sought for a heart beat. There was none, not the faintest palpitation. Edgar was so numbed he almost missed the paper poking out of the dead man’s robe. Leaning over the body to disguise what he was doing, he seized it. No one noticed; nor did they comment on the lingering smell of roasted hazelnuts.
“There’s nothing we can do,” he said. “His heart has stopped, he’s gone.”
“Let us pray for his soul,” Tim choked out, bowing his head and crossing himself as Charlie turned away with a disconcerting wail, his massive shoulders heaving uncontrollably. As the others sought to console him, Edgar used the opportunity to search Lucian’s pocket. He was rewarded with a thumb-sized piece of opium, which he quickly secreted in his own pocket.
Tim was reciting The Lord’s Prayer when Lieutenant Leslie — Edgar’s prosecutor — came into the room. The other cadets stood by silent and hollow-eyed.
“Go back to your quarters,” Leslie ordered. “All of you.”
Edgar willingly obliged. There was nothing further he could do, and he felt curiously empty about Lucian’s death.
Charlie caught up with him in the stairwell. “William’s going to take this hard,” he said, shaking his head and wiping away his own tears.
“They were good friends,” Edgar said. “Anyhow, it’ll be a week before he finds out.”
“What do you mean?”
“William’s in Washington.”
“Haven’t you heard? He came back last night.”
Edgar stopped at the landing with Charlie’s words echoing off the stone walls.
“He’s back? Are you sure?”
“I spoke with him today,” Charlie said. “He came in on the stage to meet with Thayer before heading west.”
“Where is he now? Tell me.”
“He’s with the old man, far as I know. I hear he’s bunking in the Superintendent’s House. He’s on some special assignment.”
“Damn him,” Edgar said before turning and hurrying down the steps, leaving Charlie to gawp in the stairwell.
There was a guard on duty in front of the Superintendent’s House, and he refused to let Edgar pass. “It’s imperative that I speak with Superintendent Thayer,” Edgar demanded, but the guard, an Army Regular, remained unmoved.
“I’ve got my orders, sir,” he responded. “No one is to be admitted.”
“Go inside, I beg of you, sir, and tell him I must speak to him of William Wilson.”
“Wilson?” the guard said, interested now. “Why, he arrived with my regiment. Isn’t he the one related to the Secretary of War? They’ll take care of him, all right. But you’re out of luck. He left not an hour ago on a stage for Boston to visit with family and won’t be back here for a week. Then we’re all off to fight Indians out west, something you cadets will be doing soon enough.”
“Wilson’s gone? You’re sure of it?”
“Saw him get on board. I escorted him to the stage, under orders from Thayer.”
Edgar thanked the soldier and then headed back to the barracks.
There was no sign of the solar eclipse now. No earthquakes, no volcanoes spewing lava, no celestial demons. Only a few ragged clouds and a winter sun, devoid of warmth. All around him, cadets headed back to their afternoon classes, to their French phrases and their algebraic equations. There was laughter and joking, but he detected an underlying sense of relief that Armageddon was postponed.
For him, however, there was no such respite. He didn’t belong here anymore; he was a guest whose welcome was worn out. A brisk wind was at his back and he put his collar up and walked across The Plain.
He was soon at the base of the Kosciusko monument high above the steely waters of the river. The marble monument, a fluted column of fine milky stone, stood coldly against the sky, oddly out of place in its aerie high above the Hudson valley’s lush wilderness.
Not that there wasn’t evidence of civilization in this wild region. Even at this time of year, boat traffic was heavy on the river below. From this height and against the valley’s vast backdrop, the myriad sloops and flat-bottomed riverboats were like toys, a pleasant reminder of the world beyond West Point.
He looked again at the Greek column, a memorial to the great Polish general who’d helped build fortifications at the Point while whipping the Continental Army’s raw recruits into soldiers. A few stanzas from Keats’ poem honoring Kosciusko sprang to mind:
“It comes upon us like the glorious pealing
Of the wide spheres — an everlasting tone
And now it tells me, that in worlds unknown,
The names of heroes, burst from clouds...”
He couldn’t remember any more of it, but that was enough. He’d never be a hero. His name was not going to peal from the skies of history. He was nobody, nothing, a cipher — unless, somehow, his poems were to make him famous. He suppressed a rueful laugh. Anyway, there was nothing else for him, nothing else he could do. Next week he would board a steamboat for New York, and once he was settled in the great city, he would write. It was that simple. So what if it was nearly impossible to make a living as a poet. Call him a fool; he was going to try.
An icy breeze swept off the river and he put his hands in his coat pockets, whereupon his fingers closed on the torn page he’d taken from poor Lucian. He took it out and stared at it as if it were a dead thing, flesh cut from a cadaver. It was, of course, another fragment from one of his poems.
Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
This much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream.
Lucian hadn’t killed himself. His murderer had gotten him drunk and somehow hoisted him up by the rope. Professor Dupin, too, had quaffed his last drinks and then been hanged. So the murderer had perfected his technique. What kind of man was William — and yes, it had to be William — that he could kill his closest friend, that he could take so many lives with such mocking aplomb?
But there was no evidence linking William to anything; certainly not enough to convince Thayer. It was foolish to even consider it anymore.
He looked down the valley at the river coursing through rock and wilderness. To the north, on the other side of the Hudson, he could see the village of Cold Spring and the handful of imposing brick buildings that made up the West Point Foundry. A plume of black smoke sailed from the foundry’s stacks, no doubt dropping stink and poison on the inhabitants below. Up and down the river there were other blotches in the sky, some from the steamboats that increasingly plied the river, others from encroaching towns. Maybe William and the Helvetians had it right, the world was going to hell. Maybe these newfangled machines, this new industry, were mankind’s ruin.
For a glimmering instant he saw the future river hemmed in on both shores by enormous smokestacks that vomited into skies blacker than any eclipse, while in the darkened streets below people fled the rain of ash and cinders.
February 19th, his last day at the Point, dawned under a pallid sky. The temperature was well below freezing and high winds rattled the barracks windows.
In a dream the night before, he’d made it to New York to write. But without money, he had wound up living in a hole gouged in the sandy soil at the mouth of the Hudson. Other people lived in holes nearby and small campfires burned among the weeds. It was sunset and the sky was streaked a dirty pink. He remembered wishing he had a fire, too, but thinking it wasn’t that bad; at least he had a decent hole. He woke from the dream feeling sick with despair and went straight to his desk to write.
For an hour on that frigid morning he had tried to compose a letter to his stepfather. It was a bitter, accusatory screed about Allan’s lack of support, both moral and financial, and he read and re-read it. Finally, deciding that it sounded petty, he crumpled it and crushed it into his pocket.
When the time came to leave, he stepped into the hall and quietly shut the door to Room No. 28. He was dressed in civilian habiliment: a threadbare black suit — his only suit — and a light frockcoat meant for autumn weather. In his hand he carried a cheap leather satchel containing a shirt, a pair of britches, some books, and of course, his writings — all he owned, other than what was on his back.
Most of the cadets were in class and the barracks were still. He thought about having breakfast at the mess before walking over to South Dock to catch his boat, but decided against it. He didn’t want to meet any of his friends, or anyone else for that matter. He wanted to leave without fanfare or good-byes, to disappear like a phantom.
Anyhow, he’d had the foresight to tuck away pieces of bread and jerked beef, enough sustenance to get him to New York. There he’d be on his own, and would have to look for a job. He dreamed of landing a writing or editing position at one of the literary magazines, but menial labor at a print shop was more likely. He’d do whatever it took to keep body and soul together to write.
He left the barracks through a side door to limit his chances of attracting attention, and was soon on the road to the dock. Sunshine split the clouds, dressing them in gold and giving his departure an unwelcome gaiety. Still, the February cold persisted, constricting his chest and causing him to cough, which in turn reminded him of his brother. He would write Henry as soon as he was established in New York and invite him to visit. They’d have a grand time exploring the city — and they’d sure as hell avoid the Five Points.
A side-wheeler waited at the dock, discharging steam and smoke into the frosty air. He was just in time. A small crowd had gathered to say farewell to friends and loved ones, and there was laughing and hugging and even a tearful farewell or two. He was standing on line preparing to board, when someone called his name. He turned to find Charlie and Tim running onto the wooden dock and waving at him.
Behind them, smiling broadly, came William.
Tim was the first to reach him.
“Were you really sneaking off without saying farewell?” he said, and took Edgar’s hand.
“We’ve been spying on you, waiting for you to leave your room,” said Charlie. “Look who we brought with us.”
Charlie stepped aside so William could greet him.
Edgar didn’t have the presence of mind to withdraw his hand and William pumped it like a politician, as though Edgar was his bosom buddy and the most beloved friend he’d ever had.
“I’m sorry you’re leaving,” William said. “You got a raw deal, Eddie. West Point is run by a bunch of wrongheaded fools and charlatans.”
Edgar was unable to speak, though he wanted desperately to scream “murderer” at William and reveal him to the world. As if party to his thoughts, the boat’s steam whistle loosed a deafening shriek, and passengers began to push aboard. He was still trying to recover his hearing and summon up some curse for William when the second blast sounded longer and louder than the first. Tim and Charlie and William all thrust gaudily wrapped gifts into his arms and shouted their good-byes as the press of bodies swept him up the gangplank. The raw-throated whistle sounded again, and he barely had time to glance over his shoulder at the three cadets waving and cheering among the throngs on the dock.
Once on board, he broke from the swarm and went straight to the deck behind the pilothouse at the stern. The wind had died down but it was still cold, and except for a young man and woman holding each other at the rail, he was alone. The entwined couple unfortunately reminded him of Eleanor and himself, and his heart sank. He thought briefly about going inside, but decided to watch the cliffs of West Point slip away. Without meaning to, he found Charlie among the spectators on shore. His eye then sought out William, and found him grinning and waving as the sun broke through a bank of dirty clouds.
He put the gifts the cadets had given him down on a bench, and folded his arms around himself to keep warm. One of the brightly wrapped presents was obviously a bottle, and Edgar picked it up and tore off the paper to find a good brandy. He uncorked it and lifted it to his lips, drinking more than enough to ease the chill.
The boat whistle screamed yet again and was followed by the deep, internal rumbling of the steam engine. The vibrations shuddered through the hull like some great beast coming to life below decks, shaking him to his marrow. The boat lurched away from the dock and the wind picked up, driving the two young lovers inside.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott