Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 62

Lord Fawn’s Evidence

A crowd of witnesses were heard on the second day after Mr Chaffanbrass had done with Mr Bouncer, but none of them were of much interest to the public. The three doctors were examined as to the state of the dead man’s head when he was picked up, and as to the nature of the instrument with which he had probably been killed; and the fact of Phineas Finn’s life-preserver was proved — in the middle of which he begged that the Court would save itself some little trouble, as he was quite ready to acknowledge that he had walked home with the short bludgeon, which was then produced, in his pocket. “We would acknowledge a great deal if they would let us,” said Mr Chaffanbrass. “We acknowledge the quarrel, we acknowledge the walk home at night, we acknowledge the bludgeon, and we acknowledge a grey coat.’. But that happened towards the close of the second day, and they had not then reached the grey coat. The question of the grey coat was commenced on the third morning — on the Saturday — which day, as was well known, would be opened with the examination of Lord Fawn. The anxiety to hear Lord Fawn undergo his penance was intense, and had been greatly increased by the conviction that Mr Chaffanbrass would resent upon him the charge made by the Attorney-General as to tampering with a witness. “I’ll tamper with him by and bye,” Mr Chaffabrass had whispered to Mr Wickerby, and the whispered threat had been spread abroad. On the table before Mr Chaffanbrass, when he took his place in the Court on the Saturday, was laid a heavy grey coat, and on the opposite side of the table, just before the Solicitor-General, was laid another grey coat, of much lighter material. When Lord Fawn saw the two coats as he took his seat on the bench his heart failed him.

He was hardly allowed to seat himself before he was called upon to be sworn. Sir Simon Slope, who was to examine him, took it for granted that his lordship could give his evidence from his place on the bench, but to this Mr Chaffanbrass objected. He was very well aware, he said, that such a practice was usual. He did not doubt but that in his time he had examined some hundreds of witnesses from the bench. In nineteen cases out of twenty there could be no objection to such a practice. But in this case the noble lord would have to give evidence not only as to what he had seen, but as to what he then saw. It would be expedient that he should see colours as nearly as possible in the same light as the jury, which he would do if he stood in the witness-box. And there might arise questions of identity, in speaking of which it would be well that the noble lord should be as near as possible to the thing or person to be identified. He was afraid that he must trouble the noble lord to come down from the Elysium of the bench. Whereupon Lord Fawn descended, and was sworn in at the witness-box.

His treatment from Sir Simon Slope was all that was due from a Solicitor-General to a distinguished peer who was a member of the same Government as himself. Sir Simon put his questions so as almost to reassure the witness; and very quickly — only too quickly — obtained from him all the information that was needed on the side of the prosecution. Lord Fawn, when he had left the club, had seen both Mr Bonteen and Mr Finn preparing to follow him, but he had gone alone, and had never seen Mr Bonteen since. He walked very slowly down into Curzon Street and Bolton Row, and when there, as he was about to cross the road at the top of Clarges Street — as he believed, just as he was crossing the street — he saw a man come at a very fast pace out of the mews which runs into Bolton Row, opposite to Clarges Street, and from thence hurry very quickly towards the passage which separates the gardens of Devonshire and Lansdowne Houses. It had already been proved that had Phineas Finn retraced his steps after Erle and Fitzgibbon had turned their backs upon him, his shortest and certainly most private way to the spot on which Lord Fawn had seen the man would have been by the mews in question. Lord Fawn went on to say that the man wore a grey coat — as far as he could judge it was such a coat as Sir Simon now showed him; he could not at all identify the prisoner; he could not say whether the man he had seen was as tall as the prisoner; he thought that as far as he could judge, there was not much difference in the height. He had not thought of Mr Finn when he saw the man hurrying along, nor had he troubled his mind about the man. That was the end of Lord Fawn’s evidence-in-chief, which he would gladly have prolonged to the close of the day could he thereby have postponed the coming horrors of his cross-examination. But there he was — in the clutches of the odious, dirty, little man, hating the little man, despising him because he was dirty, and nothing better than an Old Bailey barrister — and yet fearing him with so intense a fear!

Mr Chaffanbrass smiled at his victim, and for a moment was quite soft with him — as a cat is soft with a mouse. The reporters could hardly hear his first question — “I believe you are an Under-Secretary of State?” Lord Fawn acknowledged the fact. Now it was the case that in the palmy days of our hero’s former career he had filled the very office which Lord Fawn now occupied, and that Lord Fawn had at the time filled a similar position in another department. These facts Mr Chaffanbrass extracted from his witness — not without an appearance of unwillingness, which was produced, however, altogether by the natural antagonism of the victim to his persecutor; for Mr Chaffanbrass, even when asking the simplest questions, in the simplest words, even when abstaining from that sarcasm of tone under which witnesses were wont to feel that they were being flayed alive, could so look at a man as to create an antagonism which no witness could conceal. In asking a man his name, and age, and calling, he could produce an impression that the man was unwilling to tell anything, and that, therefore, the jury were entitled to regard his evidence with suspicion. “Then”, continued Mr Chaffanbrass, “you must have met him frequently in the intercourse of your business?”

“I suppose I did — sometimes.”

“Sometimes? You belonged to the same party?”

“We didn’t sit in the same House.”

“I know that, my lord. I know very well what House you sat in. But I suppose you would condescend to be acquainted with even a commoner who held the very office which you hold now. You belonged to the same club with him.”

“I don’t go much to the clubs,” said Lord Fawn.

“But the quarrel of which we have heard so much took place at a club in your presence?” Lord Fawn assented. “In fact you cannot but have been intimately and accurately acquainted with the personal appearance of the gentleman who is now on his trial. Is that so?”

“I never was intimate with him.”

Mr Chaffanbrass looked up at the jury and shook his head sadly. “I am not presuming, Lord Fawn, that you so far derogated as to be intimate with this gentleman — as to whom, however, I shall be able to show by and by that he was the chosen friend of the very man under whose mastership you now serve. I ask whether his appearance is not familiar to you?” Lord Fawn at last said that it was. “Do you know his height? What should you say was his height?” Lord Fawn altogether refused to give an opinion on such a subject, but acknowledged that he should not be surprised if he were told that Mr Finn was over six feet high. “In fact you consider him a tall man, my lord? There he is, you can look at him. Is he a tall man?” Lord Fawn did look, but wouldn’t give an answer. “I’ll undertake to say, my lord, that there isn’t a person in the Court at this moment, except yourself, who wouldn’t be ready — to express an opinion on his oath that Mr Finn is a tall man. Mr Chief Constable, just let the prisoner step out from the dock for a moment. He won’t run away. I must have his lordship’s opinion as to Mr Finn’s height.” Poor Phineas, when this was said, clutched hold of the front of the dock, as though determined that nothing but main force should make him exhibit himself to the Court in the manner proposed.

But the need for exhibition passed away. “I know that he is a very tall man,” said Lord Fawn.

“You know that he is a very tall man. We all know it. There can be no doubt about it. He is, as you say, a very tall man — with whose personal appearance you have long been familiar? I ask again, my lord, whether you have not been long familiar with his personal appearance?” After some further agonising delay Lord Fawn at last acknowledged that it had been so. “Now we shall get on like a house on fire,” said Mr Chaffanbrass.

But still the house did not burn very quickly. A string of questions was then asked as to the attitude of the man who had been seen coming out of the mews wearing a grey great coat — as to his attitude, and as to his general likeness to Phineas Finn. In answer to these Lord Fawn would only say that he had not observed the man’s attitude, and had certainly not thought of the prisoner when he saw the man. “My lord,” said Mr Chaffanbrass, very solemnly, “look at your late friend and colleague, and remember that his life depends probably on the accuracy of your memory. The man you saw — murdered Mr Bonteen. With all my experience in such matters, which is great; and with all my skill — which is something, I cannot stand against that fact. It is for me to show that that man and my client were not one and the same person, and I must do so by means of your evidence — by sifting what you say today, and by comparing it with what you have already said on other occasions. I understand you now to say that there is nothing in your remembrance of the man you saw, independently of the colour of the coat, to guide you to an opinion whether that man was or was not one and the same with the prisoner?”

In all the crowd then assembled there was no man more thoroughly under the influence of conscience as to his conduct than was Lord Fawn in reference to the evidence which he was called upon to give. Not only would the idea of endangering the life of a human being have been horrible to him, but the sanctity of an oath was imperative to him. He was essentially a truth-speaking man, if only he knew how to speak the truth. He would have sacrificed much to establish the innocence of Phineas Finn — not for the love of Phineas, but for the love of innocence — but not even to do that would he have lied. But he was a bad witness, and by his slowness, and by a certain unsustained pomposity which was natural to him, had already taught the jury to think that he was anxious to convict the prisoner. Two men in the Court, and two only, thoroughly understood his condition. Mr Chaffanbrass saw it all, and intended without the slightest scruple to take advantage of it. And the Chief Justice saw it all, and was already resolving how he could set the witness right with the jury.

“I didn’t think of Mr Finn at the time,” said Lord Fawn in answer to the last question.

“So I understand. The man didn’t strike you as being tall.”

“I don’t think that he did.”

“But yet in the evidence you gave before the magistrate in Bow Street I think you expressed a very strong opinion that the man you saw running out of the mews was Mr Finn?” Lord Fawn was again silent. “I am asking your lordship a question to which I must request an answer. Here is the Times report of the examination, with which you can refresh your memory, and you are of course aware that it was mainly on your evidence as here reported that my client stands there in jeopardy of his life.”

“I am not aware of anything of the kind,” said the witness.

“Very well. We will drop that then. But such was your evidence, whether important or not important. Of course your lordship can take what time you please for recollection.”

Lord Fawn tried very hard to recollect, but would not look at the newspaper which had been handed to him. “I cannot remember what words I used. It seems to me that I thought it must have been Mr Finn because I had been told that Mr Finn could have been there by running round.”

“Surely, my lord, that would not have sufficed to induce you to give such evidence as is there reported?”

“And the colour of the coat,” said Lord Fawn.

“In fact you went by the colour of the coat, and that only?”

“Then there had been the quarrel.”

“My lord, is not that begging the question? Mr Bonteen quarrelled with Mr Finn. Mr Bonteen was murdered by a man — as we all believe — whom you saw at a certain spot. Therefore you identified the man whom you saw as Mr Finn. Was that so?”

“I didn’t identify him.”

“At any rate you do not do so now? Putting aside the grey coat there is nothing to make you now think that that man and Mr Finn were one and the same? Come, my lord, on behalf of that man’s life, which is in great jeopardy — is in great jeopardy because of the evidence given by you before the magistrate — do not be ashamed to speak the truth openly, though it be at variance with what you may have said before with ill-advised haste.”

“My lord, is it proper that I should be treated in this way?” said the witness, appealing to the Bench.

“Mr Chaffanbrass,” said the judge, again looking at the barrister over his spectacles, “I think you are stretching the privilege of your position too far.”

“I shall have to stretch it further yet, my lord. His lordship in his evidence before the magistrate gave on his oath a decided opinion that the man he saw was Mr Finn — and on that evidence Mr Finn was committed for murder. Let him say openly, now, to the jury — when Mr Finn is on his trial for his life before the Court, and for all his hopes in life before the country — whether he thinks as then he thought, and on what grounds he thinks so.”

“I think so because of the quarrel, and because of the grey coat.”

“For no other reasons?”

“No — for no other reasons.”

“Your only ground for suggesting identity is the grey coat?”

“And the quarrel,” said Lord Fawn.

“My lord, in giving evidence as to identity, I fear that you do not understand the meaning of the word.” Lord Fawn looked up at the judge, but the judge on this occasion said nothing. “At any rate we have it from you at present that there was nothing in the appearance of the man you saw like to that of Mr Finn except the colour of the coat.”

“I don’t think there was,” said Lord Fawn, slowly.

Then there occurred a scene in the Court which no doubt was gratifying to the spectators, and may in part have repaid them for the weariness of the whole proceeding. Mr Chaffanbrass, while Lord Fawn was still in the witness-box, requested permission for a certain man to stand forward, and put on the coat which was lying on the table before him — this coat being in truth the identical garment which Mr Meager had brought home with him on the morning of the murder. This man was Mr Wickerby’s clerk, Mr Scruby, and he put on the coat — which seemed to fit him well. Mr Chaffanbrass then asked permission to examine Mr Scruby, explaining that much time might be saved, and declaring that he had but one question to ask him. After some difficulty this permission was given him, and Mr Scruby was asked his height. Mr Scruby was five feet eight inches, and had been accurately measured on the previous day with reference to the question. Then the examination of Lord Fawn was resumed, and Mr Chaffanbrass referred to that very irregular interview to which he had so improperly enticed the witness in Mr Wickerby’s chambers. For a long time Sir Gregory Grogram declared that he would not permit any allusion to what had taken place at a most improper conference — a conference which he could not stigmatize in sufficiently strong language. But Mr Chaffanbrass, smiling blandly — smiling very blandly for him — suggested that the impropriety of the conference, let it have been ever so abominable, did not prevent the fact of the conference, and that he was manifestly within his right in alluding to it. “Suppose, my lord, that Lord Fawn had confessed in Mr Wickerby’s chambers that he had murdered Mr Finn himself, and had since repented of that confession, would Mr Camperdown and Mr Wickerby, who were present, and would I, be now debarred from stating that confession in evidence, because, in deference to some fanciful rules of etiquette, Lord Fawn should not have been there?” Mr Chaffanbrass at last prevailed, and the evidence was resumed.

“You saw Mr Scruby wear that coat in Mr Wickerby’s chambers.” Lord Fawn said that he could not identify the coat. “We’ll take care to have it identified. We shall get a great deal out of that coat yet. You saw that man wear a coat like that.”

“Yes; I did.”

“And you see him now.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Does he remind you of the figure of the man you saw come out of the mews?” Lord Fawn paused. “We can’t make him move about here as we did in Mr Wickerby’s room; but remembering that as you must do, does he look like the man?”

“I don’t remember what the man looked like.”

“Did you not tell us in Mr Wickerby’s room that Mr Scruby with the grey coat on was like the figure of the man?”

Questions of this nature were prolonged for near half an hour, during which Sir Gregory made more than one attempt to defend his witness from the weapons of their joint enemies; but Lord Fawn at last admitted that he had acknowledged the resemblance, and did, in some faint ambiguous fashion, acknowledge it in his present evidence.

“My lord,” said Mr Chaffanbrass as he allowed Lord Fawn to go down, “you have no doubt taken a note of Mr Scruby’s height.” Whereupon the judge nodded his head.

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