|Eleventh Hour Guest
Excerpt 1: polite company
...For a moment I had been paying no attention to anybody. I was watching a stranger seated in a box opposite to us: a man of thirty-five or thirty-six years, and of an Oriental pallor. He held a lorgnette in his hand and was waving me a greeting.
"Ah, my unknown friend of Wiesbaden! " I murmured to myself, after a brief search through my memory.
This gentleman, in January, had rendered me one of those small services which custom allows between travellers (oh, some little matter of cigars, I think; he had informed me as to their merits in the drawing-room). So I returned his salutation.
A moment later, (...) I saw the stranger coming up before me. His advance had been as friendly as could be, so it seemed to me that it would be only courteous to offer him our company, if he found himself too solitary amid this tumult.
" And whom shall I have the honor of presenting to our gracious party?"
I asked him, smiling, when he had accepted. "Baron von H-," he said to
me. "However, these ladies have all the charms of lightheartedness, and
pronunciation is no easy matter, and th is is a carnival night; so let
me take another name for an hour-the first that comes. Stop " he began
to laugh. " Baron Saturn if you like! "
This strange fancy took me aback a little. But folly had gone forth as the general password, so I very coolly announced him to our fair elegants by the mythological attribute to which he had chosen to reduce himself.
His whim worked in his favour. They were distinctly tempted to believe in some Arabian Nights monarch travelling incognito. Clio la Cendrée, with clasped hands, went so far as to murmur the name of a certain Jud, celebrated at the moment, some kind of cr iminal, as yet undiscovered, who had apparently been made more than usually rich and famous by a variety of murders.
The usual greetings were exchanged.
" Perhaps the baron would do us the favour of supping in our company, to achieve the desirable symmetry? " asked Annah Jackson, ever attentive, between two irresistible yawns.
He was anxious to excuse himself.
"Susannah spoke just like Don Juan to the Governor's statue! " I replied, jokingly. " These Scotswomen, you know -their solemnity! "
" M. Saturn should be invited to come and kill Time with us! " said C-, coldly desirous of making an invitation, " in the regular way."
" I am full of regret at having to decline!" answered his interlocutor.
"Commiserate with me, I beg of you, that a crcumstance of really capital
importance binds me in the morning-rather early."
Excerpt 2: revelations
For a moment I had been watching Baron Saturn. He betrayed signs of impatience and restlessness. I saw him draw out his watch, give a brilliant to Antonie, and rise.
" Come, my lord of far-off places! " I cried, sitting astride a chair, between two puffs of a cigar. "You are not thinking of leaving us before an hour is out? You'd be taken for something mysterious, and that's not in good taste, you know! "
" I am extremely sorry," he answered, "but it is a question of a duty which cannot be postponed; indeed it will brook no further delay. Pray accept my expression of gratitude for hese charming moments I have just passed."
" Gentlemen, I admit to you that I am blind and deaf as often as God grants me to be so! " said Baron Saturn.
And he laid stress on this incomprehensible enormity in a way that plunged us into the most absurd conjectures. So much so that I forgot all about the spark in question! We were brought to staring at each other with embarrassed smiles, not knowing what to make of this "pleasantry," when, all of a sudden, I could not suppress an ejaculation. I had just remembered where it was that I had first set eyes on this man!
Abruptly it seemed as if the glasses, the faces, the hangings, the night's festivity, were all illuminated by an evil glow, a reddish glow emanating from our guest, for all the world like a theatrical effect.
I passed my hand over my forehead during a moment of silence, and then went across to the stranger.
" Pardon me, sir, if I am in error," I whispered in his ear, " but-but I seem to have had the pleasure of meeting you five or six years ago, in one of the large towns of the Midi- Lyons, I dare say-about four o'clock in the morning, on a public square."
Slowly Saturn raised his head. He gazed at me attentively.
"Ah! " said he. " That is quite possible."
" Yes! " I went on, looking fixedly at him. " And wait! There was also, in that square, an object with the most melancholy associations; it was a spectacle to which I had let myself be brought by two student friends of mine-and one which I vowed never to witness again."
" Indeed! " said M. Saturn. " And what was this object, if the question is not indiscreet ? "
"It was something very like the scaffold, sir, if my memory is correct, very like.-Yes, it was the guillotine. I'm sure of it now! "
These few words had been exchanged in low tones, oh! very low tones indeed, and only between this gentleman and myself. C-and the ladies were talking together in the shadow, near the piano, a few paces away from us.
"That's it! I remember! " I added, raising my voice. " What do you think, sir? Eh ? That's something like memory for you, I hope? Isn't it? You may have passed very quickly in front of me, but your carriage was slowed up by mine, for an instant, and I wa s just able to catch a glimpse of you by the torchlight. The circumstance stamped your face deeply on my mind. And at that moment it had the expression which I notice now on your features"
" Ah, quite true! " replied M. Saturn. "Upon my word, the exactness is most astonishing, I admit."
And the man's strident laugh reminded me of a pair of scissors snippmg hair..
" And one detail, among others, struck me," I went on. " I saw you from a distance, coming down towards the place where the machine was erected . . . and, unless I am deceived by some resemblance-" " You are not deceived, my dear sir, it really was myself," he answered.
At these words, I felt that the conversation had become glacial, and that in consequence I was perhaps failing in the strict courtesy which an executioner of so strange a character had the right to demand of us. So I was trying to think of some commonpla ce to change the flow of the thoughts which were enshrouding the pair of us, when the lovely Antonie, turning away from the piano, said with a nonchalant air:
"By the way, ladies and gentlemen, you know that there's an execution this morning? "
" Ah! " I cried, stirred in an unwonted degree by these few words.
" It is poor Dr. de la P-," went on Antonie, sadly. " I was a patient of his once.
"What! It's to-day? Definitely? " I asked, forcing indifference into my voice.
"At six o'clock, the fatal hour, ladies and gentlemen!" answered Antonie.
"And it seems that in view of the solemnity of the trial and the distinguished
nature of the victim, they have brought in a foreigner (! ) to assist M.
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