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Authors: Louis Bayard

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The Pale Blue Eye: A Novel

BOOK: The Pale Blue Eye: A Novel
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The Pale Blue Eye

Louis Bayard

For A. J.

The sorrow for the dead is the only sorrow from which we refuse to be divorced.

Washington Irving "Rural Funerals"

"Mid the groves of Circassian splendor, In a brook darkly dappled with sky, In a moonshattered brook raked with sky,

Athene's lissome maidens did render Obeisances lisping and shy.

There I found Leonore, lorn and tender In the clutch of a cloud-rending cry.

Harrowed hard, I could aught but surrender To the maid with the pale blue eye To the ghoul with the pale blue eye.

Last Testament of Gus Landor

April 19th, 1831

In two or three hours... well, it's hard to tell... in three hours, surely, or at the very outside, four hours... within four hours, let us say, I'll be dead.

I mention it because it puts things in a certain perspective. My fingers, for instance, have become interesting to me of late. Also the lowermost slat in the Venetian blinds, a bit askew. And outside the window, a wisteria shoot, snapped off the main stem, waggling like a gallows. I never noticed that before. Something else, too: at this moment, the past comes on with all the force of the present. All the people who've peopled me, don't they come thronging round? What keeps them from bumping heads, I wonder? There's a Hudson Park alderman by the hearth; next to him, my wife, in her apron, ladling ashes into the can, and who's watching her but my old Newfoundland retriever? Down the hall: my mother--who never set foot in this house, died before I reached the age of twelve--she's ironing my Sunday suit.

Curious thing about my visitors: none of them says a word to the others. Very strict etiquette in place, I can't work out the rules of it.

Not everyone, I should say, minds the rules. For the past hour, I've been having my ear bent--torn, nearly--by a man named Claudius Foot. I arrested him fifteen years ago for robbing the Rochester mail. A vast injustice: he had three witnesses who swore he was robbing the Baltimore mail at the time. He flew into a fine rage about it, skipped town on bail, came back six months later, crazy with cholera, and threw himself in front of a hackney cab. Talked all the way to death's door. Still talking now.

Oh, it's a crowd, I can tell you. Depending on my mood, depending on the angle of the sun through the parlor window, I can attend to it or not. There are times, I admit, when I wish I had more traffic with the living, but they are harder to come by these days. Patsy never stops round anymore... Professor Pawpaw is off measuring heads in Havana... and as for him, well, what is there to call him back? I can only summon him in my mind, and the moment I do, all the old talks play out again. That evening, for instance, we spent discussing the soul. I wasn't persuaded I had one; he was. It might have been amusing to hear him go on if he hadn't been in such terrible earnest. But then, no one had ever pressed me so strongly on this point, not even my own father (traveling Presbyterian, too busy with the souls of his flock to plant much of a boot on mine). Again and again, I said, "Well, well, you may be right." It just made him hotter. He'd tell me I was just putting off the question, pending empirical confirmation. And I would ask, "In the absence of such confirmation, what more can I say than "You may be right'?" Round and round we went, until one day, he said, "Mr. Landor, there will come a time when your soul turns round and fronts you in the most empirical fashion possible--at the very moment it quits you. You will clutch for it, ah, in vain! See it now, sprouting eagle wings, bound for the Asiatic eyries."

Well, he was fanciful that way. Gaudy, if you must know. Myself, I've always preferred facts to metaphysics. Good hard homely facts, a full day's pottage. It is facts and inferences that will form the spine of this tale. As they've formed the spine of my life.

One night, a full year into my retirement, my daughter heard me talking in my sleep--came in to find me questioning a suspect twenty years dead. The corner won't square, I kept saying. You do see that, Mr. Pierce. This particular fellow had cut up his wife's body and fed the pieces to a pack of watchdogs at a Battery warehouse. In my dream, his eyes were pink with shame; he was very sorry for taking up my time. I remember telling him, If it hadn't been you, it would have been someone else.

Well, it was that dream that made me see: a career won't be left behind. You may slip away into the Hudson Highlands, you may screen yourself behind books and cyphers and walking sticks... your job will come and find you.

I might have run. A little farther into the wilderness, I might have done that. How I let myself be coaxed back I can't honestly say, though sometimes I believe it happened--all of it--so that we should find each other, he and I.

But there's no point in speculating. I have a story to tell, lives to account for. And since those lives were, on many sides, closed to me, I've made way where needed for other speakers, my young friend especially. He's the true spirit behind this history, and whenever I try to imagine who'll be the first to read it, he's the one who presents himself. His fingers tracing the rows and columns, his eyes picking out my scratches.

Oh, I know: we can't choose who will read us. Nothing left, then, but to take comfort in the thought of the stranger--still unborn, for all I know-- who will find these lines. To you, my Reader, I dedicate this narrative.

And so I become my own reader. For the last time. Another log in the fire, would you please, Alderman Hunt?

And so it begins again.

Narrative of Gus Landor

1 My professional involvement in the West Point affair dates from the morning of October the twenty-sixth, 1830. On that day, I was taking my usual walk--though a little later than usual--in the hills surrounding Buttermilk Falls. I recall the weather as being Indian summer. The leaves gave off an actual heat, even the dead ones, and this heat rose through my soles and gilded the mist that banded the farmhouses. I walked alone, threading along the ribbons of hills... the only noises were the scraping of my boots and the bark of Dolph van Corlaer's dog and, I suppose, my own breathing, for I climbed quite high that day. I was making for the granite promontory that the locals call Shadrach's Heel, and I had just curled my arm round a poplar, preparing for the final assault, when I was met by the note of a French horn, sounding miles to the north.

A sound I'd heard before--hard to live near the Academy and not hear it--but that morning, it made a strange buzz in my ear. For the first time, I began to wonder about it. How could a French horn throw its sound so far?

This isn't the sort of matter that occupies me, as a rule. I wouldn't even bother you with it, but it goes some way to showing my state of mind. On a normal day, you see, I wouldn't have been thinking about horns. I wouldn't have turned back before reaching the summit, and I wouldn't have been so slow to grasp the wheel traces.

Two ruts, each three inches deep, and a foot long. I saw them as I was wending home, but they were thrown in with everything else: an aster, a chevron of geese. The compartments leaked, as it were, one into the other, so that I only half regarded these wheel ruts, and I never (this is unlike me) followed the chain of causes and effects. Hence my surprise, yes, to breast the brow of the hill and find, in the piazza in front of my house, a phaeton with a black bay harnessed to it.

On top was a young artilleryman, but my eye, trained in the stations of rank, had already been drawn to the man leaning against the coach. In full uniform, he was--preening as if for a portrait. Braided from head to toe in gold: gilt buttons and a gilt cord on his shako, a gilded brass handle on his sword. Outsunning the sun, that was how he appeared to me, and such was the cast of my mind that I briefly wondered if he had been made by the French horn. There was the music, after all. There was the man. A part of me, even then--I can see this-- was relaxing, in the way that a fist slackens into its parts: fingers, a palm.

I at least had this advantage: the officer had no idea I was there. Some measure of the day's laziness had worked its way into his nerves. He leaned against the horse, he toyed with the reins, flicking them back and forth in an echo of the bay's own switching tail. Eyes half shut, head nodding on its stem...

We might have gone on like this for some time--me watching, him being watched--had we not been interrupted by a third party. A cow. Big blowzy lashy. Coming out of a copse of sycamores, licking away a smear of clover. This cow began at once to circle the phaeton-- with rare tact--she seemed to presume the young officer must have good reason for intruding. This same officer took a step backward as though to brace for a charge, and his hand, jittered, went straight to his sword handle. I suppose it was the possibility of slaughter (whose?) that finally jarred me into motion--down the hill in a long waggish stride, calling as I went.

"Her name is Hagar!"

Too well trained to whirl, this officer. He depended his head toward me in brief segments, the rest of him following in due course.
"At least, she answers to that," I said. "She got here a few days after I did. Never told me her name, so I had to give her one."

He managed something like a smile. He said, "She's a fine animal, sir."

"A republican cow. Comes as she pleases, goes the same. No obligations on either side."

"Well. There you... it occurs to me if..."

"If only all females were that way, I know."

This young man was not so young as I had thought. A couple of years on the good side of forty, that was my best guess: only a decade younger than me, and still running errands. But this errand was his one sure thing. It squared him from toe to shoulder.

"You are Augustus Landor, sir?" he asked.

"I am."

"Lieutenant Meadows, at your service."

"Pleasure."

Cleared his throat--twice, he did that. "Sir, I am here to inform you that Superintendent Thayer requests an audience with you."

"What would be the nature of this audience?" I asked.

"I'm not at liberty to say, sir."

"No, of course not. Is it of a professional order?"

"I'm not at--"

"Then might I ask when this audience is to take place?"

"At once, sir. If you're so inclined."

I confess it. The beauty of the day was never so lucid to me as at that moment. The peculiar smokiness of the air, so rare for late October. The mist, lying in drifts across the forelands. There was a woodpecker hammering out a code on a paperbark maple. Stay.

With my walking stick, I pointed in the direction of my door. "You're sure I can't fix you up with some coffee, Lieutenant?"

"No thank you, sir."

"I've got some ham for frying, if you--"

"No, I've eaten. Thank you." I turned away. Took a step toward the house.

"I came here for my health, Lieutenant."

"I'm sorry?"

"My physician told me it was my one chance of living to a ripe old age: I had to go up. To the Highlands. Leave the city behind, he said."

"Mmm."

Those flat brown eyes of his. That flat white nose.

"And here I am now," I went on. "The picture of health."

He nodded.

"I wonder if you agree with me, Lieutenant, that health is rated too highly?"

"I couldn't say. You may be right, sir."

"Are you a graduate of the Academy, Lieutenant?"

"No, sir."

"Oh, so you came up the hard way. Through the ranks, did you?"

"Yes indeed."

"I never went to college myself," I said. "Seeing as how I had no particular call for the ministry, what was the point of more schooling? That's what my father thought--that's how fathers thought in those days."

"I see."

It is good to know this: the rules of interrogation don't apply to normal conversations. In a normal conversation, the one speaking is weaker than the one who's not. But I wasn't strong enough just then to follow another course. So I gave the wheel of the phaeton a kick.

"Such a fancy conveyance," I said, "for bringing back one man."

"It was the only one available, sir. And we didn't know if you had your own horse."

"And what if I should decide not to come, Lieutenant?"

"Come or not, Mr. Landor, it's your own concern. Why, you're a private citizen, and this is a free country."

A free country, that's what he said.

Here was my country. Hagar, a few steps to my right. The door of my cottage, still ajar from when I'd left it. Inside: a set of cyphers, fresh from the post office, and a tin of cold coffee, and a bereaved-looking set of Venetian blinds and a string of dried peaches and, hanging in the chimney corner, an ostrich egg given me years earlier by a 4th Ward spice merchant. And in the back: my horse, an oldish roan, tied to a paling, walled round with hay. Name of Horse.

"It's a fine day for a ride," I said.

"Yes, sir."

"And a man may have his fill of leisure, that's a fact." I looked at him. "And Colonel Thayer waits, that's another fact. Does Colonel Thayer qualify as a fact, Lieutenant?"

"You might take your own horse," he said, a bit desperately. "If you'd rather."

"No."

The word hung in the silence. We stood there, enclosing it. Hagar kept circling the phaeton.

"No," I repeated at last. "I'd be just as glad to go with you, Lieutenant." I looked at my feet to be sure. "Truth be told," I said, "I'm grateful for the company."

It was what he'd been waiting to hear. Why, didn't he drag a little ladder from the vehicle's interior? Didn't he prop it against the carriage, even offer me an arm up the rungs? An arm for old Mr. Landor! I set my foot on the lowermost rung, I tried to hoist myself up, but the morning walk had wrung me hard, and my leg gave out, and I fell against the ladder, fell hard, and had to be pushed and tipped into the phaeton. I lowered myself onto the hard wooden bench, and he climbed in after me, and I said, falling back on my one sure thing, "Lieutenant, you might think of taking the post road on the way back. The lane by Farmer Hoesman's is a bit rough on the wheels this time of year."

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