Nine O'Clock!

Wilkie Collins

Nine O'Clock! Page 02

But he was evidently out of place at the banquet; his temperament was reflective, his disposition serious; feasts were at no time a sphere in which he was calculated to shine.

His taciturnity, while the hour of the execution was under discussion, had separated him from most of those with whom he sat, at the lower end of the table. They edged up towards the top, where the conversation was most general and most animated. One of his friends, however, still kept his place by Duprat's side, and thus questioned him anxiously, but in low tones, on the cause of his immovable silence:

'Are you the only man of the company, Duprat, who has neither a guess nor a joke to make about the time of the execution?'

'I never joke, Marginy,' was the answer, given with a slight smile which had something of the sarcastic in it; 'and as for guessing at the time of the execution, I never guess at things which I know.'

'Know! You know the hour of the execution! Then why not communicate your knowledge to your friends around you?'

'Because not one of them would believe what I said.'

'But, surely, you could prove it. Somebody must have told you.'

'Nobody has told me.'

'You have seen some private letter, then; or you have managed to get sight of the execution-order; or --'

'Spare your conjectures, Marginy. I have not read, as I have not been told, what is the hour at which we are to die to-morrow.'

'Then how on earth can you possibly know it?'

'I do not know when the execution will begin, or when it will end. I only know that it will be going on at nine o'clock to-morrow morning. Out of the twenty-one who are to suffer death, one will be guillotined exactly at that hour. Whether he will be the first whose head falls, or the last, I cannot tell.'

'And pray who may this man be, who is going to die exactly at nine o'clock? Of course, prophetically knowing so much, you know that!'

'I do know it. I am the man whose death by the guillotine will take place exactly at the hour I have mentioned.'

'You said just now, Duprat, that you never joked. Do you expect me to believe that what you have just spoken is spoken in earnest?'

'I repeat that I never joke; and I answer that I expect you to believe me. I know the hour at which my death will take place tomorrow, just as certainly as I know the fact of my own existence tonight.'

'But how? My dear friend, can you really lay claim to supernatural intuition, in this eighteenth century of the world, in this renowned Age of reason?'

'No two men, Marginy, understand that word, supernatural, exactly in the same sense; you and I differ about its meaning, or, in other words, differ about the real distinction between the doubtful and the true. We will not discuss the subject: I wish to be understood, at the outset, as laying claim to no superior intuitions whatever; but I tell you, at the same time, that even in this Age of Reason, I have reason for what I have said. My father and my brother both died at nine o'clock in the morning, and were both warned very strangely of their deaths. I am the last of my family; I was warned last night, as they were warned; and I shall die by the guillotine, as they died in their beds, at the fatal hour of nine.'

'But, Duprat, why have I never heard of this before? As your oldest and, I am sure, your dearest friend, I thought you had long since trusted me with all your secrets.'

'And you shall know this secret; I only kept it from you till the time when I would be certain that my death would substantiate my words, to the very letter. Come! you are as bad supper-company as I am; let us slip away from the table unperceived, while our friends are all engaged in conversation. Yonder end of the hall is dark and quiet -- we can speak there uninterruptedly, for some hours to come,'

He led the way from the supper-table, followed by Marginy. Arrived at one of the darkest and most retired corners of the great hall of the prison, Duprat spoke again:

'I believe, Marginy,' he said, 'that you are one of those who have been ordered by our tyrants to witness my execution, and the execution of my brethren, as a warning spectacle for an enemy to the Jacobin cause?'

'My dear, dear friend! it is too true; I am ordered to witness the butchery which I cannot prevent -- our last awful parting will be at the foot of the scaffold. I am among the victims who are spared -- mercilessly spared -- for a little while yet.'

'Say the martyrs! We die as martyrs, calmly, hopefully, innocently. When I am placed under the guillotine to-morrow morning, listen, my friend, for the striking of the church clocks; listen for the hour while you look your last on me. Until that time, suspend your judgement on the strange chapter of family history which I am now about to relate.'

Marginy took his friend's hand, and promised compliance with the request. Duprat then began as follows:

'You knew my brother Alfred, when he was quite a youth, and you knew something of what people flippantly termed, the eccentricities of his character. He was three years my junior; but from childhood, he showed far less of a child's innate levity and happiness than his elder brother.

Wilkie Collins

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