The Scotsman Christmas Story: Edward Kane and The Matter of Honour (Chapter One)

Illustration: Lesley-Anne Barnes Macfarlane
Illustration: Lesley-Anne Barnes Macfarlane
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... and so, the old nobleman closed one eye, took careful aim with his pistol and BANG! Thirty feet away, his young opponent looked dazed for a few seconds – then fell to the ground, his top hat blown into the mud.

The old man nodded and smiled.

Dead? Good. Serves the blighter right…

*****

Edinburgh: December, 1850

“A duel? Two men fighting a duel??”

Edward Kane, Advocate and his faithful friend, Mr Collins, Advocate, both attired in wig and gown, sat in the Advocates Reading Room, sipping their tea.

Collins furrowed his brow: “A duel? You mean – with swords and such?”

Kane nodded: “Collins, you must bring yourself into the modern age. This is the nineteenth century, my friend – the weapons here were pistols.”

Collins considered this. He removed a small square of silk from his waistcoat pocket, removed his horn-rimmed glasses and began polishing the thick lenses: “Pistols - at dawn, no doubt...”

Kane smiled: “At dusk, in fact - at the top of Calton Hill...”

Collins continued: “My dear Edward, there cannot have been a duel in Scotland for…oh, it must be decades.”

“I am simply repeating what I was told, Collins.”

Collins continued to wipe the lenses: “And what was the point of honour at stake?”

Kane looked up from his teacup: “‘The point of honour’?”

Collins placed the glasses back onto the bridge of his nose: “If it was, indeed, a ‘duel’, Edward, then the gentlemen involved would be fighting over a matter of honour. Without that noble element, it might as well be two Irish navigators engaging in fisticuffs outside the Doric Tavern.” The friends laughed. Collins continued: “And what is the charge?”

Kane shook his head: “I am not quite sure. I received a letter of instruction, delivered to my rooms yesterday evening. Consultation is later today. The messenger said that the matter related to a duel. And now you know as much as I do, Collins.”

Collins nodded, but seemed more serious now. Kane marked this: “You will forgive me for saying that your sudden change in demeanour concerns me....”

Collins, thoughtful, sipped his tea, then: “Honour or no honour, Edward. Two aggrieved gentlemen travel to a remote spot, armed with pistols, determined to fire those pistols at each other...”

“Yes?”

“In the event of success, then - as a matter of law - one of those men will likely emerge...”

“As a victor?’

Collins put down his cup: “.... as a murderer, Edward, as a murderer...”

*****

Was that a drop of snow? Edward Kane looked at the sky. Three o’clock. He pulled on the bell-pull at the door of the offices of Baxter and Bruce, Writers to the Signet, the solicitors who had instructed him. Kane heard the tinkling of the bell inside. After a few moments, the door was opened by a lanky youth, who took Kane’s coat, hat and cane and led him through the atrium and into a waiting area. And when he got there, the first thing that he saw was another Advocate, Norval Norris.

Now, Norval Peter Norris (“NP” Norris) was famous (some, of a genteel character, would say “infamous”) for mounting the defence, and often securing the acquittal, of those individuals who - at first blush - were unquestionably guilty of the crime of which they had been accused. Many was the court sheet at the end of the criminal proceedings that had been marked by the Clerk of Court as “NP” - “Not Proven” and it had not taken long for the “NP” of “Not Proven” to be conflated with the “NP” of “NP” Norris, leading to the nickname “Not Proven Norris”.

Norris rose from his seat: “Ah, Edward, Edward, my dear young fellow, so nice to see you.”

Kane gave a short bow. Advocates do not shake hands. Norris continued: “I am glad that they have followed my advice and have instructed you.”

Kane smiled: “I was not aware of that, Norval. Then, I am grateful to you for the instruction.”

There was no doubting Kane’s legal ability (a very good MA, LL.B), but, at this stage of his career, paying work was an elusive occurrence for the young Advocate. He had precious little experience of Criminal Law, and had recently been saved in such a case by relying on the expertise of Norris in the notorious affair that the newspapers had dubbed “The Parlour Maid Murderer”.

“I’m afraid, Norval, that I have very little idea of what this case is about.” Kane held up his letter of instruction. “I received this letter only last night, but it is somewhat lacking in detail.”

Norris laughed: “We are both in the same boat, my friend. I was instructed only yesterday afternoon. I agreed to act as Leader - recommending you as my Junior - and beyond that, I am entirely in the dark.”

“And what is the charge?”

“Didn’t they tell you?”

Kane shook his head.

“It would appear that our client, Sir Albert Arthur, has been accused of Attempted Murder...”

And at that point, the lanky lad who had answered the front door appeared and announced: “Mr Baxter will see you now gentlemen. Please walk this way.”

*****

“Of course - I could have killed him, had that been my intention. I am a crack shot, you know...”

Edward Kane, Advocate and his Leader, “Not Proven” Norris sat in the oak-panelled offices of their solicitors and listened to the facts of the case. Or, at least, the facts as given by their new client, Lord Albert Arthur.

“...could have placed that pistol ball right between his eyes. But showed him mercy. Blew his hat off instead. Saw a great big hole in it afterwards...”

Norris, Advocate, sat listening intently, pulling on his great side-whiskers as he puffed on his pipe. Edward Kane, acting as Junior, scribbled rapidly, attempting to write down the account verbatim.

Sir Albert was perfectly affable, but tended to talk around the point. NP Norris, the veteran defender of a hundred accused, brought him to the point: “Lord Albert, we shall record the minutiae of the duel itself in due course, but what interests me at this point - and will be of crucial interest to the gentlemen of the jury - is what was the dispute about?”

The old lord thought for a moment, then: “I shouldn’t like to say, Mr Norris.”

Norris stared hard at Arthur for a moment, then got up from the table. He nodded towards Kane, who was still scribbling, trying to catch up with the conversation, and said: “Come, Edward. We shall have no business here.”

The solicitor attending the consultation, Mr Baxter (Writer to the Signet), got up from his chair in an attempt to stay Norris’ exit: “Mr Norris, Mr Norris, this is quite outrageous...”

Norris turned on the solicitor: “No, Mr Baxter, what is outrageous is that you expect the services of two Learned Counsel to take on a case at the very last minute where the accused refuses to provide an explanation for his conduct.” He nodded towards Lord Albert, still sitting at the table. “If you ‘shouldn’t like to say’, Lord Albert, what the dispute involved, then I ‘shouldn’t like’ to accept your instructions. I must bid you ‘Good day’...” Norris bowed “...my lord.”

Norris then nodded to Kane. Kane began to put away his pen and paper. The old nobleman put up his hand: “Gentlemen, gentlemen, please. Please. Sit down.”

Norris considered this for a moment, then sat down again. Kane, taking this as his cue to remain, replaced the papers on the desk before him and lifted up his pen in anticipation.

The old lord thought for a moment, then: “It concerned my wife. Lady Arthur. You must understand that she was not born into this life. It might be that her past was more colourful than desired. But I will not have her spoken of in that fashion. This was a matter of honour...”

NP Norris puffed on his pipe and smiled: “Go on…”

Ross Macfarlane QC has written The Scotsman Christmas story every year for the last ten years. His Scotsman story “Mr Charles Dickens and the Tale of Ebenezer...Scroggie” was chosen as the featured fiction by the international organisation, the Dickens Fellowship in 2017. His novella “Edward Kane and The Matter of Honour” is set in Edinburgh in the same period, the mid-19th Century and has been specially commissioned by The Scotsman. Illustrations by Lesley-Anne Barnes Macfarlane.