Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 57

The Beginning of the Search for the Key and the Coat

When Madame Goesler revealed her plans and ideas to Mr Wickerby, the attorney, who had been employed to bring Phineas Finn through his troubles, that gentleman evidently did not think much of the unprofessional assistance which the lady proposed to give him. “I’m afraid it is far-fetched, Ma’am — if you understand what I mean,” said Mr Wickerby. Madame Goesler declared that she understood very well what Mr Wickerby meant, but that she could hardly agree with him. “According to that the gentleman must have plotted the murder more than a month before he committed it,” said Mr Wickerby.

“And why not?”

“Murder plots are generally the work of a few hours at the longest, Madame Goesler. Anger, combined with an indifference to self-sacrifice, does not endure the wear of many days. And the object here was insufficient. I don’t think we can ask to have the trial put off in order to find out whether a false key may have been made in Prague.”

“And you will not look for the coat?”

“We can look for it, and probably get it, if the woman has not lied to you; but I don’t think it will do us any good. The woman probably is lying. You have been paying her very liberally, so that she has been making an excellent livelihood out of the murder. No jury would believe her. And a grey coat is a very common thing. After all, it would prove nothing. It would only let the jury know that Mr Meager had a grey coat as well as Mr Finn. That Mr Finn wore a grey coat on that night is a fact which we can’t upset. If you got hold of Meager’s coat you wouldn’t be a bit nearer to proof that Emilius had worn it.”

“There would be the fact that he might have worn it.”

“Madame Goesler, indeed it would not help our client. You see what are the difficulties in our way. Mr Finn was on the spot at the moment, or so near it as to make it certainly possible that he might have been there. There is no such evidence as to Emilius, even if he could be shown to have had a latch-key. The man was killed by such an instrument as Mr Finn had about him. There is no evidence that Mr Emilius had such an instrument in his hand. A tall man in a grey coat was seen hurrying to the spot at the exact hour. Mr Finn is a tall man and wore a grey coat at the time. Emilius is not a tall man, and, even though Meager had a grey coat, there is no evidence to show that Emilius ever wore it. Mr Finn had quarelled violently with Mr Bonteen within the hour. It does not appear that Emilius ever quarelled with Mr Bonteen, though Mr Bonteen had exerted himself in opposition to Emilius.”

“Is there to be no defence, then?”

“Certainly there will be a defence, and such a defence as I think will prevent any jury from being unanimous in convicting my client. Though there is a great deal of evidence against him, it is all — what we call circumstantial.”

“I understand, Mr Wickerby.”

“Nobody saw him commit the murder.”

“Indeed no,” said Madame Goesler.

“Although there is personal similarity, there is no personal identity. There is no positive proof of anything illegal on his part, or of anything that would have been suspicious had no murder been committed — such as the purchase of poison, or carrying of a revolver. The life-preserver, had no such instrument been unfortunately used, might have been regarded as a thing of custom.”

“But I am sure that that Bohemian did murder Mr Bonteen, said Madame Goesler, with enthusiasm.

“Madame,” said Mr Wickerby, holding up both his hands, “I can only wish that you could be upon the jury.”

“And you won’t try to show that the other man might have done it?”

“I think not. Next to an alibi that breaks down — you know what an alibi is, Madame Goesler?”

“Yes, Mr Wickerby; I know what an alibi is.”

“Next to an alibi that breaks down, an unsuccessful attempt to affix the fault on another party is the most fatal blow which a prisoner’s counsel can inflict upon him. It is always taken by the jury as so much evidence against him. We must depend altogether on a different line of defence.”

“What line, Mr Wickerby?”

“Juries are always unwilling to hang,” — Madame Goesler shuddered as the horrid word was broadly pronounced — “and are apt to think that simply circumstantial evidence cannot be suffered to demand so disagreeable a duty. They are peculiarly averse to hanging a gentleman, and will hardly be induced to hang a member of Parliament. Then Mr Finn is very good-looking, and has been popular — which is all in his favour. And we shall have such evidence on the score of character as was never before brought into one of our courts. We shall have half the Cabinet. There will be two dukes.” Madame Goesler, as she listened to the admiring enthusiasm of the attorney while he went on with his list, acknowledged to herself that her dear friend, the Duchess, had not been idle. “There will be three Secretaries of State. The Secretary of State for the Home Department himself will be examined. I am not quite sure that we mayn’t get the Lord Chancellor. There will be Mr Monk — about the most popular man in England — who will speak of the prisoner as his particular friend. I don’t think any jury would hang a particular friend of Mr Monk’s. And there will be ever so many ladies. That has never been done before, but we mean to try it.” Madame Goesler had heard all this, and had herself assisted in the work. “I rather think we shall get four or five leading members of the Opposition, for they all disliked Mr Bonteen. If we could manage Mr Daubeny and Mr Gresham, I think we might reckon ourselves quite safe. I forgot to say that the Bishop of Barchester has promised.”

“All that won’t prove his innocence, Mr Wickerby.” Mr Wickerby shrugged his shoulders. “If he be acquitted after that fashion men then will say — that he was guilty.”

“We must think of his life first, Madame Goesler,” said the attorney.

Madame Goesler when she left the attorney’s room was very ill-satisfied with him. She desired some adherent to her cause who would with affectionate zeal resolve upon washing Phineas Finn white as snow in reference to the charge now made against him. But no man would so resolve who did not believe in his innocence — as Madame Goesler believed herself. She herself knew that her own belief was romantic and unpractical. Nevertheless, the conviction of the guilt of that other man, towards which she still thought that much could be done if that coat were found and the making of a secret key were proved, was so strong upon her that she would not allow herself to drop it. It would not be sufficient for her that Phineas Finn should be acquitted. She desired that the real murderer should be hung for the murder, so that all the world might be sure — as she was sure — that her hero had been wrongfully accused.

“Do you mean that you are going to start yourself?” the Duchess said to her that same afternoon.

“Yes, I am.”

“Then you must be very far gone in love, indeed.”

“You would do as much, Duchess, if you were free as I am. It isn’t a matter of love at all. It’s womanly enthusiasm for the cause one has taken up.”

“I’m quite as enthusiastic — only I shouldn’t like to go to Prague in June.”

“I’d go to Siberia in January if I could find out that that horrid man really committed the murder.”

“Who are going with you?”

“We shall be quite a company. We have got a detective policeman, and an interpreter who understands Czech and German to go about with the policeman, and a lawyer’s clerk, and there will be my own maid.”

“Everybody will know all about it before you get there.”

“We are not to go quite together. The policeman and the interpreter are to form one party, and I and my maid another. The poor clerk is to be alone. If they get the coat, of course you’ll telegraph to me.”

“Who is to have the coat?”

“I suppose they’ll take it to Mr Wickerby. He says he doesn’t want it — that it would do no good. But I think that if we could show that the man might very easily have been out of the house — that he had certainly provided himself with means of getting out of the house secretly — the coat would be of service. I am going at any rate; and shall be in Paris tomorrow morning.”

“I think it very grand of you, my dear; and for your sake I hope he may live to be Prime Minister. Perhaps, after all, he may give Plantagenet his ““Garter’’.”

When the old Duke died, a Garter became vacant, and had of course fallen to the gift of Mr Gresham. The Duchess had expected that it would be continued in the family, as had been the Lieutenancy of Barsetshire, which also had been held by the old Duke. But the Garter had been given to Lord Cantrip, and the Duchess was sore. With all her radical propensities and inclination to laugh at dukes and marquises, she thought very much of garters and lieutenancies — but her husband would not think of them at all, and hence there were words between them. The Duchess had declared that the Duke should insist on having the Garter. “These are things that men do not ask for,” the Duke had said.

“Don’t tell me, Plantagenet, about not asking. Everybody asks for everything nowadays.”

“Your everybody is not correct, Glencora. I never yet asked for anything — and never shall. No honour has any value in my eyes unless it comes unasked.” Thereupon it was that the Duchess now suggested that Phineas Finn, when Prime Minister, might perhaps bestow a Garter upon her husband.

And so Madame Goesler started for Prague with the determination of being back, if possible, before the trial began. It was to be commenced at the Old Bailey towards the end of June, and people already began to foretell that it would extend over a very long period. The circumstances seemed to be simple; but they who understood such matters declared that the duration of a trial depended a great deal more on the public interest felt in the matter than upon its own nature. Now it was already perceived that no trial of modern days had ever been so interesting as would be this trial. It was already known that the Attorney-General, Sir Gregory Grogram, was to lead the case for the prosecution, and that the Solicitor-General, Sir Simon Slope, was to act with him. It had been thought to be due to the memory and character of Mr Bonteen, who when he was murdered had held the office of President of the Board of Trade, and who had very nearly been Chancellor of the Exchequer, that so unusual a task should be imposed on these two high legal officers of the Government. No doubt there would be a crowd of juniors with them, but it was understood that Sir Gregory Grogram would himself take the burden of the task upon his own shoulders. It was declared everywhere that Sir Gregory did believe Phineas Finn to be guilty, but it was also declared that Sir Simon Slope was convinced he was innocent. The defence was to be entrusted to the well-practised but now aged hands of that most experienced practitioner Mr Chaffanbrass, than whom no barrister living or dead ever rescued more culprits from the fangs of the law. With Mr Chaffanbrass, who quite late in life had consented to take a silk gown, was to be associated Mr Sergeant Birdbolt — who was said to be employed in order that the case might be in safe hands should the strength of Mr Chaffanbrass fail him at the last moment; and Mr Snow, who was supposed to handle a witness more judiciously than any of the rising men, and that subtle, courageous, eloquent, and painstaking youth, Mr Golightly, who now, with no more than ten or fifteen years’ practice, was already known to be earning his bread and supporting a wife and family.

But the glory of this trial would not depend chiefly on the array of counsel, nor on the fact that the Lord Chief justice himself would be the judge, so much as on the social position of the murdered man and of the murderer. Noble lords and great statesmen would throng the bench of the court to see Phineas Finn tried, and all the world who could find an entrance would do the same to see the great statesmen and the noble lords. The importance of such an affair increases like a snowball as it is rolled on. Many people talk much, and then very many people talk very much more. The under-sheriffs of the City, praiseworthy gentlemen not hitherto widely known to fame, became suddenly conspicuous and popular, as being the dispensers of admissions to seats in the court. It had been already admitted by judges and counsel that sundry other cases must be postponed, because it was known that the Bonteen murder would occupy at last a week. It was supposed that Mr Chaffanbrass would consume a whole day at the beginning of the trial in getting a jury to his mind — a matter on which he was known to be very particular — and another whole day at the end of the trial in submitting to the jury the particulars of all the great cases on record in which circumstantial evidence was known to have led to improper verdicts. It was therefore understood that the last week in June would be devoted to the trial, to the exclusion of all other matters of interest. When Mr Gresham, hard pressed by Mr Turnbull for a convenient day, offered that gentleman Thursday, the 24th of June, for suggesting to the House a little proposition of his own with reference to the English Church establishment, Mr Turnbull openly repudiated the offer, because on that day the trial of Phineas Finn would be commenced. “I hope”, said Mr Gresham, “that the work of the country will not be impeded by that unfortunate affair.” “I am afraid”, said Mr Turnbull, “that the right honourable gentleman will find that the member for Tankerville will on that day monopolise the attention of this House.” The remark was thought to have been made in very bad taste, but nobody doubted its truth. Perhaps the interest was enhanced among politicians by the existence very generally of an opinion that though Phineas Finn had murdered Mr Bonteen, he would certainly be acquitted. Nothing could then prevent the acquitted murderer from resuming his seat in the House, and gentlemen were already beginning to ask themselves after what fashion it would become them to treat him. Would the Speaker catch his eye when he rose to speak? Would he still be “Phineas” to the very large number of men with whom his general popularity had made him intimate? Would he be cold-shouldered at the clubs, and treated as one whose hands were red with blood? or would he become more popular than ever, and receive an ovation after his acquittal?

In the meantime Madame Goesler started on her journey for Prague.

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