‘Tis about seven o’clock that morning.
Robert Downes has barely slept, so acute is his anticipation. He leaves his bedroom in darkness, and walks towards the meadows by a meandering scenic route: through the grassmarket, up the west bow, tarrying beneath the castle and cathedral. Downes starts down George IV Bridge, stopping there awhile. He is not yet tired of the view from the new construction. So much of the city is changing. So much of the world. His heart is heavy. His mind racing, hastily drafting involuntary lines. A couplet. So that our feet shalt not mix with dirt/ Man raiseth his streets o’er the Earth.
Downes repeats the couplet, counting out the syllables with his fingers. Are they a regular meter? He is uncertain. What is the next line? Should he prove his worth, or perhaps build a hearth… Does the phrase “heavens hearth” mean anything? After giving the matter careful consideration, Downes supposes that sadly no, it probably does not.
He wonders if his thoughts need a variation in meter, sonnet form perhaps. He tries fragmenting his feelings into two alternating rhyming patterns that play off each other, allowing their sonic effect and literal meaning to contrast for comical or profound effect. The attempt is futile and gives him a headache. He sits down.
The sun rises on greyfriars. Downes points to the graveyard, “mortality! Thou speaketh!” he declares with theatrical astonishment. He takes unsteadily to his leg, his arm outstretched toward the graveyard.
Downes has lived in the city for three years now. He was well-aware of the location greyfriars, even in the dark. He walks among the tombs muttering to himself: Byron, Shakespeare, Blake. When the light turns from orange to yellow, he steels himself and marches to the meadows.
Professor George McGonagall rises at six that morning. He tells his wife that he has important business to attend to. He kisses her farewell, assuring his return by evening meal time. He has three daughters. He says goodbye to them all. He then meets his coachman, Andrew, at the gates of his house. Andrew doffs his cap and muttering the word “sir”. He is ready, just as he said he would be. Andrew flashes the two muzzleloading pistols he has procured. McGonagall nods dutifully and silently enters the coach.
They ride towards the city. McGonagall allows a moment for quiet tears. He reminds himself that this is duty. This is the blessed process of superseding. It is necessary. Without this process, there is no progress. The germs of a poem begins to formulate in his mind: Process-progress. Civilisation is needing-superseding. Is there any potential in this as a composition?
No, he concludes. Not really.
The grievance between the two issued two days previously, at a public lecture. McGonagall had been invited to speak on modern poetry. As a renowned professor in the city of Edinburgh the hall was crowded, the attendees hearts were light, and free of sorrow.
Among the thronged faces, McGonagall spied his former student. Their relationship was close. Downes often visited the professor’s office to debate the classics, tentatively they had begun sharing their own writing between themselves.
A moment of wild candour had led the professor to call out to Downes that day, publicly proclaiming the brilliance of the young man’s writing. Downes, as differential as he was irradiant, had disputed the claim and insisted on the superiority of the professor’s work.
“I never meant to hurt you, speaketh vice unto to virtue. How can a man not weep at such words?” McGonagall had shouted.
“You make beauty from science sir,” Downes replied. “We are here not from God, but providence/ Like otters, trees, and cormorants.”
They quoted each others words further, though soon their voices were lost among the laughter of the thinning crowd.
It had been a mortal humiliation.
McGonagall knew this was a day that would be remembered for a very long time. His reputation, his authority, the trust in his aesthetic judgements was publicly undermined.
In the heat of the moment he had demanded the duel, to reclaim lost honour, aye. But also to conclusively settle the matter of who indeed was Edinburgh’s greatest living poet.
McGonagall’s coach arrives at the meadows. Andrew disembarks and opens the carriage door. The professor exits with a mournful sigh.
The Meadows are dry that morning; the grass, frozen. Downes stands some way off, beneath a tree, his face contorted by frustration. As Andrew and McGonagall approach, they hear him utter, “I suppose now, it is no matter.”
“Well met, sir,” exclaims McGonagall. “I confess, I was uncertain of finding you here.”
“Truth and bravery are kin sir. A host of resisitudes have my back. My heart is pure, my hands are steadied.” Downes would demonstrate the fact, but he feels their tremors.
“Lo then, thy kin protect me too. Truth is my sole preserve. As for bravery: here I stand, setting the challenge, but doing so compassionately. I offer one final opportunity for your repentance and rescinding of your comments.”
“A generous offer sir, befitting of your august personage. However you know I can do no such thing. I stand by my words as though they were a most precious lover. You sir, are the greatest wordsmith in this city. Far better than I.”
“Sacrilege!” The professor’s voice near-breaks. “Your words move me like no other. In profession, I am master and you the student; but in reality, I have nothing to teach you of feeling, of love. The expression of the soul cannot be taught, you have the gift! I beseech you sir, see sense. Repent. Else my most remarkable contribution to this literary world may be to deprive it of a flowering genius.”
“Master please, it is I who risks depriving the world of beauty. Your words are honeyed logic. You are Newton and Shakespeare, expressed as one. And if you are Newton, I, I simply squat at your feet, hoping for beautiful crumbs to obey your law.”
With both men refusing concession, Andrew brings forth the pistols and presents them one apiece. Initially Andrew was to stand only as the professor’s official second; yet Downes had no one prepared to act as his and so Andrew now stands for them both. The poets had co-authored an official statement, declaring their intention to duel, and their willing compliance in the endeavour whatever the consequences. All three sign the statement; they do so weeping and embracing.
Andrew supervises the loading of the pistols with powder and lead balls. He positions the poets back to back, pistols raised to chest-height. Andrew clears his throat.
“Dearest gentlemen. We are here today to resolve an issue of great honour and dignity. I will now count to twenty. Each number representing a step you must take forwards. Once the twentieth step has been taken, you must turn and fire your shot. Understood?”
The poets affirm their confirmation. Andrew begins to count, slowly. As the count reaches double figures, the poets hands are visibly shaking. As Andrew commands the fifteenth step he hears McGonagall omit a sharp gasp. At sixteen Downes’ knees seem to shake. Seventeen. Eighteen. Nineteen. The men visibly stiffen. The word twenty is simply that, a word. It is the same as the last nineteen, and yet Andrew cannot help but pause. When the word does emerge, the emission is quivering and weak.
The poets make their final step. They turn. It is impossible to know who is faster; their shots near-simultaneous, like grounded fireworks. The air is filled with the smell of gunpowder.
Both men crumple. McGonagall falls, silently, backwards and sideways. Downes cries out in pain as he falls to his knees and then collapses forwards.
Andrew is confounded by their accuracy. He had made assumptions that neither man would prove proficient at arms, that perhaps, at the worst, one of them might sustain a minor graze. He rushes, first to his friend and master. Death has not relaxed the professor’s grip on the pistol, it points still at his own chest where he has shot himself in the heart at close range. The blood pumping out across the white of his shirt. He surely perished on impact. Such moral clarity! Such nobility!
However, Andrew cannot comprehend how Downes has also fallen. Andrew then races then to the dying man and asks what has befallen him. Downes drops his pistol and rolls to look upwards at the coachman, pointing to a shot clumsily executed in his stomach. He is panting, trying for words. Andrew deduces what has transpired. There can be no other explanation. Downes too has shot himself.
“The… the… professor… Does he live?” Downes manages.
Andrew cannot speak the truth. He crouches and nods, cradling the dying man’s head. Downes is trying to say something else. Andrew leans in, begging the poet to repeat his final words.
“Then… I depart from this… this dingy earth/ light the… the fires/ For I arrive, at… at heaven’s… heaven’s hearth.”
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