Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 63

Mr Chaffanbrass for the Defence

The case for the prosecution was completed on the Saturday evening, Mrs Bunce having been examined as the last witness on that side. She was only called upon to say that her lodger had been in the habit of letting himself in and out of her house at all hours with a latch-key — but she insisted on saying more, and told the judge and the jury and the barristers that if they thought that Mr Finn had murdered anybody they didn’t know anything about the world in general. Whereupon Mr Chaffanbrass said that he would like to ask her a question or two, and with consummate flattery extracted from her her opinion of her lodger. She had known him for years, and thought that, of all the gentlemen that ever were born, he was the least likely to do such a bloody-minded action. Mr Chaffanbrass was, perhaps, right in thinking that her evidence might be as serviceable as that of the lords and countesses.

During the Sunday the trial was, as a matter of course, the talk of the town. Poor Lord Fawn shut himself up, and was seen by no one — but his conduct and evidence were discussed everywhere. At the clubs it was thought that he had escaped as well as could be expected; but he himself felt that he had been disgraced for ever. There was a very common opinion that Mr Chaffanbrass had admitted too much when he had declared that the man whom Lord Fawn had seen was doubtless the murderer. To the minds of men generally it seemed to be less evident that the man so seen should have done the deed, than that Phineas Finn should have been that man. Was it probable that there should be two men going about in grey coats, in exactly the same vicinity, and at exactly the same hour of the night? And then the evidence which Lord Fawn had given before the magistrates was to the world at large at any rate as convincing as that given in the Court. The jury would, of course, be instructed to regard only the latter; whereas the general public would naturally be guided by the two combined. At the club it was certainly believed that the case was going against the prisoner.

“You have read it all, of course,” said the Duchess of Omnium to her husband, as she sat with the Observer in her hand on that Sunday morning. The Sunday papers were full of the report, and were enjoying a very extended circulation.

“I wish you would not think so much about it,” said the Duke.

“That’s very easily said, but how is one to help thinking about it? Of course I am thinking about it. You know all about the coat. It belonged to the man where Mealyus was lodging.”

“I will not talk about the coat, Glencora. If Mr Finn did commit the murder it is right that he should be convicted.”

“But if he didn’t?”

“It would be doubly right that he should be acquitted. But the jury will have means of arriving at a conclusion without prejudice, which you and I cannot have; and therefore we should be prepared to take their verdict as correct.”

“If they find him guilty, their verdict will be damnable and false,” said the Duchess. Whereupon the Duke turned away in anger, and resolved that he would say nothing more about the trial — which resolution, however, he was compelled to break before the trial was over.

“What do you think about it, Mr Erle?” asked the other Duke.

“I don’t know what to think — I only hope.”

“That he may be acquitted?”

“Of course.”

“Whether guilty or innocent?”

“Well — yes. But if he is acquitted I shall believe him to have been innocent. Your Grace thinks —?”

“I am as unwilling to think as you are, Mr Erle.” It was thus that people spoke of it. With the exception of some very few, all those who had known Phineas were anxious for an acquittal, though they could not bring themselves to believe that an innocent man had been put in peril of his life.

On the Monday morning the trial was recommenced, and the whole day was taken up by the address which Mr Chaffanbrass made to the jury. He began by telling them the history of the coat which lay before them, promising to prove by evidence all the details which he stated. It was not his intention, he said, to accuse anyone of the murder. It was his business to defend the prisoner, not to accuse others. But, as he should prove to them, two persons had been arrested as soon as the murder had been discovered — two persons totally unknown to each other, and who were never for a moment supposed to have acted together — and the suspicion of the police had in the first instance pointed, not to his client, but to the other man. That other man had also quarrelled with Mr Bonteen, and that other man was now in custody on a charge of bigamy chiefly through the instrumentality of Mr Bonteen, who had been the friend of the victim of the supposed bigamist. With the accusation of bigamy they would have nothing to do, but he must ask them to take cognisance of that quarrel as well as of the quarrel at the club. He then named that formerly popular preacher, the Rev. Mr Emilius, and explained that he would prove that this man, who had incurred the suspicion of the police in the first instance, had during the night of the murder been so circumstanced as to have been able to use the coat produced. He would prove also that Mr Emilius was of precisely the same height as the man whom they had seen wearing the coat. God forbid that he should bring an accusation of murder against a man on such slight testimony. But if the evidence, as grounded on the coat, was slight against Emilius, how could it prevail at all against his client? The two coats were as different as chalk from cheese, the one being what would be called a gentleman’s fashionable walking coat, and the other the wrap-rascal of such a fellow as was Mr Meager. And yet Lord Fawn, who attempted to identify the prisoner only by his coat, could give them no opinion as to which was the coat he had seen! But Lord Fawn, who had found himself to be debarred by his conscience from repeating the opinion he had given before the magistrate as to the identity of Phineas Finn with the man he had seen, did tell them that the figure of that man was similar to the figure of him who had worn the coat on Saturday in presence of them all. This man in the street had therefore been like Mr Emilius, and could not in the least have resembled the prisoner. Mr Chaffanbrass would not tell the jury that this point bore strongly against Mr Emilius, but he took upon himself to assert that it was quite sufficient to snap asunder the thin thread of circumstantial evidence by which his client was connected with the murder. A great deal more was said about Lord Fawn, which was not complimentary to that nobleman. “His lordship is an honest, slow man, who has doubtless meant to tell you the truth, but who does not understand the meaning of what he himself says. When he swore before the magistrate that he thought he could identify my client with the man in the street, he really meant that he thought that there must be identity, because he believed from other reasons that Mr Finn was the man in the street. Mr Bonteen had been murdered — according to Lord Fawn’s thinking had probably been murdered by Mr Finn. And it was also probable to him that Mr Bonteen had been murdered by the man in the street. He came thus to the conclusion that the prisoner was the man in the street. In fact, as far as the process of identifying is concerned, his lordship’s evidence is altogether in favour of the prisoner. The figure seen by him we must suppose was the figure of a short man, and not of one tall and commanding in his presence, as is that of the prisoner.”

There were many other points on which Mr Chaffanbrass insisted at great length — but, chiefly, perhaps, on the improbability, he might say impossibility, that the plot for a murder so contrived should have entered into a man’s head, have been completed and executed, all within a few minutes. “But under no hypothesis compatible with the allegations of the prosecution can it be conceived that the murder should have been contemplated by my client before the quarrel at the club. No, gentlemen — the murderer had been at his work for days. He had examined the spot and measured the distances. He had dogged the steps of his victim on previous nights. In the shade of some dark doorway he had watched him from his club, and had hurried by his secret path to the spot which he had appointed for the deed. Can any man doubt that the murder has thus been committed, let who will have been the murderer? But, if so, then my client could not have done the deed.” Much had been made of the words spoken at the club door. Was it probable — was it possible — that a man intending to commit a murder should declare how easily he could do it, and display the weapon he intended to use? The evidence given as to that part of the night’s work was, he contended, altogether in the prisoner’s favour. Then he spoke of the life-preserver, and gave a rather long account of the manner in which Phineas Finn had once taken two garotters prisoner in the street. All this lasted till the great men on the bench trooped out to lunch. And then Mr Chaffanbrass, who had been speaking for nearly four hours, retired to a small room and there drank a pint of port wine. While he was doing so, Mr Serjeant Birdbott spoke a word to him, but he only shook his head and snarled. He was telling himself at the moment how quick may be the resolves of the eager mind — for he was convinced that the idea of attacking Mr Bonteen had occurred to Phineas Finn after he had displayed the life-preserver at the club door; and he was telling himself also how impossible it is for a dull conscientious man to give accurate evidence as to what he had himself seen — for he was convinced that Lord Fawn had seen Phineas Finn in the street. But to no human being had he expressed this opinion; nor would he express it — unless his client should be hung.

After lunch he occupied nearly three hours in giving to the jury, and of course to the whole assembled Court, the details of about two dozen cases, in which apparently strong circumstantial evidence had been wrong in its tendency. In some of the cases quoted, the persons tried had been acquitted; in some, convicted and afterwards pardoned; in one pardoned after many years of punishment — and in one the poor victim had been hung. On this he insisted with a pathetic eloquence which certainly would not have been expected from his appearance, and spoke with tears in his eyes — real unaffected tears — of the misery of those wretched jurymen who, in the performance of their duty, had been led into so frightful an error. Through the whole of this long recital he seemed to feel no fatigue, and when he had done with his list of judicial mistakes about five o’clock in the afternoon, went on to make what he called the very few remarks necessary as to the evidence which on the next day he proposed to produce as to the prisoner’s character. He ventured to think that evidence as to the character of such a nature — so strong, so convincing, so complete, and so free from all objection, had never yet been given in a criminal court. At six o’clock he completed his speech, and it was computed that the old man had been on his legs very nearly seven hours. It was said of him afterwards that he was taken home speechless by one of his daughters and immediately put to bed, that he roused himself about eight and ate his dinner and drank a bottle of port in his bedroom, that he then slept — refusing to stir even when he was waked, till half-past nine in the morning, and that then he scrambled into his clothes, breakfasted, and got down to the Court in half an hour. At ten o’clock he was in his place, and nobody knew that he was any the worse for the previous day’s exertion.

This was on a Tuesday, the fifth day of the trial, and upon the whole perhaps the most interesting. A long array of distinguished persons — of women as well as men — was brought up to give to the jury their opinion as to the character of Mr Finn. Mr Low was the first, who having been his tutor when he was studying at the bar, knew him longer than any other Londoner. Then came his countryman Laurence Fitzgibbon, and Barrington Erle, and others of his own party who had been intimate with him. And men, too, from the opposite side of the House were brought up, Sir Orlando Drought among the number, all of whom said that they had known the prisoner well, and from their knowledge would have considered it impossible that he should have become a murderer. The two last called were Lord Cantrip and Mr Monk, one of whom was, and the other had been, a Cabinet Minister. But before them came Lady Cantrip — and Lady Chiltern, whom we once knew as Violet Effingham, whom this very prisoner had in early days fondly hoped to make his wife, who was still young and beautiful, and who had never before entered a public Court.

There had of course been much question as to the witnesses to be selected. The Duchess of Omnium had been anxious to be one, but the Duke had forbidden it, telling his wife that she really did not know the man, and that she was carried away by a foolish enthusiasm. Lady Cantrip when asked had at once consented. She had known Phineas Finn, when he had served under her husband, and had liked him much. Then what other woman’s tongue should be brought to speak of the man’s softness and tender bearing! It was out of the question that Lady Laura Kennedy should appear. She did not even propose it when her brother with unnecessary sternness told her it could not be so. Then his wife looked at him. “You shall go”, said Lord Chiltern, “if you feel equal to it. It seems to be nonsense, but they say that it is important.”

“I will go,” said Violet, with her eyes full of tears. Afterwards when her sister-in-law besought her to be generous in her testimony, she only smiled as she assented. Could generosity go beyond hers?

Lord Chiltern preceded his wife. “I have”, he said, “known Mr Finn well, and have loved him dearly. I have eaten with him and drank with him, have ridden with him, have lived with him, and have quarrelled with him; and I know him as I do my own right hand.” Then he stretched forth his arm with the palm extended.

“Irrespectively of the evidence in this case you would not have thought him to be a man likely to commit such a crime?” asked Serjeant Birdbott.

“I am quite sure from my knowledge of the man that he could not commit a murder,” said Lord Chiltern; “and I don’t care what the evidence is.”

Then came his wife, and it certainly was a pretty sight to see as her husband led her up to the box and stood close beside her as she gave her evidence. There were many there who knew much of the history of her life — who knew that passage in it of her early love — for the tale had of course been told when it was whispered about that Lady Chiltern was to be examined as a witness. Every ear was at first strained to hear her words — but they were audible in every corner of the Court without any effort. It need hardly be said that she was treated with the greatest deference on every side. She answered the questions very quietly, but apparently without nervousness. “Yes; she had known Mr Finn long, and intimately, and had very greatly valued his friendship. She did so still — as much as ever. Yes; she had known him for some years, and in circumstances which she thought justified her in saying that she understood his character. She regarded him as a man who was brave and tenderhearted, soft in feeling and manly in disposition. To her it was quite incredible that he should have committed a crime such as this. She knew him to be a man prone to forgive offences, and of a sweet nature.” And it was pretty too to watch the unwonted gentleness of old Chaffanbrass as he asked the questions, and carefully abstained from putting any one that could pain her. Sir Gregory said that he had heard her evidence with great pleasure, but that he had no question to ask her himself. Then she stepped down, again took her husband’s arm, and left the Court amidst a hum of almost affectionate greeting.

And what must he have thought as he stood there within the dock, looking at her and listening to her? There had been months in his life when he had almost trusted that he would succeed in winning that fair, highly-born, and wealthy woman for his wife; and though he had failed, and now knew that he had never really touched her heart, that she had always loved the man whom — though she had rejected him time after time because of the dangers of his ways — she had at last married, yet it must have been pleasant to him, even in his peril, to hear from her own lips how well she had esteemed him. She left the Court with her veil down, and he could not catch her eye; but Lord Chiltern nodded to him in his old pleasant familiar way, as though to bid him take courage, and to tell him that all things would even yet be well with him.

The evidence given by Lady Cantrip and her husband and by Mr Monk was equally favourable. She had always regarded him as a perfect gentleman. Lord Cantrip had found him to be devoted to the service of the country — modest, intelligent, and high-spirited. Perhaps the few words which fell from Mr Monk were as strong as any that were spoken. “He is a man whom I have delighted to call my friend, and I have been happy to think that his services have been at the disposal of his country.”

Sir Gregory Grogram replied. It seemed to him that the evidence was as he had left it. It would be for the jury to decide, under such directions as his lordship might be pleased to give them, how far that evidence brought the guilt home to the prisoner. He would use no rhetoric in pushing the case against the prisoner; but he must submit to them that his learned friend had not shown that acquaintance with human nature which the gentleman undoubtedly possessed in arguing that there had lacked time for the conception and execution of the crime. Then, at considerable length, he strove to show that Mr Chaffanbrass had been unjustly severe upon Lord Fawn.

It was late in the afternoon when Sir Gregory had finished his speech, and the judge’s charge was reserved for a sixth day.

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