John Bartine's Watch by Ambrose Bierce
A Story by a Physician
'THE exact time? Good God! my friend, why do you
insist? One would think--but what does it matter;
it is easily bedtime--isn't that near enough? But,
here, if you must set your watch, take mine and see
With that he detached his watch--a tremendously
heavy, old-fashioned one--from the chain,
and handed it to me; then turned away, and walking
across the room to a shelf of books, began an examination
of their backs. His agitation and evident
distress surprised me; they appeared reasonless.
Having set my watch by his I stepped over to where
he stood and said, 'Thank you.'
As he took his timepiece and reattached it to the
guard I observed that his hands were unsteady.
With a tact upon which I greatly prided myself,
I sauntered carelessly to the sideboard and took
some brandy and water; then, begging his pardon
for my thoughtlessness, asked him to have some
and went back to my seat by the fire, leaving him
to help himself, as was our custom. He did so and
presently joined me at the hearth, as tranquil as
This odd little incident occurred in my apartment,
where John Bartine was passing an evening. We had
dined together at the club, had come home in a cab
and--in short, everything had been done in the
most prosaic way; and why John Bartine should
break in upon the natural and established order of
things to make himself spectacular with a display
of emotion, apparently for his own entertainment,
I could nowise understand. The more I thought
of it, while his brilliant conversational gifts were
commending themselves to my inattention, the more
curious I grew, and of course had no difficulty in
persuading myself that my curiosity was friendly
solicitude. That is the disguise that curiosity usually
assumes to evade resentment. So I ruined one of
the finest sentences of his disregarded monologue by
cutting it short without ceremony.
'John Bartine,' I said, 'you must try to forgive
me if I am wrong, but with the light that I have
at present I cannot concede your right to go all to
pieces when asked the time o' night. I cannot admit
that it is proper to experience a mysterious reluctance
to look your own watch in the face and to
cherish in my presence, without explanation, painful
emotions which are denied to me, and which are
none of my business.'
To this ridiculous speech Bartine made no immediate
reply, but sat looking gravely into the fire.
Fearing that I had offended I was about to apologize
and beg him to think no more about the matter,
when looking me calmly in the eyes he said:
'My dear fellow, the levity of your manner
does not at all disguise the hideous impudence
of your demand; but happily I had already decided
to tell you what you wish to know, and no
manifestation of your unworthiness to hear it
shall alter my decision. Be good enough to give me
your attention and you shall hear all about the
'This watch,' he said, 'had been in my family for
three generations before it fell to me. Its original
owner, for whom it was made, was my great-grandfather,
Bramwell Olcott Bartine, a wealthy planter
of Colonial Virginia, and as staunch a Tory as ever
lay awake nights contriving new kinds of maledictions
for the head of Mr. Washington, and new
methods of aiding and abetting good King George.
One day this worthy gentleman had the deep misfortune
to perform for his cause a service of capital importance
which was not recognized as legitimate by
those who suffered its disadvantages. It does not matter
what it was, but among its minor consequences
was my excellent ancestor's arrest one night in his
own house by a party of Mr. Washington's rebels. He
was permitted to say farewell to his weeping family,
and was then marched away into the darkness which
swallowed him up for ever. Not the slenderest clue
to his fate was ever found. After the war the most
diligent inquiry and the offer of large rewards failed
to turn up any of his captors or any fact concerning
his disappearance. He had disappeared, and that
Something in Bartine's manner that was not in
his words--I hardly knew what it was--prompted
me to ask:
'What is your view of the matter--of the justice
'My view of it,' he flamed out, bringing his
clenched hand down upon the table as if he had been
in a public house dicing with blackguards--'my
view of it is that it was a characteristically dastardly
assassination by that damned traitor, Washington,
and his ragamuffin rebels!'
For some minutes nothing was said: Bartine was
recovering his temper, and I waited. Then I said:
'Was that all?'
'No--there was something else. A few weeks
after my great-grandfather's arrest his watch was
found lying on the porch at the front door of his
dwelling. It was wrapped in a sheet of letter-paper
bearing the name of Rupert Bartine, his only son,
my grandfather. I am wearing that watch.'
Bartine paused. His usually restless black eyes
were staring fixedly into the grate, a point of red
light in each, reflected from the glowing coals. He
seemed to have forgotten me. A sudden threshing
of the branches of a tree outside one of the windows,
and almost at the same instant a rattle of rain
against the glass, recalled him to a sense of his surroundings.
A storm had risen, heralded by a single
gust of wind, and in a few moments the steady
plash of the water on the pavement was distinctly
heard. I hardly know why I relate this incident; it
seemed somehow to have a certain significance and
relevancy which I am unable now to discern. It at
least added an element of seriousness, almost solemnity.
'I have a singular feeling toward this watch--a
kind of affection for it; I like to have it about me,
though partly from its weight, and partly for a reason
I shall now explain, I seldom carry it. The
reason is this: Every evening when I have it with
me I feel an unaccountable desire to open and consult
it, even if I can think of no reason for wishing
to know the time. But if I yield to it, the moment
my eyes rest upon the dial I am filled with a mysterious
apprehension--a sense of imminent calamity.
And this is the more insupportable the nearer it is
to eleven o'clock--by this watch, no matter what
the actual hour may be. After the hands have registered
eleven the desire to look is gone; I am entirely
indifferent. Then I can consult the thing as often
as I like, with no more emotion than you feel in
looking at your own. Naturally I have trained myself
not to look at that watch in the evening before
eleven; nothing could induce me. Your insistence
this evening upset me a trifle. I felt very much as I
suppose an opium-eater might feel if his yearning
for his special and particular kind of hell were reinforced
by opportunity and advice.
'Now that is my story, and I have told it in the
interest of your trumpery science; but if on any
evening hereafter you observe me wearing this
damnable watch, and you have the thoughtfulness
to ask me the hour, I shall beg leave to put you to
the inconvenience of being knocked down.'
His humour did not amuse me. I could see that
in relating his delusion he was again somewhat disturbed.
His concluding smile was positively ghastly,
and his eyes had resumed something more than their
old restlessness; they shifted hither and thither about
the room with apparent aimlessness and I fancied
had taken on a wild expression, such as is sometimes
observed in cases of dementia. Perhaps this was
my own imagination, but at any rate I was now
persuaded that my friend was afflicted with a most
singular and interesting monomania. Without, I
trust, any abatement of my affectionate solicitude
for him as a friend, I began to regard him as a patient,
rich in possibilities of profitable study. Why
not? Had he not described his delusion in the interest
of science? Ah, poor fellow, he was doing more
for science than he knew: not only his story but
himself was in evidence. I should cure him if I could,
of course, but first I should make a little experiment
in psychology--nay, the experiment itself might
be a step in his restoration.
'That is very frank and friendly of you, Bartine,'
I said cordially, 'and I'm rather proud of your confidence.
It is all very odd, certainly. Do you mind
showing me the watch?'
He detached it from his waistcoat, chain and all,
and passed it to me without a word. The case was
of gold, very thick and strong, and singularly engraved.
After closely examining the dial and observing
that it was nearly twelve o'clock, I opened it at
the back and was interested to observe an inner case
of ivory, upon which was painted a miniature portrait
in that exquisite and delicate manner which
was in vogue during the eighteenth century.
'Why, bless my soul!' I exclaimed, feeling a sharp
artistic delight--'how under the sun did you get
that done? I thought miniature painting on ivory was
a lost art.'
'That,' he replied, gravely smiling, 'is not I;
it is my excellent great-grandfather, the late Bramwell
Olcott Bartine, Esquire, of Virginia. He was
younger then than later--about my age, in fact.
It is said to resemble me; do you think so?'
'Resemble you? I should say so! Barring the
costume, which I supposed you to have assumed
out of compliment to the art--or for vraisemblance,
so to say--and the no moustache, that portrait is
you in every feature, line, and expression.'
No more was said at that time. Bartine took a
book from the table and began reading. I heard
outside the incessant plash of the rain in the street.
There were occasional hurried footfalls on the sidewalks;
and once a slower, heavier tread seemed to
cease at my door--a policeman, I thought, seeking
shelter in the doorway. The boughs of the trees
tapped significantly on the window panes, as if asking
for admittance. I remember it all through these
years and years of a wiser, graver life.
Seeing myself unobserved, I took the old-fashioned
key that dangled from the chain and quickly turned
back the hands of the watch a full hour; then, closing
the case, I handed Bartine his property and saw
him replace it on his person.
'I think you said,' I began, with assumed carelessness,
'that after eleven the sight of the dial no
longer affects you. As it is now nearly twelve'--
looking at my own timepiece--'perhaps, if you
don't resent my pursuit of proof, you will look at it
He smiled good-humouredly, pulled out the watch
again, opened it, and instantly sprang to his feet
with a cry that Heaven has not had the mercy to
permit me to forget! His eyes, their blackness strikingly
intensified by the pallor of his face, were fixed
upon the watch, which he clutched in both hands.
For some time he remained in that attitude without
uttering another sound; then, in a voice that I should
not have recognized as his, he said:
'Damn you! it is two minutes to eleven!'
I was not unprepared for some such outbreak, and
without rising replied, calmly enough:
'I beg your pardon; I must have misread your
watch in setting my own by it.'
He shut the case with a sharp snap and put the
watch in his pocket. He looked at me and made
an attempt to smile, but his lower lip quivered and
he seemed unable to close his mouth. His hands,
also, were shaking, and he thrust them, clenched,
into the pockets of his sackcoat. The courageous
spirit was manifestly endeavouring to subdue the
coward body. The effort was too great; he began to
sway from side to side, as from vertigo, and before
I could spring from my chair to support him his
knees gave way and he pitched awkwardly forward
and fell upon his face. I sprang to assist him to rise;
but when John Bartine rises we shall all rise.
The post-mortem examination disclosed nothing;
every organ was normal and sound. But when the
body had been prepared for burial a faint dark circle
was seen to have developed around the neck;
at least I was so assured by several persons who said
they saw it, but of my own knowledge I cannot say
if that was true.
Nor can I set limitations to the law of heredity.
I do not know that in the spiritual world a sentiment
or emotion may not survive the heart that held it,
and seek expression in a kindred life, ages removed.
Surely, if I were to guess at the fate of Bramwell
Olcott Bartine, I should guess that he was hanged
at eleven o'clock in the evening, and that he had
been allowed several hours in which to prepare for
As to John Bartine, my friend, my patient for five
minutes, and--Heaven forgive me!--my victim
for eternity, there is no more to say. He is buried,
and his watch with him--I saw to that. May God
rest his soul in Paradise, and the soul of his Virginian
ancestor, if, indeed, they are two souls.