by Jack Alcott
|Table of Contents|
Part 24 and part 25
appear in this issue.
He was alone on the deck now, and in a few minutes the crowd on shore would recede behind the next promontory. It occurred to him that, if he was so moved, he could lean over the boat’s rail and be done with his life. He looked over his shoulder and up at the pilothouse. There was no one in the window, so he was unwatched. He took another pull on the brandy.
He could certainly kill himself if he liked, but what of all his grand plans? What of all those unwritten poems and maybe even stories? The liquor was already deadening his senses and firing his brain. He stared into the foaming river and drank again for courage. As he did, one of the unopened gifts on the bench caught his eye. No effort had been made to hide its shape under the wrapping; it was a pipe. And the other present, the one William had given him? A flat rectangle wrapped in expensive gold-embossed paper — a book.
He put down the bottle and picked up William’s gift, his heart pounding in concert with the boat’s thrashing paddlewheels. Before he’d even stripped the paper off, he knew what it was. A tremor went through him when he saw the vellum-bound cover of Tamarlane and Other Poems and he frantically thumbed it open to find whole pages ravaged and torn from it, while others were mottled with dark stains that could only be blood. He looked up at the crowd on the dock a hundred yards away to see William still waving and smiling, waving and smiling.
The boat rounded a spit of land that jutted into the river, and the dock was gone. With a curse, Edgar flung the book over the rail, where it disappeared into the river with hardly a ripple just as he heard footsteps come up behind him. He turned, expecting the lovers who’d departed earlier; instead, Zebulon stood on the deck pointing a pistol at him.
“What are you doing here?” was all Edgar could get out.
“I’m here for thee, boy,” the giant rumbled. “I’ve me orders.” He took a step forward, a little unsteadily; he had obviously been drinking.
“For the love of God, Zebulon, what is your part in this?”
“You’re not so smart as they say, are you boy?” the big man said, with a glance up at the pilothouse. “Me and Lieutenant Gant, we had a deal and I’m holding up my end.”
“The Helvetians? You’re not military.”
“Used to be. I was at the Point when Partridge got throwed out. Fact is, Thayer ended my career in ’17. Said I wasn’t officer material.”
He looked over his shoulder again at the pilothouse and held his gun close to his waist. Anyone peering down would have seen two men having an apparently gentlemanly conversation.
“You murdered your own brother.”
“I didn’t kill Ben,” Zebulon snarled. “He asked for it, though. I told him not to go into business with Douglas. Certain parties didn’t like what was going on at the foundry. Douglas was warned, too, but he turned his back on Partridge so’s he could get rich selling ’em iron ore.”
Edgar saw the whole scheme unfold. “You gave William the key to the tavern, and he went in and did the dirty work. You got your revenge on Thayer and you got Ben’s property. In exchange, you’d shut down the mines and disrupt the foundry so it looked like Thayer had lost control of the Point. Which is what Gant and Partridge wanted.”
“You know what it’s like being the younger brother, even when you’re all growed? All my life, I worked for big brother Ben. He owed me. Now he’s paid up.”
“And the other murders, they were all William’s?”
“Gant trained him in the assassin’s art.”
“You call butchering innocent women assassinations?”
“The whores? Them worthless bitches? When the bloodlust comes over Mad Willy he can’t help hisself. He just likes killing. The others, well, Ridley was a bad drunk. His tongue got loose and he was telling his whore too much about the Helvetians, the assassinations, everything.
“What he didn’t know was that Gant laid with her, too. The lieutenant went round the bend when he found out Ridley was giving away secrets. He got rid of them both, though he didn’t like the way Willy did the deed.”
“What about Eleanor, your own flesh and blood?”
“I was mad at William about that, at first. But I got more of Ben’s estate, so it weren’t so bad.”
“You lowly snake,” Edgar spat and lunged for him, ready to eat a bullet, but Zebulon struck him down with the butt of his pistol.
“And what of Lucian?” Edgar uttered weakly from where he fell, barely conscious on the deck. Even as death approached, he needed the mysteries solved — especially as death approached.
“Willy’s bunk-mate, the one was hanged? Them two never got along. Or maybe the buggers got along too good, being so close and all, if you get my meaning.”
He let that sink in and then raised his gun. “Anyways, no one will miss him — or you, either. The Helvetians warned you and your brother both, but they think you can still cause trouble. They took care of Ben for me; now I’ve got to hold up my end and finish you, and I’m very happy to oblige.”
The boat whistle split the air again and Zebulon instinctively looked up at the pilot house, drunkenly tripping over his own boots. As he reeled, Edgar sprang for him, shutting his eyes against the lead ball he was sure would blow his brains into the river.
A pistol shot joined the whistle blast, ringing like a hammer blow off the stony cliffs. Then there was only the acrid smell of black powder and the steady, waterfall rhythm of the paddle wheels.
He opened his eyes, amazed to be alive — and then Zebulon’s massive bulk rammed him into the rail. He threw him off but slipped on a slick of blood and went down. At first he thought the blood was his own; but Zebulon lay motionless on the deck, his sightless eyes already fogging with death. At that instant Edgar sensed someone behind him and spun round, ready to kill or be killed, whichever came first.
There on the deck, as cocksure as ever, stood Henry, a still-smoking pistol in his hand. “Close one,” he said, grinning as though he’d just won another hand at cards. “Lucky your big brother was looking out for you.”
Thunderstruck, Edgar watched as Henry ambled over and kicked Zebulon with his boot. “Help me throw this garbage overboard, will you,” he said. “I hate to defile the river, but someone might notice it on the deck and start asking questions.” He let his eyes wander to the pilothouse and then back to Edgar, who snapped out of his trance.
Together they pulled the corpse to its feet and held it against the rail, the dead man’s head lolling like a drunk’s on Henry’s shoulder. “Had a wee too much to drink, did you?” Henry said to the corpse, with a merry wink at Edgar. “Watch it, friend, you might fall overboard. Uh-oh — too late.”
Edgar took the cue and they hefted Zebulon up against the gunwale and heaved him over; the body plunged into the churning water and was gone.
“Death was in that poisonous wave,” Henry said, laughing and coughing into his gloved hand.
“And in its gulf a fitting grave,” Edgar finished. It was a stanza from “The Lake,” one of their poems.
“You write that?”
“No, you did, Henry.”
“Not bad. Where’d you be without me, brother?”
“Dead,” Edgar said, the word seeming to fall from his lips and into the river’s black current.
April 1831, New York City
The shabbily furnished room near Madison Square was without heat because he couldn’t afford firewood, so he hunched in his clothes under a blanket at his desk where Henry’s unopened letter waited for him. His left ear felt as if someone was sticking a hot poker into it and he pressed a handkerchief to it and wiped away a bloody discharge.
He’d been ill for a week now, unable to work at his job sweeping the floor of a local print shop. The owner had promised to train him to set type; now he’d probably fire him. This was not the glorious writing life he’d imagined. As a matter of fact, the only thing he’d written since stepping off the boat was a letter to his stepfather pleading for money. All of his energies went toward earning enough to keep a roof over his head and food in his belly, and he was failing miserably even at that. The landlady, a hugely bloated widow in her forties who smelled of onions and beer, had demanded his rent twice today. Worse, she had hinted darkly that there might be another way to pay his keep and then let her lecherous eyes wander over his emaciated frame in a most grotesque and suggestive way. It was all too repulsive and he wondered how he had ever let himself fall so low.
As if in answer, his gaze shifted to a stack of identical volumes pushed to one corner of the scarred desk. The unsold copies of his newly published Poems by Edgar A. Poe; he couldn’t give the things away. Bound in ghastly green boards and printed on the cheapest paper, they were a miserable production. So this was his immortality? What a cruel joke. The slight books would fall apart within a year, if they lasted that long. He’d shipped a box of them to West Point anyway, and he hoped his subscribers would be satisfied, if not impressed. Maybe the dedication to “The U.S. Corps of Cadets” would make them happy.
There was a pulsing in his ear again, and he dabbed at it with the handkerchief. The cloth came away clotted with blood and his thoughts turned to Henry. He held the envelope up in the weak light that filtered through the grease-fogged window. The elegant, spidery script was unmistakable and he used his penknife to slit the letter open. A black pebble of opium fell onto the desk.
“Thank you, Henry. Hallelujah.”
The drug was indeed a godsend that would help alleviate the pain in his ear. With trembling fingers, he slipped the letter out of the envelope, opened it and read:
I pray that you are well and that the muse is with you in New York. I can’t wait to hear about your adventures in that metropolis.
Unfortunately, I’ve been ill and am laid up at Aunt Maria’s house in Baltimore. Auntie is well, although worried about my condition, as she calls it. She is very attentive and sees to my every need, and I thank God for putting me in the hands of such a saint. The cursed fever, however, has crept deeper into my chest and it steals my breath even before it is drawn. The infection has worsened over the past few weeks and I am forced to spend most of my days abed, reading. Thankfully, I have a stock of good books and brandy to see me through.
In any event, before this latest onset of symptoms I had all my strength and made a visit to our old hometown of Richmond that might interest you.
I’ll regale you with the details when you come to Baltimore. I hope that is soon.
Edgar put the letter down. His brother was dying, that much was clear. He wouldn’t ask him to come to Baltimore unless that was the case. His trip to Richmond more than likely fanned the embers of his consumption and set his lungs on fire. Why had he risked his health to go there? What could be so important?
Edgar got up from his desk and started packing. He was tired of scraping by in New York, anyway. It was crushing him.
August 1, 1831, Baltimore
Henry was only twenty-four and his young body, although diseased and abused, kept death at bay through the spring and into the summer. Edgar spent his days at his side, reading to him or filling him in on the latest news and gossip from around town. They’d become closer than ever, and Edgar felt that a part of him would surely follow Henry to the grave.
On this first day of August the temperature was particularly brutal, and the room’s plaster walls were damp with a humid sheen. Henry spent much of the day in a delirium, moaning and tossing on his bed in the tiny room at the back of the house while Edgar and Aunt Maria tried in vain to keep his body cool with poultices and baths. He was now no more than a skeleton draped in skin and it was horrible to see him so spent.
Edgar was at his bedside reading to himself in the waning afternoon light when Henry stirred from a troubled sleep. For the first time in days he spoke clearly and sensibly. “Be a good man and fetch me that bottle of brandy, will you? Where I’m going there might not be a drop, so I want my fair share while I’m here.”
Edgar could only smile and comply, helping Henry to sit up and holding the bottle to his lips. He drank like a nursing babe, and the spirits brought color to his cheeks and put a spark back in his faded eyes. “That’s better,” he said, sinking back on his pillow. “Thank you.”
Minutes passed and a tropical gust blew through the open window, fluttering the curtains.
“I haven’t told you about my trip to Richmond yet, have I?”
“No, Henry, you haven’t. You’ve been teasing me with it for months.”
“Suspense. Mystery. That’s what drama’s all about, Eddy, remember that. Save the best for last. Keep them turning the pages.”
“So are you going to tell me about Richmond?”
“Oh, yes,” Henry chortled and gagged into his hand. When he stopped coughing, his hand fell to the pillow and left yet another bloody smear. But his lucidity returned and he gave Edgar a crooked smile. “I was down by the James, you know, the docks. Our old haunts. You can always find a good tavern or woman there if you’re in need. A delightfully bad part of town, really.”
“So, you endangered your health to go drinking, gambling and whoring? That’s nothing new.”
“No, I was there on business.”
“Business? You sound like that old miser John Allan.”
Henry stopped talking to take a deep breath and muffle another cough. Or was it a laugh? “I found William there,” he continued, after clearing his throat.
Edgar wasn’t sure he’d heard right. “William?”
“You know, that fashionable Boston blueblood with the swollen opinion of his own worth. I inquired around and learned that some of his regiment was going to stop in Richmond before going on to Oklahoma to round up redskins. Seems he had an assignment at the Richmond Foundry first. So I went to look him up.
“It’s not difficult to find soldiers when they’re in town; just follow the liquor, women and fistfights. I found our old friend in a notorious dive down by the river, a place of great filth and corruption. Blood and spit on the sawdust floors, that sort of nastiness. All the women had sores somewhere or other on their bodies.
“Anyway, I kept an eye on young William from a discreet distance, and he was an active one with the ladies, sores or not. When he invited one tender young thing — she couldn’t have been more than fourteen — for a midnight ramble, I followed. But I lost the hyena among a block of warehouses on the waterfront.
“Nonetheless, I continued sneaking through the murk like the criminal I really am, which was a good thing, too. Just as I was about to give up the hunt I heard a cry from a nearby alley. When I got there, he had the terrified girl by her hair, a saber at her throat.”
Henry’s breathing was so ragged at this point that Edgar bid him to stop and rest, but he waved him off with a bony hand.
“I moved in quickly and he never saw me till my little dagger was stuck in his back. I swear I felt his heart quivering on the blade — a wonderful sensation! At that moment the girl fainted dead away but was otherwise unharmed, thank God. But best of all, Eddy, before our friend expired I whispered softly into his pretty ear: ‘Poe,’ said I, ever so gently, like you would a lover, ‘Poe.’ And I kept saying it, too, over and over, until I was sure it was the last thing he heard on his way to hell.”
Henry stopped there and pointed feebly to the brandy bottle. Edgar uncorked it and held it so he could drink. When Henry finished, he closed his eyes.
“A good story, don’t you think, brother?” he said.
“An excellent story.”
“Take it, if you like. Or write some other tales. I believe you’ll find you have a talent for them.”
“Thank you, Henry. But you’re the storyteller in the family.”
Henry smiled wanly at this, gave him a wink, and then closed his eyes as if to sleep.
Edgar got up and took the empty bottle into the scullery. When he came back Henry’s eyes were open again and fixed, unblinking, on the ceiling. His expression was one of dejection, as though disappointed by what he found on the other side.
Edgar gently touched Henry’s forehead, which was now cold, his fever gone forever, and closed his once brilliant eyes. “Good-bye, beloved brother,” he said, his voice a grief-seared whisper.
It was then, as his very heart was breaking, that he noticed the scrap of folded paper in Henry’s hand.
Immediately, the old terrors were upon him and his body prickled with fear. Even so, he willed himself to reach over and slowly ease the paper from Henry’s stiffening fingers. Once in his own shaking hands, he unfolded what he expected to be a note from the grave.
But it was blank.
Confounded, he stared at the empty sheet until its meaning slowly dawned on him and he was forced to smile. It was Henry’s last wicked joke, his last laugh. And it was also an admonishment to get on with life.
So he did what his brother advised: he sat down at his desk, took up a pen and began to fill the page. Suspense and mystery, indeed — he had tales to tell, all right. Stories of terror and despair; stories of life and stories of death. Stories, he prayed, that would live long after he was in his grave — and looking down with Henry from wherever the hell they were: laughing, smoking, drinking, and dreaming for all eternity.
Copyright © 2006 by Jack Alcott