Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 60

Two Days before the Trial

There was a scene in the private room of Mr Wickerby, the attorney in Hatton Garden, which was very distressing indeed to the feelings of Lord Fawn, and which induced his lordship to think that he was being treated without that respect which was due to him as a peer and a member of the Government. There were present at this scene Mr Chaffanbrass, the old barrister, Mr Wickerby himself, Mr Wickerby’s confidential clerk, Lord Fawn, Lord Fawn’s solicitor, that same Mr Camperdown whom we saw in the last chapter calling upon Lady Eustace — and a policeman. Lord Fawn had been invited to attend, with many protestations of regret as to the trouble thus imposed upon him, because the very important nature of the evidence about to be given by him at the forthcoming trial seemed to render it expedient that some questions should be asked. This was on Tuesday, the 22nd June, and the trial was to be commenced on the following Thursday. And there was present in the room, very conspicuously, an old heavy grey great coat, as to which Mr Wickerby had instructed Mr Chaffanbrass that evidence was forthcoming, if needed, to prove that that coat was lying on the night of the murder in a downstairs room in the house in which Yosef Mealyus was then lodging. The reader will remember the history of the coat. Instigated by Madame Goesler, who was still absent from England, Mr Wickerby had traced the coat, and had purchased the coat, and was in a position to prove that this very coat was the coat which Mr Meager had brought home with him to Northumberland Street on that day. But Mr Wickerby was of opinion that the coat had better not be used. “It does not go far enough,” said Mr Wickerby. “It don’t go very far, certainly,” said Mr Chaffanbrass. “And if you try to show that another man has done it, and he hasn’t,” said Mr Wickerby, “it always tells against you with a jury.” To this Mr Chaffanbrass made no reply, preferring to form his own opinion, and to keep it to himself when formed. But in obedience to his instructions, Lord Fawn was asked to attend at Mr Wickerby’s chambers, in the cause of truth, and the coat was brought out on the occasion. “Was that the sort of coat the man wore, my lord?” said Mr Chaffanbrass as Mr Wickerby held up the coat to view. Lord Fawn walked round and round the coat, and looked at it very carefully before he would vouchsafe a reply. “You see it is a grey coat,” said Mr Chaffanbrass, not speaking at all in the tone which Mr Wickerby’s note had induced Lord Fawn to expect.

“It is grey,” said Lord Fawn.

“Perhaps it’s not the same shade of grey, Lord Fawn. You see, my lord, we are most anxious not to impute guilt where guilt doesn’t lie. You are a witness for the Crown, and, of course, you will tell the Crown lawyers all that passes here. Were it possible, we would make this little preliminary inquiry in their presence — but we can hardly do that. Mr Finn’s coat was a very much smaller coat.”

“I should think it was,” said his lordship, who did not like being questioned about coats.

“You don’t think the coat the man wore when you saw him was a big coat like that? You think he wore a little coat?

“He wore a grey coat,” said Lord Fawn.

“This is grey — a coat shouldn’t be greyer than that.”

“I don’t think Lord Fawn should be asked any more questions on the matter till he gives his evidence in court,” said Mr Camperdown.

“A man’s life depends on it, Mr Camperdown,” said the barrister. “It isn’t a matter of cross-examination. If I bring that coat into court I must make a charge against another man by the very act of doing so. And I will not do so unless I believe that other man to be guilty. It’s an inquiry I can’t postpone till we are before the jury. It isn’t that I want to trump up a case against another man for the sake of extricating my client on a false issue. Lord Fawn doesn’t want to hang Mr Finn if Mr Finn be not guilty.”

“God forbid!” said his lordship.

“Mr Finn couldn’t have worn that coat, or a coat at all like it.”

“What is it you do want to learn, Mr Chaffanbrass?” asked Mr Camperdown.

“Just put on the coat, Mr Scruby.” Then at the order of the barrister, Mr Scruby, the attorney’s clerk, did put on Mr Meager’s old great coat, and walked about the room in it. “Walk quick,” said Mr Chaffanbrass — and the clerk did “walk quick.” He was a stout, thick-set little man, nearly half a foot shorter than Phineas Finn. “Is that at all like the figure?” asked Mr Chaffanbrass.

“I think it is like the figure,” said Lord Fawn.

“And like the coat?”

“It’s the same colour as the coat.”

“You wouldn’t swear it was not the coat?”

“I am not on my oath at all, Mr Chaffanbrass.”

“No, my lord — but to me your word is as good as your oath. If you think it possible that was the coat — ”

“I don’t think anything about it at all. When Mr Scruby hurries down the room in that way he looks as the man looked when he was hurrying under the lamp-post. I am not disposed to say any more at present.”

“It’s a matter of regret to me that Lord Fawn should have come here at all,” said Mr Camperdown, who had been summoned to meet his client at the chambers, but had come with him.

“I suppose his lordship wishes us to know all that he knew, seeing that it’s a question of hanging the right man or the wrong one. I never heard such trash in my life. Take it off, Mr Scruby, and let the policeman keep it. I understand Lord Fawn to say that the man’s figure was about the same as yours. My client, I believe, stands about twelve inches taller. Thank you, my lord — we shall get at the truth at last, I don’t doubt.” It was afterwards said that Mr Chaffanbrass’s conduct had been very improper in enticing Lord Fawn to Mr Wickerby’s chambers; but Mr Chaffanbrass never cared what anyone said. “I don’t know that we can make much of it,” he said, when he and Mr Wickerby were alone, “but it may be as well to bring it into court. It would prove nothing against the Jew even if that fellow”, — he meant Lord Fawn — “could be made to swear that the coat worn was exactly similar to this. I am thinking now about the height.”

“I don’t doubt but you’ll get him off.”

“Well — I may do so. They ought not to hang any man on such evidence as there is against him, even though there were no moral doubt of his guilt. There is nothing really to connect Mr Phineas Finn with the murder — nothing tangible. But there is no saying nowadays what a jury will do. Juries depend a great deal more on the judge than they used to do. If I were on trial for my life, I don’t think I’d have counsel at all.”

“No one could defend you as well as yourself, Mr Chaffanbrass.”

“I didn’t mean that. No — I shouldn’t defend myself. I should say to the judge, ““My lord, I don’t doubt the jury will do just as you tell them, and you’ll form your own opinion quite independent of the arguments’’.”

“You’d be hung, Mr Chaffanbrass.”

“No; I don’t know that I should,” said Mr Chaffanbrass, slowly. “I don’t think I could affront a judge of the present day into hanging me. They’ve too much of what I call thick-skinned honesty for that. It’s the temper of the time to resent nothing — to be mealy-mouthed and mealy-hearted. Jurymen are afraid of having their own opinion, and almost always shirk a verdict when they can.”

“But we do get verdicts.”

“Yes; the judge gives them. And they are mealy-mouthed verdicts, tending to equalise crime and innocence, and to make men think that after all it may be a question whether fraud is violence, which, after all, is manly, and to feel that we cannot afford to hate dishonesty. It was a bad day for the commercial world, Mr Wickerby, when forgery ceased to be capital.”

“It was a horrid thing to hang a man for writing another man’s name to a receipt for thirty shillings.”

“We didn’t do it, but the fact that the law held certain frauds to be hanging matters operated on the minds of men in regard to all fraud. What with the joint-stock working of companies, and the confusion between directors who know nothing and managers who know everything, and the dislike of juries to tread upon people’s corns, you can’t punish dishonest trading. Caveat emptor is the only motto going, and the worst proverb that ever came from dishonest stony-hearted Rome. With such a motto as that to guide us no man dare trust his brother. Caveat lex — and let the man who cheats cheat at his peril.”

“You’d give the law a great deal to do.”

“Much less than at present. What does your Caveat emptor come to? That every seller tries to pick the eyes out of the head of the purchaser. Sooner or later the law must interfere, and Caveat emptor falls to the ground. I bought a horse the other day; my daughter wanted something to look pretty, and like an old ass as I am I gave a hundred and fifty pounds for the brute. When he came home he wasn’t worth a feed of corn.”

“You had a warranty, I suppose?”

“No, indeed! Did you ever hear of such an old fool?”

“I should have thought any dealer would have taken him back for the sake of his character.”

“Any dealer would; but — I bought him of a gentleman.”

“Mr Chaffanbrass!”

“I ought to have known better, oughtn’t I? Caveat emptor .”

“It was just giving away your money, you know.”

“A great deal worse than that. I could have given the — gentleman — a hundred and fifty pounds, and not have minded it much. I ought to have had the horse killed, and gone to a dealer for another. Instead of that — I went to an attorney.”

“Oh, Mr Chaffanbrass — the idea of your going to an attorney.”

“I did then. I never had so much honest truth told me in my life.”

“By an attorney!”

“He said that he did think I’d been born long enough to have known better than that! I pleaded on my own behalf that the gentleman said the horse was all right. ““Gentleman!’” exclaimed my friend. ““You go to a gentleman for a horse; you buy a horse from a gentleman without a warranty; and then you come to me! Didn’t you ever hear of Caveat emptor, Mr Chaffanbrass? What can I do for you?’” That’s what my friend, the attorney, said to me.”

“And what came of it, Mr Chaffanbrass? Arbitration, I should say?”

“Just that — with the horse eating his head off every meal at ever so much per week — till at last I fairly gave in from sheer vexation. So the — gentleman — got my money, and I added something to my stock of experience. Of course, that’s only my story, and it may be that the gentleman could tell it another way. But I say that if my story be right the doctrine of Caveat emptor does not encourage trade. I don’t know how we got to all this from Mr Finn. I’m to see him tomorrow.”

“Yes — he is very anxious to speak to you.”

“What’s the use of it, Wickerby? I hate seeing a client. — What comes of it?”

“Of course he wants to tell his own story.”

“But I don’t want to hear his own story. What good will his own story do me? He’ll tell me either one of two things. He’ll swear he didn’t murder the man — ”

“That’s what he’ll say.”

“Which can have no effect upon me one way or the other; or else he’ll say that he did — which would cripple me altogether.”

“He won’t say that, Mr Chaffanbrass.”

“There’s no knowing what they’ll say. A man will go on swearing by his God that he is innocent, till at last, in a moment of emotion, he breaks down, and out comes the truth. In such a case as this I do not in the least want to know the truth about the murder.”

“That is what the public wants to know.”

“Because the public is ignorant. The public should not wish to know anything of the kind. What we should all wish to get at is the truth of the evidence about the murder. The man is to be hung not because he committed the murder — as to which no positive knowledge is attainable; but because he has been proved to have committed the murder — as to which proof, though it be enough for hanging, there must always be attached some shadow of doubt. We were delighted to hang Palmer — but we don’t know that he killed Cook. A learned man who knew more about it than we can know seemed to think that he didn’t. Now the last man to give us any useful insight into the evidence is the prisoner himself. In nineteen cases out of twenty a man tried for murder in this country committed the murder for which he is tried.”

“There really seems to be a doubt in this case.”

“I dare say. If there be only nineteen guilty out of twenty, there must be one innocent; and why not Mr Phineas Finn? But, if it be so, he, burning with the sense of injustice, thinks that everybody should see it as he sees it. He is to be tried, because, on investigation, everybody sees it just in a different light. In such case he is unfortunate, but he can’t assist me in liberating him from his misfortune. He sees what is patent and clear to him — that he walked home on that night without meddling with anyone. But I can’t see that, or make others see it, because he sees it.”

“His manner of telling you may do something.”

“If it do, Mr Wickerby, it is because I am unfit for my business. If he have the gift of protesting well, I am to think him innocent; and, therefore, to think him guilty, if he be unprovided with such eloquence! I will neither believe or disbelieve anything that a client says to me — unless he confess his guilt, in which case my services can be but of little avail. Of course I shall see him, as he asks it. We had better meet there — say at half-past ten.” Whereupon Mr Wickerby wrote to the governor of the prison begging that Phineas Finn might be informed of the visit.

Phineas had now been in gaol between six and seven weeks, and the very fact of his incarceration had nearly broken his spirits. Two of his sisters, who had come from Ireland to be near him, saw him every day, and his two friends, Mr Low and Lord Chiltern, were very frequently with him; Lady Laura Kennedy had not come to him again; but he heard from her frequently through Barrington Erle. Lord Chiltern rarely spoke of his sister — alluding to her merely in connection with her father and her late husband. Presents still came to him from various quarters — as to which he hardly knew whence they came. But the Duchess and Lady Chiltern and Lady Laura all catered for him — while Mrs Bunce looked after his wardrobe, and saw that he was not cut down to prison allowance of clean shirts and socks. But the only friend whom he recognised as such was the friend who would freely declare a conviction of his innocence. They allowed him books and pens and paper, and even cards, if he chose to play at Patience with them or build castles. The paper and pens he could use because he could write about himself. From day to day he composed a diary in which he was never tired of expatiating on the terrible injustice of his position. But he could not read. He found it to be impossible to fix his attention on matters outside himself. He assured himself from hour to hour that it was not death he feared — not even death from the hangman’s hand. It was the condemnation of those who had known him that was so terrible to him; the feeling that they with whom he had aspired to work and live, the leading men and women of his day, ministers of the Government and their wives, statesmen and their daughters, Peers and members of the House in which he himself had sat — that these should think that, after all, he had been a base adventurer unworthy of their society! That was the sorrow that broke him down, and drew him to confess that his whole life had been a failure.

Mr Low had advised him not to see Mr Chaffambrass — but he had persisted in declaring that there were instructions which no one but himself could give to the counsellor whose duty it would be to defend him at the trial. Mr Chaffanbrass came at the hour fixed, and with him came Mr Wickerby. The old barrister bowed courteously as he entered the prison room, and the attorney introduced the two gentlemen with more than all the courtesy of the outer world. “I am sorry to see you here, Mr Finn,” said the barrister.

“It’s a bad lodging, Mr Chaffanbrass, but the term will soon be over. I am thinking a good deal more of my next abode.”

“It has to be thought of, certainly,” said the barrister. “Let us hope that it may be all that you would wish it to be. My services shall not be wanting to make it so.”

“We are doing all we can, Mr Finn,” said Mr Wickerby.

“Mr Chaffanbrass,” said Phineas, “there is one special thing that I want you to do.” The old man, having his own idea as to what was coming, laid one of his hands over the other, bowed his head, and looked meek. “I want you to make men believe that I am innocent of this crime.”

This was better than Mr Chaffanbrass expected. “I trust that we may succeed in making twelve men believe it,” said he.

“Comparatively I do not care a straw for the twelve men. It is not to them especially that I am anxious that you should address yourself — “

“But that will be my bounden duty, Mr Finn.”

“I can well believe, sir, that though I have myself been bred a lawyer, I may not altogether understand the nature of an advocate’s duty to his client. But I would wish something more to be done than what you intimate.”

“The duty of an advocate defending a prisoner is to get a verdict of acquittal if he can, and to use his own discretion in making the attempt.”

“But I want something more to be attempted, even if in the struggle something less be achieved. I have known men to be so acquitted that every man in court believed them to be guilty.”

“No doubt — and such men have probably owed much to their advocates.”

“It is not such a debt that I wish to owe. I know my own innocence.”

“Mr Chaffanbrass takes that for granted,” said Mr Wickerby.

“To me it is a matter of astonishment that any human being should believe me to have committed this murder. I am lost in surprise when I remember that I am here simply because I walked home from my club with a loaded stick in my pocket. The magistrate, I suppose, thought me guilty.”

“He did not think about it, Mr Finn. He went by the evidence — the quarrel, your position in the streets at the time, the colour of the coat you wore and that of the coat worn by the man whom Lord Fawn saw in the street; the doctor’s evidence as to the blows by which the man was killed; and the nature of the weapon which you carried. He put these things together, and they were enough to entitle the public to demand that a jury should decide. He didn’t say you were guilty. He only said that the circumstances were sufficient to justify a trial.”

“If he thought me innocent he would not have sent me here.”

“Yes, he would — if the evidence required that he should do so.”

“We will not argue about that, Mr Chaffanbrass.”

“Certainly not, Mr Finn.”

“Here I am, and tomorrow I shall be tried for my life. My life will be nothing to me unless it can be made clear to all the world that I am innocent. I would be sooner hung for this, with the certainty at my heart that all England on the next day would ring with the assurance of my innocence, than be acquitted and afterwards be looked upon as a murderer.” Phineas, when he was thus speaking, had stepped out into the middle of the room, and stood with his head thrown back, and his right hand forward. Mr Chaffanbrass, who was himself an ugly, dirty old man, who had always piqued himself on being indifferent to appearance, found himself struck by the beauty and grace of the man whom he now saw for the first time. And he was struck, too, by his client’s eloquence, though he had expressly declared to the attorney that it was his duty to be superior to any such influence. “Oh, Mr Chaffanbrass, for the love of Heaven, let there be no quibbling.”

“We never quibble, I hope, Mr Finn.”

“No subterfuges, no escaping by a side wind, no advantage taken of little forms, no objection taken to this and that as though delay would avail us anything.”

“Character will go a great way, we hope.”

“It should go for nothing. Though no one would speak a word for me, still am I innocent. Of course the truth will be known some day.”

“I’m not so sure of that, Mr Finn.”

“It will certainly be known some day. That it should not be known as yet is my misfortune. But in defending me I would have you hurl defiance at my accusers. I had the stick in my pocket — having heretofore been concerned with ruffians in the street. I did quarrel with the man, having been insulted by him at the club. The coat which I wore was such as they say. But does that make a murderer of me?”

“Somebody did the deed, and that somebody could probably say all that you say.”

“No, sir — he, when he is known, will be found to have been skulking in the streets; he will have thrown away his weapon; he will have been secret in his movements; he will have hidden his face, and have been a murderer in more than the deed. When they came to me in the morning did it seem to them that I was a murderer? Has my life been like that? They who have really known me cannot believe that I have been guilty. They who have not known me, and do believe, will live to learn their error.”

He then sat down and listened patiently while the old lawyer described to him the nature of the case — wherein lay his danger, and wherein what hope there was of safety. There was no evidence against him other than circumstantial evidence, and both judges and jury were wont to be unwilling to accept such, when uncorroborated, as sufficient in cases of life and death. Unfortunately, in this case the circumstantial evidence was very strong against him. But, on the other hand, his character, as to which men of great mark would speak with enthusiasm, would be made to stand very high. “I would not have it made to stand higher than it is,” said Phineas. As to the opinion of the world afterwards, Mr Chaffanbrass went on to say, of that he must take his chance. But surely he himself might fight better for it living than any friend could do for him after his death. “You must believe me in this, Mr Finn, that a verdict of acquittal from the jury is the one object that we must have before us.”

“The one object that I shall have before me is the verdict of the public,” said Phineas. “I am treated with so much injustice in being thought a murderer that they can hardly add anything to it by hanging me.

When Mr Chaffanbrass left the prison he walked back with Mr Wickerby to the attorney’s chambers in Hatton Garden, and he lingered for awhile on the Viaduct expressing his opinion of his client. “He’s not a bad fellow, Wickerby.”

“A very good sort of fellow, Mr Chaffanbrass.”

“I never did — and I never will — express an opinion of my own as to the guilt or innocence of a client till after the trial is over. But I have sometimes felt as though I would give the blood out of my veins to save a man. I never felt in that way more strongly than I do now.”

“It’ll make me very unhappy, I know, if it goes against him,” said Mr Wickerby.

“People think that the special branch of the profession into which I have chanced to fall is a very low one — and I do not know whether, if the world were before me again, I would allow myself to drift into an exclusive practice in criminal courts.”

“Yours has been a very useful life, Mr Chaffanbrass.”

“But I often feel”, continued the barrister, paying no attention to the attorney’s last remark, “that my work touches the heart more nearly than does that of gentlemen who have to deal with matters of property and of high social claims. People think I am savage — savage to witnesses.”

“You can frighten a witness, Mr Chaffanbrass.”

“It’s just the trick of the trade that you learn, as a girl learns the notes of her piano. There’s nothing in it. You forget it all the next hour. But when a man has been hung whom you have striven to save, you do remember that. Good-morning, Mr Wickerby. I’ll be there a little before ten. Perhaps you may have to speak to me.”

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