Excerpt: 'The Pale Blue Eye'
Narrative of Gus Landor
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.
"Lieutenant Meadows, at your service."
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.
Excerpted from The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard. Copyright © 2006, Louis Bayard. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.
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