Here is my letter to readers at the beginning of the novel:
The last fatal duel in Upper Canada took place between Robert Lyon and John Wilson on June 13, 1833, in the village of Perth, Ontario. Now a town of about 7,000 residents, Perth is located off Highway #7, eighty kilometres west of Ottawa
The day before the duel, the adversaries agreed through a mutual friend to make specific concessions: Lyon would apologize for assaulting Wilson if the latter would acknowledge that the views expressed in a letter he had written were not intended to denigrate Lyon’s character.
But the next morning, Lyon refused to apologize. Why? To the best of my knowledge, no clear-cut reason has ever been uncovered. It is assumed that Henry Lelievre, Lyon’s Second, convinced him to go ahead with the duel. But is that what really happened?
I’ve uncovered a report written fifty years after the event. It was written at the request of John Watson, who was a Professor of Moral and Mental Philosophy (Psychology) at Queen’s College (University) in Kingston, Ontario, from 1872 to 1924. The writer describes the milieu in which the affair took place — and his involvement in bringing it about.
Of course, the report is handwritten. The writer uses a long stroke —— (a lot of them!) where an ellipsis should be. In typing it, I’ve changed his “strokes” to an ellipsis. Words he underlines I changed to italics. But I’ve retained his sentence and paragraph structure and his nineteenth-century spellings and capitalizations.
The manuscript is 126 years old. Although difficult to read in places, it is in remarkably good condition, and, despite his arthritis, the author’s penmanship is legible. At times, his mind wanders. Photographer Denis Filion took photos of some of his handwriting, which I’ve included. The blacksmith’s report follows a dramatization of the duel.
June 26, 2009
Here is the beginning of the blacksmith’s report:
Perth, 19 May 1883
Dear Professor Watson:
I am in receipt of your letter of this past Thursday. I am an old man, Mr. Watson. I am pleased to try to meet your request. I have the time, but the arthritis in these gnarled fingers . . . it is painful . . . I am unable to hold the pen for a long sitting. I will do my best, Sir. I trust that I am understanding your request, the reason for your inquiry. I know little of Moral Philosophy, and nothing of Mental Philosophy. Logic and Ethics . . . at times I believe we humans possess little of either. You say for the purpose of teaching a course at your College, you wish to understand something of why men once thought confronting one another with arms was a reasonable means of settling disputes. Once thought! Is that not how men still think?
I was nineteen in 1833. Fifty years ago! How time passes. I knew John Wilson and Robert Lyon and Gideon Ackland, Simon Robertson and Miss Hughes, Miss Lees and Miss Thom. And, oh yes! Henry Lelievre! I knew them all. In the Village of Perth at that time, even today in what has grown into a peaceful and bucolic community, we all knew one another. Isolation, except for those who chose to build a shanty in the woods far from the Village and surrounding farms, isolation was not possible.
But this old body . . . my knees and my hands slowly deteriorating from this painful affliction. The Doctors seem not to know what to do. But my mind is still sharp! Except on occasion, it tends to wander, as it did just now, and I lose my thought. Yes, at times the past seems muddled. But I am sure my affliction is of no interest to you. I am not accustomed to writing long passages. I cannot promise a coherent Report. I will do my best, Sir.
I am reluctant to dredge up memories best left . . . I don’t believe it possible to understand the events of that fateful Thursday without understanding Perth. Violence was not unknown to us. The Duel between John and Robert was not the first.
. . .
The misunderstanding between Mr. Watson . . . I mean Mr. Wilson and Mr. Lyon . . . let me just say these fine young men . . . for John was only twenty-three, and Robert nineteen, the same age as I . . . they were shown a poor example by some of Perth’s most distinguished residents. Officers, Doctors and Lawyers, no less! Men from whom you might expect more common sense! Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself. If my information is to be of value, you must understand the settlement.
As a man disciplined in the sciences of the mind, you will appreciate that when you mix men of military training — robust men accustomed to fighting — with farmers and craftsmen who emigrated because they and their loved ones were starving, there is bound to be strife.