Found in a box of uncatalogued manuscript material in 2004, the 'duelling letter' (as staff refer to it) remains one of the most talked about letters in the Reed collection, and was a favourite among the members of the Otago / Southland branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN NZ) who visited in 2009.
The scene was Wimbledon Common, London, around 5.30am on 6 September 1810. The two men, George Payne of Sulby Hall, Northamptonshire, and a Mr Clarke of Newcastle. Payne was married with four children. He was a wealthy man with an annual income of around £14,000 per year. Mr Clarke and his sister were orphans. Miss Clarke was a close friend of Mrs Payne, and often visited the Payne household. George Payne, however, allegedly showed Miss Clarke 'some attention'. Her brother decided that this 'attention' was inappropriate and challenged Payne to their fateful meeting. Whether or not Miss Clarke was wronged and wished her honour to be defended is not recorded.
The five-page letter in question was written by Payne and addressed to his wife, Mary. It is dated on the final page 'Wednesday night, 10 o'clock', and was written from his lodgings at Wood Green:
'My dearest, dearest Mary. In contemplation of a fatal result from my intended meeting with Mr Clark which will in all human probability take place tomorrow I seize the present opportunity of writing a few lines to you as they will be my last I ever shall write to bid you an eternal farewell & to express a hope that your forgiveness to me is as complete as you were good enough to say it certain was'.
Payne continued by hoping for the chance to hear her forgiveness directly before he died. It is unclear whether he is begging her pardon for the position he was to leave her in as a widow or for the perceived indiscretion with Miss Clarke: 'The many injuries I have inflicted on different people but more particularly the distress I have caused you to suffer by my late conduct do not leave me much room to expect the mercy I pray for'. Payne praised at some length Mary's virtues as a person, a wife and a mother (though perhaps not always from a viewpoint considered politically correct in our times): 'your anticipation of my slightest wishes, your anxiety to accomplish their object, your extreme regard after my health, all these proved to me that in my selection of a wife I had been happy & fortunate beyond what any man of the most sanguine nature would have expected to have been'.
|The opening page of Payne's letter|
It becomes obvious that Mary Payne knew of the accusation and the impending duel. Though shocked, she assured him that her love for him was unchanged. Though anxious about his safety, and in despair of the possible outcome, she appeared to have agreed to her husband accepting the challenge: 'you assented to my determination of acceding to his wish with a sense of feeling which, as they excited my astonishment, so they commanded my love & admiration. One of the most cogent reasons for my wishing to have lived was to have shewn & proved to you that such refined feelings, sense, & love were not thrown away upon me, by the increased love & veneration I should hereafter have exhibited'.
Payne sought to assure Mary that her words of love and repentance were not 'false professions' or 'the fulsome language of empty panegyrick [sic]'. He made plans for his children, entrusting them to Mary's care. He expressed regret that he was unable to leave his fortune to Mary, but that it was to go in Trust for his eldest son, George (about seven years old at the time). Payne was certain that the children would repay later the debt of her love and kindness and he was 'positive that George when of age will make the remainder of your life splendid as well as happy'. He asked Mary to ensure his debts were discharged by the Trustees. Payne then began to ramble, professing once again his deepest regret and love, requesting her to give the children a thousand kisses goodbye, and gives feeling to his own internal turmoil and regret.
As the letter comes to a close, Payne made one request that perhaps hints that all was not so innocent in this affair: 'One more favour I beseech of you grant me. Letters may arrive from persons employed by me in this melancholy affair addressed to me under an assumed name, or even addressed to you; they must excite painful sensations in you if you read them, I implore you therefore by all that's sacred to burn them without perusing their contents - for my sake grant this favour'.
Finally, it was time to say this last goodbye: 'The hour for my meeting with Mr Clark is now fixed, in ten hours from this time my life will be terminated. I cannot say (I wish I could) that the retrospect is cheering. I hope & pray for Eternal forgiveness & in the anxious wish that I may meet you in the next world after a long & happy life - Adieu my dearest, best of wives & women & believe me, Mary, in death your most affectionate & repentant husband'.
Payne's letter proved prophetic. After a very short time the carriage that bore him to Wimbledon Commons returned to the Red Lion pub at Putney. Payne had been severely wounded and died ten hours later. Clarke made his escape uninjured, no doubt feeling that he had honourably done his duty.
George Payne's final wishes were not to be. His eldest son and namesake became famous as a 'patron of the turf' and an infatuated and reckless gambler. Fourteen years after the duel, the younger George inherited the family seat at Sulby Hall, his father's trust fund of around £300,000, and an annual income of £17,000 from Northampton estates. Within a few years he had gambled away the whole lot, including two substantial inheritances from other relatives and Sulby Hall itself (see his entry in the ODNB). In such circumstances it is doubtful that he ever achieved his father's wish to provide a splendid old age for his poor mother.
[This post is based on research done by my predecessor, Ian Stewart].