Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 50

What the Lords and Commons said about the murder

When the House met on that Thursday at four o’clock everybody was talking about the murder, and certainly four-fifths of the members had made up their minds that Phineas Finn was the murderer. To have known a murdered man is something, but to have been intimate with a murderer is certainly much more. There were many there who were really sorry for poor Bonteen — of whom without a doubt the end had come in a very horrible manner; and there were more there who were personally fond of Phineas Finn — to whom the future of the young member was very sad, and the fact that he should have become a murderer very awful. But, nevertheless, the occasion was not without its consolations. The business of the House is not always exciting, or even interesting. On this afternoon there was not a member who did not feel that something had occurred which added an interest to Parliamentary life.

Very soon after prayers Mr Gresham entered the House, and men who had hitherto been behaving themselves after a most unparliamentary fashion, standing about in knots, talking by no means in whispers, moving in and out of the House rapidly, all crowded into their places. Whatever pretence of business had been going on was stopped in a moment, and Mr Gresham rose to make his statement. “It was with the deepest regret — nay, with the most profound sorrow — that he was called upon to inform the House that his right honourable friend and colleague, Mr Bonteen, had been basely and cruelly murdered during the past night.” It was odd then to see how the name of the man, who, while he was alive and a member of that House, could not have been pronounced in that assembly without disorder, struck the members almost with dismay. “Yes, his friend Mr Bonteen, who had so lately filled the office of President of the Board of Trade, and whose loss the country and that House could so ill bear, had been beaten to death in one of the streets of the metropolis by the arm of a dastardly ruffian during the silent watches of the night.” Then Mr Gresham paused, and everyone expected that some further statement would be made. “He did not know that he had any further communication to make on the subject. Some little time must elapse before he could fill the office. As for adequately supplying the loss, that would be impossible. Mr Bonteen’s services to the country, especially in reference to decimal coinage, were too well known to the House to allow of his holding out any such hope.” Then he sat down without having as yet made an allusion to Phineas Finn.

But the allusion was soon made. Mr Daubeny rose, and with much graceful and mysterious circumlocution asked the Prime Minister whether it was true that a member of the House had been arrested, and was now in confinement on the charge of having been concerned in the murder of the late much-lamented President of the Board of Trade. He — Mr Daubeny — had been given to understand that such a charge had been made against an honourable member of that House, who had once been a colleague of Mr Bonteen’s, and who had always supported the right honourable gentleman opposite. Then Mr Gresham rose again. “He regretted to say that the honourable member for Tankerville was in custody on that charge. The House would of course understand that he only made that statement as a fact, and that he was offering no opinion as to who was the perpetrator of the murder. The case seemed to be shrouded in great mystery. The two gentlemen had unfortunately differed, but he did not at all think that the House would on that account be disposed to attribute guilt so black and damning to a gentleman they had all known so well as the honourable member for Tankerville.” So much and no more was spoken publicly, to the reporters; but members continued to talk about the affair the whole evening.

There was nothing, perhaps, more astonishing than the absence of rancour or abhorrence with which the name of Phineas was mentioned, even by those who felt most certain of his guilt. All those who had been present at the club acknowledged that Bonteen had been the sinner in reference to the transaction there; and it was acknowledged to have been almost a public misfortune that such a man as Bonteen should have been able to prevail against such a one as Phineas Finn in regard to the presence of the latter in the Government. Stories which were exaggerated, accounts worse even than the truth, were bandied about as to the perseverance with which the murdered man had destroyed the prospects of the supposed murderer, and robbed the country of the services of a good workman. Mr Gresham, in the official statement which he had made, had, as a matter of course, said many fine things about Mr Bonteen. A man can always have fine things said about him for a few hours after his death. But in the small private conferences which were held the fine things said all referred to Phineas Finn. Mr Gresham had spoken of a “dastardly ruffian in the silent watches”, but one would have almost thought from over-hearing what was said by various gentlemen in different parts of the House that upon the whole Phineas Finn was thought to have done rather a good thing in putting poor Mr Bonteen out of the way.

And another pleasant feature of excitement was added by the prevalent idea that the Prince had seen and heard the row. Those who had been at the club at the time of course knew that this was not the case; but the presence of the Prince at the Universe between the row and the murder had really been a fact, and therefore it was only natural that men should allow themselves the delight of mixing the Prince with the whole concern. In remote circles the Prince was undoubtedly supposed to have had a great deal to do with the matter, though whether as abettor of the murdered or of the murderer was never plainly declared. A great deal was said about the Prince that evening in the House, so that many members were able to enjoy themselves thoroughly.

“What a godsend for Gresham,” said one gentleman to Mr Ratler very shortly after the strong eulogium which had been uttered on poor Mr Bonteen by the Prime Minister.

“Well — yes; I was afraid that the poor fellow would never have got on with us.”

“Got on! He’d have been a thorn in Gresham’s side as long as he held office. If Finn should be acquitted, you ought to do something handsome for him.” Whereupon Mr Ratler laughed heartily.

“It will pretty nearly break them up,” said Sir Orlando Drought, one of Mr Daubeny’s late Secretaries of State to Mr Roby, Mr Daubeny’s late patronage secretary.

“I don’t quite see that. They’ll be able to drop their decimal coinage with a good excuse, and that will be a great comfort. They are talking of getting Monk to go back to the Board of Trade.”

“Will that strengthen them?”

“Bonteen would have weakened them. The man had got beyond himself, and lost his head. They are better without him.”

“I suppose Finn did it?” asked Sir Orlando.

“Not a doubt about it, I’m told. The queer thing is that he should have declared his purpose beforehand to Erle. Gresham says that all that must have been part of his plan — so as to make men think afterwards that he couldn’t have done it. Grogram’s idea is that he had planned the murder before he went to the club.”

“Will the Prince have to give evidence?”

“No, no,” said Mr Roby. “That’s all wrong. The Prince had left the club before the row commenced. Confucius Putt says that the Prince didn’t hear a word of it. He was talking to the Prince all the time.” Confucius Putt was the distinguished artist with whom the Prince had shaken hands on leaving the club.

Lord Drummond was in the Peers’ Gallery, and Mr Boffin was talking to him over the railings. It may be remembered that those two gentlemen had conscientiously left Mr Daubeny’s Cabinet because they had been unable to support him in his views about the Church. After such sacrifice on their parts their minds were of course intent on Church matters. “There doesn’t seem to be a doubt about it,” said Mr Boffin.

“Cantrip won’t believe it,” said the peer.

“He was at the Colonies with Cantrip, and Cantrip found him very agreeable. Everybody says that he was one of the pleasantest fellows going. This makes it out of the question that they should bring in any Church bill this Session.”

“Do you think so?”

“Oh yes — certainly. There will be nothing else thought of now till the trial.”

“So much the better,” said his Lordship. “It’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. Will they have evidence for a conviction?”

“Oh dear yes; not a doubt about it. Fawn can swear to him,” said Mr Boffin.

Barrington Erle was telling his story for the tenth time when he was summoned out of the Library to the Duchess of Omnium, who had made her way up into the lobby. “Oh, Mr Erle, do tell me what you really think,” said the Duchess.

“That is just what I can’t do.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t know what to think.”

“He can’t have done it, Mr Erle.”

“That’s just what I say to myself, Duchess.”

“But they do say that the evidence is so very strong against him.”

“Very strong.”

“I wish we could get that Lord Fawn out of the way.”

“Ah — but we can’t.”

“And will they — hang him?”

“If they convict him, they will.”

“A man we all knew so well! And just when we had made up our minds to do everything for him. Do you know I’m not a bit surprised. I’ve felt before now as though I should like to have done it myself.”

“He could be very nasty, Duchess!”

“I did so hate that man. But I’d give — oh, I don’t know what I’d give to bring him to life again this minute. What will Lady Laura do?” In answer to this, Barrington Erle only shrugged his shoulders. Lady Laura was his cousin. “We mustn’t give him up, you know, Mr Erle.”

“What can we do?”

“Surely we can do something. Can’t we get it in the papers that he must be innocent — so that everybody should be made to think so? And if we could get hold of the lawyers, and make them not want to — to destroy him! There’s nothing I wouldn’t do. There’s no getting hold of a judge, I know.”

“No, Duchess. The judges are stone.”

“Not that they are a bit better than anybody else — only they like to be safe.”

“They do like to be safe.”

“I’m sure we could do it if we put our shoulders to the wheel. I don’t believe, you know, for a moment that he murdered him. It was done by Lizzie Eustace’s Jew.”

“It will be sifted, of course.”

“But what’s the use of sifting if Mr Finn is to be hung while it’s being done? I don’t think anything of the police. Do you remember how they bungled about that woman’s necklace? I don’t mean to give him up, Mr Erle; and I expect you to help me.” Then the Duchess returned home, and, as we know, found Madame Goesler at her house.

Nothing whatever was done that night, either in the Lords or Commons. A “statement” about Mr Bonteen was made in the Upper as well as in the Lower House, and after that statement any real worth was out of the question. Had Mr Bonteen absolutely been Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in the Cabinet when he was murdered, and had Phineas Finn been once more an Under-Secretary of State, the commotion and excitement could hardly have been greater. Even the Duke of St Bungay had visited the spot — well known to him, as there the urban domains meet of two great Whig peers, with whom and whose predecessors he had long been familiar. He also had known Phineas Finn, and not long since had said civil words to him and of him. He, too, had, of late days, especially disliked Mr Bonteen, and had almost insisted that the man now murdered should not be admitted into the Cabinet. He had heard what was the nature of the evidence — had heard of the quarrel, the life-preserver, and the grey coat. “I suppose he must have done it,” said the Duke of St Bungay to himself as he walked away up Hay Hill.

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