Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 47

What came of the Quarrel

On the next morning at seven o’clock a superintendent of police called at the house of Mr Gresham and informed the Prime Minister that Mr Bonteen, the President of the Board of Trade, had been murdered during the night. There was no doubt of the fact. The body had been recognised, and information had been taken to the unfortunate widow at the house Mr Bonteen had occupied in St James’s Place. The superintendent had already found out that Mr Bonteen had been attacked as he was returning from his club late at night — or rather, early in the morning, and expressed no doubt that he had been murdered close to the spot on which his body was found. There is a dark, uncanny-looking passage running from the end of Bolton Row, in May Fair, between the gardens of two great noblemen, coming out among the mews in Berkeley Street, at the corner of Berkeley Square, just opposite to the bottom of Hay Hill. It was on the steps leading up from the passage to the level of the ground above that the body was found. The passage was almost as near a way as any from the club to Mr Bonteen’s house in St James’s Place; but the superintendent declared that gentlemen but seldom used the passage after dark, and he was disposed to think that the unfortunate man must have been forced down the steps by the ruffian who had attacked him from the level above. The murderer, so thought the superintendent, must have been cognizant of the way usually taken by Mr Bonteen, and must have lain in wait for him in the darkness of the mouth of the passage. The superintendent had been at work on his inquiries since four in the morning, and had heard from Lady Eustace — and from Mrs Bonteen, as far as that poor distracted woman had been able to tell her story — some account of the cause of quarrel between the respective husbands of those two ladies. The officer, who had not as yet heard a word of the late disturbance between Mr Bonteen and Phineas Finn, was strongly of opinion that the Reverend Mr Emilius had been the murderer. Mr Gresham, of course, coincided in that opinion. What steps had been taken as to the arrest of Mr Emilius? The superintendent was of opinion that Mr Emilius was already in custody. He was known to be lodging close to the Marylebone Workhouse, in Northumberland Street, having removed to that somewhat obscure neighbourhood as soon as his house in Lowndes Square had been broken up by the running away of his wife and his consequent want of means. Such was the story as told to the Prime Minister at seven o’clock in the morning.

At eleven o’clock, at his private room at the Treasury Chambers, Mr Gresham heard much more. At that time there were present with him two officers of the police force, his colleagues in the Cabinet, Lord Cantrip and the Duke of Omnium, three of his junior colleagues in the Government, Lord Fawn, Barrington Erle, and Laurence Fitzgibbon — and Major Mackintosh, the chief of the London police. It was not exactly part of the duty of Mr Gresham to investigate the circumstances of this murder; but there was so much in it that brought it closely home to him and his Government, that it became impossible for him not to concern himself in the business. There had been so much talk about Mr Bonteen lately, his name had been so common in the newspapers, the ill-usage which he had been supposed by some to have suffered had been so freely discussed, and his quarrel, not only with Phineas Finn, but subsequently with the Duke of Omnium, had been so widely known — that his sudden death created more momentary excitement than might probably have followed that of a greater man. And now, too, the facts of the past night, as they became known, seemed to make the crime more wonderful, more exciting, more momentous than it would have been had it been brought clearly home to such a wretch as the Bohemian Jew, Yosef Mealyus, who had contrived to cheat that wretched Lizzie Eustace into marrying him.

As regarded Yosef Mealyus the story now told respecting him was this. He was already in custody. He had been found in bed at his lodgings between seven and eight, and had, of course, given himself up without difficulty. He had seemed to be horror-struck when he heard of the man’s death — but had openly expressed his joy. “He has endeavoured to ruin me, and has done me a world of harm. Why should I sorrow for him?’ — he said to the policeman when rebuked for his inhumanity. But nothing had been found tending to implicate him in the crime. The servant declared that he had gone to bed before eleven o’clock, to her knowledge — for she had seen him there — and that he had not left the house afterwards. Was he in possession of a latch-key? It appeared that he did usually carry a latch-key, but that it was often borrowed from him by members of the family when it was known that he would not want it himself — and that it had been so lent on this night. It was considered certain by those in the house that he had not gone out after he went to bed. Nobody in fact had left the house after ten; but in accordance with his usual custom Mr Emilius had sent down the key as soon as he had found that he would not want it, and it had been all night in the custody of the mistress of the establishment. Nevertheless his clothes were examined minutely, but without affording any evidence against him. That Mr Bonteen had been killed with some blunt weapon, such as a life-preserver, was assumed by the police, but no such weapon was in the possession of Mr Emilius, nor had any such weapon yet been found. He was, however, in custody, with no evidence against him except that which was afforded by his known and acknowledged enmity to Mr Bonteen.

So far, Major Mackintosh and the two officers had told their story. Then came the united story of the other gentlemen assembled — from hearing which, however, the two police officers were debarred. The Duke and Barrington Erle had both dined in company with Phineas Finn at Madame Goesler’s, and the Duke was undoubtedly aware that ill blood had existed between Finn and Mr Bonteen. Both Erle and Fitzgibbon described the quarrel at the club, and described also the anger which Finn had expressed against the wretched man as he stood talking at the club door. His gesture of vengeance was remembered and repeated, though both the men who heard it expressed their strongest conviction that the murder had not been committed by him. As Erle remarked, the very expression of such a threat was almost proof that he had not at that moment any intention on his mind of doing such a deed as had been done. But they told also of the life-preserver which Finn had shown them, as he took it from the pocket of his outside coat, and they marvelled at the coincidences of the night. Then Lord Fawn gave further evidence, which seemed to tell very hardly upon Phineas Finn. He also had been at the club, and had left it just before Finn and the two other men had clustered at the door. He had walked very slowly, having turned down to Curzon Street and Bolton Row, from whence he made his way into Piccadilly by Clarges Street. He had seen nothing of Mr Bonteen; but as he crossed over to Clarges Street he was passed at a very rapid pace by a man muffled in a top-coat, who made his way straight along Bolton Row towards the passage which has been described. At the moment he had not connected the person of the man who passed him with any acquaintance of his own; but he now felt sure — after what he had heard — that the man was Mr Finn. As he passed out of the club Finn was putting on his overcoat, and Lord Fawn had observed the peculiarity of the grey colour. It was exactly a similar coat, only with its collar raised, that had passed him in the street. The man, too, was of Mr Finn’s height and build. He had known Mr Finn well, and the man stepped with Mr Finn’s step. Major Mackintosh thought that Lord Fawn’s evidence was — “very unfortunate as regarded Mr Finn.”

“I’m d — if that idiot won’t hang poor Phinny,” said Fitzgibbon afterwards to Erle. “And yet I don’t believe a word of it.”

“Fawn wouldn’t lie for the sake of hanging Phineas Finn,” said Erle.

“No — I don’t suppose he’s given to lying at all. He believes it all. But he’s such a muddle-headed fellow that he can get himself to believe anything. He’s one of those men who always unconsciously exaggerate what they have to say for the sake of the importance it gives them.” It might be possible that a jury would look at Lord Fawn’s evidence in this light; otherwise it would bear very heavily, indeed, against Phineas Finn.

Then a question arose as to the road which Mr Bonteen usually took from the club. All the members who were there present had walked home with him at various times — and by various routes, but never by the way through the passage. It was supposed that on this occasion he must have gone by Berkeley Square, because he had certainly not turned down by the first street to the right, which he would have taken had he intended to avoid the square. He had been seen by Barrington Erle and Fitzgibbon to pass that turning. Otherwise they would have made no remark as to the possibility of a renewed quarrel between him and Phineas, should Phineas chance to overtake him — for Phineas would certainly go by the square unless taken out of his way by some special purpose. The most direct way of all for Mr Bonteen would have been that followed by Lord Fawn; but as he had not turned down this street, and had not been seen by Lord Fawn, who was known to walk very slowly, and had often been seen to go by Berkeley Square — it was presumed that he had now taken that road. In this case he would certainly pass the end of the passage towards which Lord Fawn declared that he had seen the man hurrying whom he now supposed to have been Phineas Finn. Finn’s direct road home would, as has been already said, have been through the square, cutting off the corner of the square, towards Bruton Street, and thence across Bond Street by Conduit Street to Regent Street, and so to Great Marlborough Street, where he lived. But it had been, no doubt, possible for him to have been on the spot on which Lord Fawn had seen the man; for, although in his natural course thither from the club he would have at once gone down the street to the right — a course which both Erle and Fitzgibbon were able to say that he did not take, as they had seen him go beyond the turning — nevertheless there had been ample time for him to have retraced his steps to it in time to have caught Lord Fawn, and thus to have deceived Fitzgibbon and Erle as to the route he had taken.

When they had got thus far Lord Cantrip was standing close to the window of the room at Mr Gresham’s elbow. “Don’t allow yourself to be hurried into believing it,” said Lord Cantrip.

“I do not know that we need believe it, or the reverse. It is a case for the police.”

“Of course it is — but your belief and mine will have a weight. Nothing that I have heard makes me for a moment think it possible. I know the man.”

“He was very angry.”

“Had he struck him in the club I should not have been much surprised; but he never attacked his enemy with a bludgeon in a dark alley. I know him well.”

“What do you think of Fawn’s story?”

“He was mistaken in his man. Remember — it was a dark night.”

“I do not see that you and I can do anything,” said Mr Gresham. “I shall have to say something in the House as to the poor fellow’s death, but I certainly shall not express a suspicion. Why should I?”

Up to this moment nothing had been done as to Phineas Finn. It was known that he would in his natural course of business be in his place in Parliament at four, and Major Mackintosh was of opinion that he certainly should be taken before a magistrate in time to prevent the necessity of arresting him in the House. It was decided that Lord Fawn, with Fitzgibbon and Erle, should accompany the police officer to Bow Street, and that a magistrate should be applied to for a warrant if he thought the evidence was sufficient. Major Mackintosh was of opinion that, although by no possibility could the two men suspected have been jointly guilty of the murder, still the circumstances were such as to justify the immediate arrest of both. Were Yosef Mealyus really guilty and to be allowed to slip from their hands, no doubt it might be very difficult to catch him. Facts did not at present seem to prevail against him; but, as the Major observed, facts are apt to alter considerably when they are minutely sifted. His character was half sufficient to condemn him — and then with him there was an adequate motive, and what Lord Cantrip regarded as “a possibility.” It was not to be conceived that from mere rage Phineas Finn would lay a plot for murdering a man in the street. “It is on the cards, my lord,” said the Major, “that he may have chosen to attack Mr Bonteen without intending to murder him. The murder may afterwards have been an accident.”

It was impossible after this for even a Prime Minister and two Cabinet Ministers to go about their work calmly. The men concerned had been too well known to them to allow their minds to become clear of the subject. When Major Mackintosh went off to Bow Street with Erle and Laurence, it was certainly the opinion of the majority of those who had been present that the blow had been struck by the hand of Phineas Finn. And perhaps the worst aspect of it all was that there had been not simply a blow — but blows. The constables had declared that the murdered man had been struck thrice about the head, and that the fatal stroke had been given on the side of his head after the man’s hat had been knocked off. That Finn should have followed his enemy through the street, after such words as he had spoken, with the view of having the quarrel out in some shape, did not seem to be very improbable to any of them except Lord Cantrip — and then had there been a scuffle, out in the open path, at the spot at which the angry man might have overtaken his adversary, it was not incredible to them that he should have drawn even such a weapon as a life-preserver from his pocket. But, in the case as it had occurred, a spot peculiarly traitorous had been selected, and the attack had too probably been made from behind. As yet there was no evidence that the murderer had himself encountered any ill-usage. And Finn, if he was the murderer, must, from the time he was standing at the club door, have contemplated a traitorous, dastardly attack. He must have counted his moments — have returned slyly in the dark to the corner of the street which he had once passed — have muffled his face in his coat — and have then laid wait in a spot to which an honest man at night would hardly trust himself with honest purposes. “I look upon it as quite out of the question,” said Lord Cantrip, when the three Ministers were left alone. Now Lord Cantrip had served for many months in the same office as Phineas Finn.

“You are simply putting your own opinion of the man against the facts,” said Mr Gresham. “But facts always convince, and another man’s opinion rarely convinces.”

“I’m not sure that we know the facts yet,” said the Duke.

“Of course we are speaking of them as far as they have been told to us. As far as they go — unless they can be upset and shown not to be facts — I fear they would be conclusive to me on a jury.”

“Do you mean that you have heard enough to condemn him?” asked Lord Cantrip.

“Remember what we have heard. The murdered man had two enemies.”

“He may have had a third.”

“Or ten; but we have heard of but two.”

“He may have been attacked for his money,” said the Duke.

“But neither his money nor his watch were touched,” continued Mr Gresham. “Anger, or the desire of putting the man out of the way, has caused the murder. Of the two enemies one — according to the facts as we now have them — could not have been there. Nor is it probable that he could have known that his enemy would be on that spot. The other not only could have been there, but was certainly near the place at the moment — so near that did he not do the deed himself, it is almost wonderful that it should not have been interrupted in its doing by his nearness. He certainly knew that the victim would be there. He was burning with anger against him at the moment. He had just threatened him. He had with him such an instrument as was afterwards used. A man believed to be him is seen hurrying to the spot by a witness whose credibility is beyond doubt. These are the facts such as we have them at present. Unless they can be upset, I fear they would convince a jury — as they have already convinced those officers of the police.”

“Officers of the police always believe men to be guilty,” said Lord Cantrip.

“They don’t believe the Jew clergyman to be guilty,” said Mr Gresham.

“I fear that there will be enough to send Mr Finn to a trial,” said the Duke.

“Not a doubt of it,” said Mr Gresham.

“And yet I feel as convinced of his innocence as I do of my own,” said Lord Cantrip.

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