Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 44

The Browborough Trial

There was another matter of public interest going on at this time which created a great excitement. And this, too, added to the importance of Phineas Finn, though Phineas was not the hero of the piece. Mr Browborough, the late member for Tankerville, was tried for bribery. It will be remembered that when Phineas contested the borough in the autumn, this gentleman was returned. He was afterwards unseated, as the result of a petition before the judge, and Phineas was declared to be the true member. The judge who had so decided had reported to the Speaker that further inquiry before a commission into the practices of the late and former elections at Tankerville would be expedient, and such commission had sat in the months of January and February. Half the voters in Tankerville had been examined, and many who were not voters. The commissioners swept very clean, being new brooms, and in their report recommended that Mr Browborough, whom they had themselves declined to examine, should be prosecuted. That report was made about the end of March, when Mr Daubeny’s great bill was impending. Then there arose a double feeling about Mr Browborough, who had been regarded by many as a model member of Parliament, a man who never spoke, constant in his attendance, who wanted nothing, who had plenty of money, who gave dinners, to whom a seat in Parliament was the be-all and the end-all of life. It could not be the wish of any gentleman, who had been accustomed to his slow step in the lobbies, and his burly form always quiescent on one of the upper seats just below the gangway on the Conservative side of the House, that such a man should really be punished. When the new laws regarding bribery came to take that shape the hearts of members revolted from the cruelty — the hearts even of members on the other side of the House. As long as a seat was in question the battle should of course be fought to the nail. Every kind of accusation might then be lavished without restraint, and every evil practice imputed. It had been known to all the world — known as a thing that was a matter of course — that at every election Mr Browborough had bought his seat. How should a Browborough get a seat without buying it — a man who could not say ten words, of no family, with no natural following in any constituency, distinguished by no zeal in politics, entertaining no special convictions of his own? How should such a one recommend himself to any borough unless he went there with money in his hand? Of course, he had gone to Tankerville with money in his hand, with plenty of money, and had spent it — like a gentleman. Collectively the House of Commons had determined to put down bribery with a very strong hand. Nobody had spoken against bribery with more fervour than Sir Gregory Grogram, who had himself, as Attorney-General, forged the chains for fettering future bribers. He was now again Attorney-General, much to his disgust, as Mr Gresham had at the last moment found it wise to restore Lord Weazeling to the woolsack; and to his hands was to be entrusted the prosecution of Mr Browborough. But it was observed by many that the job was not much to his taste. The House had been very hot against bribery — and certain members of the existing Government, when the late Bill had been passed, had expressed themselves with almost burning indignation against the crime. But, through it all, there had been a slight undercurrent of ridicule attaching itself to the question of which only they who were behind the scenes were conscious. The House was bound to let the outside world know that all corrupt practices at elections were held to be abominable by the House; but Members of the House, as individuals, knew very well what had taken place at their own elections, and were aware of the cheques which they had drawn. Public-houses had been kept open as a matter of course, and nowhere perhaps had more beer been drunk than at Clovelly, the borough for which Sir Gregory Grogram sat. When it came to be a matter of individual prosecution against one whom they had all known and who, as a member, had been inconspicuous and therefore inoffensive, against a heavy, rich, useful man who had been in nobody’s way, many thought that it would amount to persecution. The idea of putting old Browborough into prison for conduct which habit had made second nature to a large proportion of the House was distressing to Members of Parliament generally. The recommendation for this prosecution was made to the House when Mr Daubeny was in the first agonies of his great Bill, and he at once resolved to ignore the matter altogether, at any rate for the present. If he was to be driven out of power there could be no reason why his Attorney-General should prosecute his own ally and follower — a poor, faithful creature, who had never in his life voted against his party, and who had always been willing to accept as his natural leader anyone whom his party might select. But there were many who had felt that as Mr Browborough must certainly now be prosecuted sooner or later — for there could be no final neglecting of the Commissioners’ report — it would be better that he should be dealt with by natural friends than by natural enemies. The newspapers, therefore, had endeavoured to hurry the matter on, and it had been decided that the trial should take place at the Durham Spring Assizes, in the first week of May. Sir Gregory Grogram became Attorney-General in the middle of April, and he undertook the task upon compulsion. Mr Browborough’s own friends, and Mr Browborough himself, declared very loudly that there would be the greatest possible cruelty in postponing the trial. His lawyers thought that his best chance lay in bustling the thing on, and were therefore able to show that the cruelty of delay would be extreme — nay, that any postponement in such a matter would be unconstitutional, if not illegal. It would, of course, have been just as easy to show that hurry on the part of the prosecutor was cruel, and illegal, and unconstitutional, had it been considered that the best chance of acquittal lay in postponement.

And so the trial was forced forward, and Sir Gregory himself was to appear on behalf of the prosecuting House of Commons. There could be no doubt that the sympathies of the public generally were with Mr Browborough, though there was as little doubt that he was guilty. When the evidence taken by the Commissioners had just appeared in the newspapers — when first the fasts of this and other elections at Tankerville were made public, and the world was shown how common it had been for Mr Browborough to buy votes — how clearly the knowledge of the corruption had been brought home to himself — there had for a short week or so been a feeling against him. Two or three London papers had printed leading articles, giving in detail the salient points of the old sinner’s criminality, and expressing a conviction that now, at least, would the real criminal be punished. But this had died away, and the anger against Mr Browborough, even on the part of the most virtuous of the public press, had become no more than lukewarm. Some papers boldly defended him, ridiculed the Commissioners, and declared that the trial was altogether an absurdity. The People’s Banner, setting at defiance with an admirable audacity all the facts as given in the Commissioners’ report, declared that there was not one tittle of evidence against Mr Browborough, and hinted that the trial had been got up by the malign influence of that doer of all evil, Phineas Finn. But men who knew better what was going on in the world than did Mr Quintus Slide, were well aware that such assertions as these were both unavailing and unnecessary. Mr Browborough was believed to be quite safe; but his safety lay in the indifference of his prosecutors — certainly not in his innocence. Anyone prominent in affairs can always see when a man may steal a horse and when a man may not look over a hedge. Mr Browborough had stolen his horse, and had repeated the theft over and over again. The evidence of it all was forthcoming — had, indeed, been already sifted. But Sir Gregory Grogram, who was prominent in affairs, knew that the theft might be condoned.

Nevertheless, the case came on at the Durham Assizes. Within the last two months Browborough had become quite a hero at Tankerville. The Church party had forgotten his broken pledges, and the Radicals remembered only his generosity. Could he have stood for the seat again on the day on which the judges entered Durham, he might have been returned without bribery. Throughout the whole county the prosecution was unpopular. During no portion of his parliamentary career had Mr Browborough’s name been treated with so much respect in the grandly ecclesiastical city as now. He dined with the Dean on the day before the trial, and on the Sunday was shown by the head verger into the stall next to the Chancellor of the Diocese, with a reverence which seemed to imply that he was almost as graceful as a martyr. When he took his seat in the Court next to his attorney, everybody shook hands with him. When Sir Gregory got up to open his case, not one of the listeners then supposed that Mr Browborough was about to suffer any punishment. He was arraigned before Mr Baron Boultby, who had himself sat for a borough in his younger days, and who knew well how things were done. We are all aware how impassionately grand are the minds of judges, when men accused of crimes are brought before them for trial; but judges after. All are men, and Mr Baron Boultby, as he looked at Mr Browborough, could not but have thought of the old days.

It was nevertheless necessary that the prosecution should be conducted in a properly formal manner, and that all the evidence should be given. There was a cloud of witnesses over from Tankerville — miners, colliers, and the like — having a very good turn of it at the expense of the poor borough. All these men must be examined, and their evidence would no doubt be the same now as when it was given with so damnable an effect before those clean-sweeping Commissioners. Sir Gregory’s opening speech was quite worthy of Sir Gregory. It was essentially necessary, he said, that the atmosphere of our boroughs should be cleansed and purified from the taint of corruption. The voice of the country had spoken very plainly on the subject, and a verdict had gone forth that there should be no more bribery at elections. At the last election at Tankerville, and, as he feared, at some former elections, there had been manifest bribery. It would be for the jury to decide whether Mr Browborough himself had been so connected with the acts of his agents as to be himself within the reach of the law. If it were found that he had brought himself within the reach of the law, the jury would no doubt say so, and in such case would do great service to the cause of purity; but if Mr Browborough had not been personally cognisant of what his agents had done, then the jury would be bound to acquit him. A man was not necessarily guilty of bribery in the eye of the law because bribery had been committed, even though the bribery so committed had been sufficiently proved to deprive him of the seat which he would otherwise have enjoyed. Nothing could be clearer than the manner in which Sir Gregory explained it all to the jury; nothing more eloquent than his denunciations against bribery in general; nothing more mild than his allegations against Mr Browborough individually.

In regard to the evidence Sir Gregory, with his two assistants, went through his work manfully. The evidence was given — not to the same length as at Tankerville before the Commissioners — but really to the same effect. But yet the record of the evidence as given in the newspapers seemed to be altogether different. At Tankerville there had been an indignant and sometimes an indiscreet zeal which had communicated itself to the whole proceedings. The general flavour of the trial at Durham was one of good-humoured raillery. Mr Browborough’s counsel in cross-examining the witnesses for the prosecution displayed none of that righteous wrath — wrath righteous on behalf of injured innocence — which is so common with gentlemen employed in the defence of criminals; but bowed and simpered, and nodded at Sir Gregory in a manner that was quite pleasant to behold. Nobody scolded anybody. There was no roaring of barristers, no clenching of fists and kicking up of dust, no threats, no allusions to witnesses’ oaths. A considerable amount of gentle fun was poked at the witnesses by the defending counsel, but not in a manner to give any pain. Gentlemen who acknowledged to have received seventeen shillings and sixpence for their votes at the last election were asked how they had invested their money. Allusions were made to their wives, and a large amount of good-humoured sparring was allowed, in which the witnesses thought that they had the best of it. The men of Tankerville long remembered this trial, and hoped anxiously that there might soon be another. The only man treated with severity was poor Phineas Finn, and luckily for himself he was not present. His qualifications as member of Parliament for Tankerville were somewhat roughly treated. Each witness there, when he was asked what candidate would probably be returned for Tankerville at the next election, readily answered that Mr Browborough would certainly carry the seat. Mr Browborough sat in the Court throughout it all, and was the hero of the day.

The judge’s summing up was very short, and seemed to have been given almost with indolence. The one point on which he insisted was the difference between such evidence of bribery as would deprive a man of his seat, and that which would make him subject to the criminal law. By the criminal law a man could not be punished for the acts of another. Punishment must follow a man’s own act. If a man were to instigate another to murder he would be punished, not for the murder, but for the instigation. They were now administering the criminal law, and they were bound to give their verdict for an acquittal unless they were convinced that the man on his trial had himself — wilfully and wittingly — been guilty of the crime imputed. He went through the evidence, which was in itself clear against the old sinner, and which had been in no instance validly contradicted, and then left the matter to the jury. The men in the box put their heads together, and returned a verdict of acquittal without one moment’s delay. Sir Gregory Grogram and his assistants collected their papers together. The judge addressed three or four words almost of compliment to Mr Browborough, and the affair was over, to the manifest contentment of everyone there present. Sir Gregory Grogram was by no means disappointed, and everybody, on his own side in Parliament and on the other, though that he had done his duty very well. The clean-sweeping Commissioners, who had been animated with wonderful zeal by the nature and novelty of their work, probably felt that they had been betrayed, but it may be doubted whether anyone else was disconcerted by the result of the trial, unless it might be some poor innocents here and there about the country who had been induced to believe that bribery and corruption were in truth to be banished from the purlieus of Westminster.

Mr Roby and Mr Ratler, who filled the same office each for his own party, in and out, were both acquainted with each other, and apt to discuss parliamentary questions in the library and smoking-room of the House, where such discussions could be held on most matters. “I was very glad that the case went as it did at Durham,” said Mr Ratler.

“And so am I,” said Mr Roby. “Browborough was always a good fellow.”

“Not a doubt about it; and no good could have come from a conviction. I suppose there has been a little money spent at Tankerville.”

“And at other places one could mention,” said Mr Roby.

“Of course there has — and money will be spent again. Nobody dislikes bribery more than I do. The House, of course, dislikes it. But if a man loses his seat, surely that is punishment enough.”

“It’s better to have to draw a cheque sometimes than to be out in the cold.”

“Nevertheless, members would prefer that their seats should not cost them so much,” continued Mr Ratler. “But the thing can’t be done all at once. That idea of pouncing upon one man and making a victim of him is very disagreeable to me. I should have been sorry to have seen a verdict against Browborough. You must acknowledge that there was no bitterness in the way in which Grogram did it.”

“We all feel that,” said Mr Roby — who was, perhaps, by nature a little more candid than his rival — “and when the time comes no doubt we shall return the compliment.”

The matter was discussed in quite a different spirit between two other politicians. “So Sir Gregory has failed at Durham,” said Lord Cantrip to his friend, Mr Gresham.

“I was sure he would.”

“And why?”

“Ah — why? How am I to answer such a question? Did you think that Mr Browborough would be convicted of bribery by a jury?”

“No, indeed,” answered Lord Cantrip.

“And can you tell me why?”

“Because there was no earnestness in the matter — either with the Attorney-General or with anyone else.”

“And yet,” said Mr Gresham, “Grogram is a very earnest man when he believes in his case. No member of Parliament will ever be punished for bribery as for a crime till members of Parliament generally look upon bribery as a crime. We are very far from that as yet. I should have thought a conviction to be a great misfortune.”

“Why so?”

“Because it would have created ill blood, and our own hands in this matter are not a bit cleaner than those of our adversaries. We can’t afford to pull their houses to pieces before we have put our own in order. The thing will be done; but it must, I fear, be done slowly — as is the case with all reforms from within.”

Phineas Finn, who was very sore and unhappy at this time, and who consequently was much in love with purity and anxious for severity, felt himself personally aggrieved by the acquittal. It was almost tantamount to a verdict against himself. And then he knew so well that bribery had been committed, and was so confident that such a one as Mr Browborough could have been returned to Parliament by none other than corrupt means! In his present mood he would have been almost glad to see Mr Browborough at the treadmill, and would have thought six months’ solitary confinement quite inadequate to the offence. “I never read anything in my life that disgusted me so much,” he said to his friend, Mr Monk.

“I can’t go along with you there.”

“If any man ever was guilty of bribery, he was guilty!”

“I don’t doubt it for a moment.”

“And yet Grogram did not try to get a verdict.”

“Had he tried ever so much he would have failed. In a matter such as that — political and not social in its nature — a jury is sure to be guided by what it has, perhaps unconsciously, learned to be the feeling of the country. No disgrace is attached to their verdict, and yet everybody knows that Mr Browborough had bribed, and all those who have looked into it know, too, that the evidence was conclusive.”

“Then are the jury all perjured,” said Phineas.

“I have nothing to say to that. No stain of perjury clings to them. They are better received in Durham today than they would have been had they found Mr Browborough guilty. In business, as in private life, they will be held to be as trustworthy as before — and they will be, for aught that we know, quite trustworthy. There are still circumstances in which a man, though on his oath, may be untrue with no more stain of falsehood than falls upon him when he denies himself at his front door though he happen to be at home.”

“What must we think of such a condition of things, Mr Monk?”

“That it’s capable of improvement. I do not know that we can think anything else. As for Sir Gregory Grogram and Baron Boultby and the jury, it would be waste of power to execrate them. In political matters it is very hard for a man in office to be purer than his neighbours — and, when he is so, he becomes troublesome. I have found that out before today.”

With Lady Laura Kennedy Phineas did find some sympathy — but then she would have sympathised with him on any subject under the sun. If he would only come to her and sit with her she would fool him to the top of his bent. He had resolved that he would go to Portman Square as little as possible, and had been confirmed in that resolution by the scandal which had now spread everywhere about the town in reference to himself and herself. But still he went. He never left her till some promise of returning at some stated time had been extracted from him. He had even told her of his own scruples and of her danger — and they had discussed together that last thunderbolt which had fallen from the Jove of the People’s Banner . But she had laughed his caution to scorn. Did she not know herself and her own innocence? Was she not living in her father’s house, and with her father? Should she quail beneath the stings and venom of such a reptile as Quintus Slide? “Oh, Phineas,” she said, “let us be braver than that.” He would much prefer to have stayed away — but still he went to her. He was conscious of her dangerous love for him. He knew well that it was not returned. He was aware that it would be best for both that he should be apart. But yet he could not bring himself to wound her by his absence, “I do not see why you should feel it so much,” she said, speaking of the trial at Durham.

“We were both on our trial — he and I.”

“Everybody knows that he bribed and that you did not.”

“Yes — and everybody despises me and pats him on the back. I am sick of the whole thing. There is no honesty in the life we lead.”

“You got your seat at any rate.”

“I wish with all my heart that I had never seen the dirty wretched place,” said he.

“Oh, Phineas, do not say that.”

“But I do say it. Of what use is the seat to me? If I could only feel that anyone knew — ”

“Knew what, Phineas?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“I understand. I know that you have meant to be honest, while this man has always meant to be dishonest. I know that you have intended to serve your country, and have wished to work for it. But you cannot expect that it should all be roses.

“Roses! The nosegays which are worn down at Westminster are made of garlick and dandelions!”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43