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Sunday
May212017

Nine O'Clock

I die at a time when the people have lost their reason; you will die on the day when they recover it.

Since earliest childhood I have heard plenty about the event that would change all events, the first wave of tyrants destroyed (to be replaced by an even greater despot, a dull subject permanently banished from these pages), the first mass uprising that would have made Spartacus proud. If my tone smacks of irreverence, it is because I have never been an admirer of revolution, bloodhot or otherwise; changes in my universe occur slowly and precisely without recourse to upheaval or war chants. But for the more callow among those of Romantic bent, the last eleven years of eighteenth-century French history represent a watershed in our view of the world and its dividends. Gone are the remorseless monarchs, the meddling clergy, the fiefdoms frozen in eternal hardscrabble stasis; in their stead have come happy, peaceful democracies whose main aim has been to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number. Alas, while a narrow handful of such nations do exist, the majority are still mired in that grim morass of greed and power that has plagued every community since scribes and their cuneiform contrived a record of human drama. The French Revolution has come and gone, but we may still detect our proclivity for its success, our wish to see the rich choke on the cakes they so preferred to plainest rye. Which brings us to a quiet tale of injustice.

Our heroes are none; instead, we will have twenty-one martyrs for a cause that remains unestablished, the removal of one government unstinting in its waste for another government unstinting in its vengeance. The year and month, you see, are 1793 and June, and the time has come for something more than theoretical freedoms. The victims will be damned because "they were not, as a party, true to their own convictions"; and they will fall "before worse men, because those men were in earnest." Of course, when your solution to four out of every five problems are mayhem and murder, it becomes quite easy to be earnest about them. Much more difficult is the nuanced detection of human or national desires, which incites one of the condemned men to the magnificent pronouncement that begins this review. As the twenty-one face their last terrestrial night with the conviviality of the plague-ridden in this film, one pale soul withdraws from the commotion, a Girondist by the name of Duprat:

He was a younger man than the majority of his brethren, and was personally remarkable by his pale, handsome, melancholy face, and his reserved yet gentle manners. Throughout the evening, he had spoken but rarely; there was something of the silence and serenity of a martyr in his demeanour. That he feared death as little as any of his companions was plainly visible in his bright, steady eye; in his unchanging complexion; in his firm, calm voice, when he occasionally addressed those who happened to be near him. 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.

Soon Duprat finds a willing interlocutor, one of the partisans who will endure the most unfortunate punishment of witnessing his friends' demise on the mill of silence, and answers the only lingering question among the carousers: the exact time of their deaths. Duprat makes the incredible claim that he knows precisely when his time will come (he does not speak for others), and bases that prognosis on an odd family history which cannot be provided at length. It involves his widower father and a gentle youth, his younger brother Alfred, both of whom no longer walk among the living.  

Unlike Duprat, Alfred had not seen much success in school and had accordingly diminished his father's expectations. When, in his teenage years, Alfred finally exhibited an interest in a subject, his father was more than a little disappointed to learn the object of his scholarship: astrology, "the most obsolete of obsolete sciences, the old, abandoned delusion of divination by stars!" Content at least that his younger son would not be utterly idle, the father had left him to his own devices. Until one day when Duprat came upon his sibling in their father's den:

One day – my brother being then sixteen years of age – I happened to go into my father's study, during his absence, and found Alfred there, standing close to a window, which looked into the garden. I walked up to him, and observed a curious expression of vacancy and rigidity in his face, especially in his eyes. Although I knew him to be subject to what are called fits of absence, I still thought it rather extraordinary that he never moved, and never noticed me when I was close to him. I took his hand, and asked if he was unwell. His flesh felt quite cold; neither my touch nor my voice produced the smallest sensation in him. Almost at the same moment when I noticed this, I happened to be looking accidentally towards the garden. There was my father walking along one of the paths, and there, by his side, walking with him, was another Alfred! – Another, yet exactly the same as the Alfred by whose side I was standing, whose hand I still held in mine!

Bilocation not ranking among the virtues of human existence, we may wonder long and hard at this scene, disordered in mind as it may appear, and retreat to logic's dark little corner and swinging overhead bulb. Then again, we may consider the apparition of one and another Alfred as some index of calamity. That this end shall come at a certain hour should surprise us as much as it now surprises the condemned Duprat.     

Those of us who still patronize this author's works know something good when we've found it. I am no Collins completist, yet his books resemble the finest of gourmet dishes: one only needs a few bites to determine their succulence. Beneath lesser hands, the structure and inevitability of Nine O'Clock might feel contrived and unsuspenseful, although as we know from many a thriller, great tension need not lie in the outcome, but in the choices that spell a tragic character's doom. Collins has a talent that cannot be learned or inherited: the gift of atmosphere, of so empathizing with a reader's whims as to predict his turns before the reader himself has pathed them. Even if the reader may not want to know the very last page he will enjoy.

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