The Pale Blue Eye: A Novel

Free The Pale Blue Eye: A Novel by Louis Bayard

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Authors: Louis Bayard
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Well, the poor devil hanged himself the other night..." Casting his eyes left and right, he leaned into me and, in the loudest possible whisper, added, "What I heard? Pack of wolves tore the liver right out of his body." He straightened again, wiped a tankard with great care. "Ah, but why'm I telling you, Landor? You've been up at the Point yourself."
    "Where'd you hear that, Benny?"

    "The whippoorwill, I think."
    The smaller the town, the faster word gets around. And Buttermilk Falls is nothing but small. Even its citizens are a mite smaller than the mean. Except for a gigantic tinplate peddler who blows in twice a year, I may well be the tallest man about.
    "Whippoorwills are chatty beasts," said Blind Jasper, nodding sullenly.

    "Listen, Benny," I said. "You ever talk to Fry yourself ?"

    "Once or twice, is all. Poor lad needed help with his conic sections."
    "Oh," said Jack, "I don't think it was his conic sections he wanted help with." He might have said more in the same line, but Patsy was coming out again, with a plate of bannocks. Shamed us into silence. Only when she passed within a foot of me did I dare to touch her hem.
    "I'm sorry, Patsy. I didn't know this Fry fellow was..."

    "He wasn't," she said. "Not in that way. But he wanted to be, and that has to count for something, don't you think?"

    "Tell us," said Jasper, half panting. "What kept him out of your favor, Patsy?"
    "Nothing he could help. But Lord, you know I like a darker coloring in a man. Red hair is all well on top, but it won't do below. It's one of my principles." She set down the plate and frowned at the floor. "I can't understand what would possess a boy to do such a thing to himself. When he's too young even to do it proper."
    "What do you mean, "proper'?" I asked.

    "Why, Gus, he couldn't even measure the rope right. They say it took him three hours to die."

    " "They,' Patsy? Who is this "they'?"

    She thought about it for some moments before lowering her original estimate. "Him," is what she said, nudging her head toward the far corner.
    This was the corner farthest from Benny's fire, occupied on this particular evening by a young cadet. His musket rested against the wall behind him. His leather cap lay at the very edge of the table. His black hair was smeared with sweat, and his pale swollen head bobbed in the half shadows.
    Hard to say how many rules he'd broken by coming here. Leaving the West Point reservation without authorization... visiting a place where spirituous liquors were sold... visiting said place for the purpose of drinking said liquors. Many another cadet, of course, had broken these same rules, but almost always at night, when the watchdogs were abed. This was the first time I'd seen Benny's broached in daylight.
    He never saw me coming, Cadet Fourth Classman Poe. Whether it was reverie or stupor, I can't say, but I stood there a good half minute, waiting for him to lift his head, and I had about given up on him when I heard faint sounds coming from somewhere in his neighborhood: words, maybe, or spells.
    "Afternoon," I said.

    His head snapped back; his enormous gray eyes swiveled. "Oh, it's you!" he cried.

    Half tipping his chair over, he rose and seized my hand and began pumping it.

    "Dear me. Sit. Yes, sit down, won't you please? Mr. Havens! Another drink for my friend here."

    "And who would be paying?" I heard Benny mutter, but the young cadet must not have heard, for he beckoned me toward him and, under his breath, said, "Mr. Havens, there..." "What's he saying about me, Landor?"

    Laughing, Poe cupped his hands round his mouth. "Mr. Havens is the only congenial man in this whole godforsaken desert!"

    "And it's touched I am to hear it."
    There was, I should make this clear, a doubleness to everything Benny said. You had to be a long-timer to catch it: the thing said and the comment on the thing said, both happening at the same moment. Poe was not a long-timer, and so his impulse was to say his piece again--

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