Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 64

Confusion in the Court

On the following morning it was observed that before the judges took their seats Mr Chaffanbrass entered the Court with a manner much more brisk than was expected from him now that his own work was done. As a matter of course he would be there to hear the charge, but, almost equally as a matter of course, he would be languid, silent, cross, and unenergetic. They who knew him were sure, when they saw his bearing on this morning, that he intended to do something more before the charge was given. The judges entered the Court nearly half an hour later than usual, and it was observed with surprise that they were followed by the Duke of Omnium. Mr Chaffanbrass was on his feet before the Chief Justice had taken his seat, but the judge was the first to speak. It was observed that he held a scrap of paper in his hand, and that the barrister held a similar scrap. Then every man in the Court knew that some message had come suddenly by the wires. “I am informed, Mr Chaffanbrass, that you wish to address the Court before I begin my charge.”

“Yes, my lud; and I am afraid, my lud, that I shall have to ask your ludship to delay your charge for some days, and to subject the jury to the very great inconvenience of prolonged incarceration for another week — either to do that or to call upon the jury to acquit the prisoner. I venture to assert, on my own peril, that no jury can convict the prisoner after hearing me read that which I hold in my hand.” Then Mr Chaffanbrass paused, as though expecting that the judge would speak — but the judge said not a word, but sat looking at the old barrister over his spectacles.

Every eye was turned upon Phineas Finn, who up to this moment had heard nothing of these new tidings — who did not in the least know on what was grounded the singularly confident — almost insolently confident assertion which Mr Chaffanbrass had made in his favour. On him the effect was altogether distressing. He had borne the trying week with singular fortitude, having stood there in the place of shame hour after hour, and day after day, expecting his doom. It had been to him as a lifetime of torture. He had become almost numb from the weariness of his position and the agonising strain upon his mind. The gaoler had offered him a seat from day to day, but he had always refused it, preferring to lean upon the rail and gaze upon the Court. He had almost ceased to hope for anything except the end of it. He had lost count of the days, and had begun to feel that the trial was an eternity of torture in itself. At nights he could not sleep, but during the Sunday, after Mass, he had slept all day. Then it had begun again, and when the Tuesday came he hardly knew how long it had been since that vacant Sunday. And now he heard the advocate declare, without knowing on what ground the declaration was grounded, that the trial must be postponed, or that the jury must be instructed to acquit him.

“This telegram has reached us only this morning,” continued Mr Chaffanbrass. “{“Mealyus had a house door-key made in Prague. We have the mould in our possession, and will bring the man who made the key to England.’” Now, my lud, the case in the hands of the police, as against this man Mealyus, or Emilius, as he has chosen to call himself, broke down altogether on the presumption that he could not have let himself in and out of the house in which he had put himself to bed on the night of the murder. We now propose to prove that he had prepared himself with the means of doing so, and had done so after a fashion which is conclusive as to his having required the key for some guilty purpose. We assert that your ludship cannot allow the case to go to the jury without taking cognisance of this telegram; and we go further, and say that those twelve men, as twelve human beings with hearts in their bosoms and ordinary intelligence at their command, cannot ignore the message, even should your ludship insist upon their doing so with all the energy at your disposal.”

Then there was a scene in Court, and it appeared that no less than four messages had been received from Prague, all to the same effect. One had been addressed by Madame Goesler to her friend the Duchess — and that message had caused the Duke’s appearance on the scene. He had brought his telegram direct to the Old Bailey, and the Chief Justice now held it in his hand. The lawyer’s clerk who had accompanied Madame Goesler had telegraphed to the Governor of the gaol, to Mr Wickerby, and to the Attorney-General. Sir Gregory, rising with the telegram in his hand, stated that he had received the same information. “I do not see,” said he, “that it at all alters the evidence as against the prisoner.

“Let your evidence go to the jury, then,” said Mr Chaffanbrass, “with such observations as his lordship may choose to make on the telegram. I shall be contented. You have already got your other man in prison on a charge of bigamy.

“I could not take notice of the message in charging the jury, Mr Chaffanbrass,” said the judge. “It has come, as far as we know, from the energy of a warm friend — from that hearty friendship with which it seemed yesterday that this gentleman, the prisoner at the bar, has inspired so many men and women of high character. But it proves nothing. It is an assertion. And where should we all be, Mr Chaffanbrass, if it should appear hereafter that the assertion is fictitious — prepared purposely to aid the escape of a criminal?”

“I defy you to ignore it, my lord.”

“I can only suggest, Mr Chaffanbrass,” continued the judge, “that you should obtain the consent of the gentlemen on the other side to a postponement of my charge.”

Then spoke out the foreman of the jury. Was it proposed that they should be locked up till somebody should come from Prague, and that then the trial should be recommenced? The system, said the foreman, under which Middlesex juries were chosen for service in the City was known to be most horribly cruel — but cruelty to jurymen such as this had never even been heard of. Then a most irregular word was spoken. One of the jurymen declared that he was quite willing to believe the telegram. “Everyone believes it,” said Mr Chaffanbrass. Then the Chief Justice scolded the juryman, and Sir Gregory Grogram scolded Mr Chaffanbrass. It seemed as though all the rules of the Court were to be set at defiance. “Will my learned friend say that he doesn’t believe it?” asked Mr Chaffanbrass. “I neither believe nor disbelieve it; but it cannot affect the evidence,” said Sir Gregory. “Then send the case to the jury,” said Mr Chaffanbrass. It seemed that everybody was talking, and Mr Wickerby, the attorney, tried to explain it all to the prisoner over the bar of the dock, not in the lowest possible voice. The Chief Justice became angry, and the guardian of the silence of the Court bestirred himself energetically. “My lud,” said Mr Chaffanbrass, “I maintain that it is proper that the prisoner should be informed of the purport of these telegrams. Mercy demands it, and justice as well.” Phineas Finn, however, did not understand, as he had known nothing about the latch-key of the house in Northumberland Street.

Something, however, must be done. The Chief Justice was of opinion that, although the preparation of a latch-key in Prague could not really affect the evidence against the prisoner — although the facts against the prisoner would not be altered, let the manufacture of that special key be ever so clearly proved — nevertheless the jury were entitled to have before them the facts now tendered in evidence before they could be called upon to give a verdict, and that therefore they should submit themselves, in the service of their country, to the very serious additional inconvenience which they would be called upon to endure. Sundry of the jury altogether disagreed with this, and became loud in their anger. They had already been locked up for a week. “And we are quite prepared to give a verdict,” said one. The judge again scolded him very severely; and as the Attorney-General did at last assent, and as the unfortunate jurymen had no power in the matter, so it was at last arranged. The trial should be postponed till time should be given for Madame Goesler and the blacksmith to reach London from Prague.

If the matter was interesting to the public before, it became doubly interesting now. It was of course known to everybody that Madame Goesler had undertaken a journey to Bohemia — and, as many supposed, a roving tour through all the wilder parts of unknown Europe, Poland, Hungary, and the Principalities for instance — with the object of looking for evidence to save the life of Phineas Finn; and grandly romantic tales were told of her wit, her wealth, and her beauty. The story was published of the Duke of Omnium’s will, only not exactly the true story. The late Duke had left her everything at his disposal, and, it was hinted that they had been privately married just before the Duke’s death. Of course Madame Goesler became very popular, and the blacksmith from Prague who had made the key was expected with an enthusiasm which almost led to preparation for a public reception.

And yet, let the blacksmith from Prague be ever so minute in his evidence as to the key, let it be made as clear as running water that Mealyus had caused to be constructed for him in Prague a key that would open the door of the house in Northumberland Street, the facts as proved at the trial would not be at all changed. The lawyers were much at variance with their opinions on the matter, some thinking that the judge had been altogether wrong in delaying his charge. According to them he should not have allowed Mr Chaffanbrass to have read the telegram in Court. The charge should have been given, and the sentence of the Court should have been pronounced if a verdict of guilty were given. The Home Secretary should then have granted a respite till the coming of the blacksmith, and have extended this respite to a pardon, if advised that the circumstances of the latch-key rendered doubtful the propriety of the verdict. Others, however, maintained that in this way a grievous penalty would be inflicted on a man who, by general consent, was now held to be innocent. Not only would he, by such an arrangement of circumstances, have been left for some prolonged period under the agony of a condemnation, but, by the necessity of the case, he would lose his seat for Tankerville. It would be imperative upon the House to declare vacant by its own action a seat held by a man condemned to death for murder, and no pardon from the Queen or from the Home Secretary would absolve the House from that duty. The House, as a House of Parliament, could only recognise the verdict of the jury as to the man’s guilt. The Queen, of course, might pardon whom she pleased, but no pardon from the Queen would remove the guilt implied by the sentence. Many went much further than this, and were prepared to prove that were he once condemned he could not afterwards sit in the House, even if re-elected.

Now there was unquestionably an intense desire — since the arrival of these telegrams — that Phineas Finn should retain his seat. It may be a question whether he would not have been the most popular man in the House could he have sat there on the day after the telegrams arrived. The Attorney-General had declared — and many others had declared with him — that this information about the latch-key did not in the least affect the evidence as given against Mr Finn. Could it have been possible to convict the other man, merely because he had surreptitiously caused a door-key of the house in which he lived to be made for him? And how would this new information have been received had Lord Fawn sworn unreservedly that the man he had seen running out of the mews had been Phineas Finn? It was acknowledged that the latchkey could not be accepted as sufficient evidence against Mealyus. But nevertheless the information conveyed by the telegrams altogether changed the opinion of the public as to the guilt or innocence of Phineas Finn. His life now might have been insured, as against the gallows, at a very low rate. It was felt that no jury could convict him, and he was much more pitied in being subjected to a prolonged incarceration than even those twelve unfortunate men who had felt sure that the Wednesday would have been the last day of their unmerited martyrdom.

Phineas in his prison was materially circumstanced precisely as he had been before the trial. He was supplied with a profusion of luxuries, could they have comforted him; and was allowed to receive visitors. But he would see no one but his sisters — except that he had one interview with Mr Low. Even Mr Low found it difficult to make him comprehend the exact condition of the affair, and could not induce him to be comforted when he did understand it. What had he to do — how could his innocence or his guilt be concerned — with the manufacture of a paltry key by such a one as Mealyus? How would it have been with him and with his name for ever if this fact had not been discovered? “I was to be hung or saved from hanging according to the chances of such a thing as this! I do not care for my life in a country where such injustice can be done.” His friend endeavoured to assure him that even had nothing been heard of the key the jury would have acquitted him. But Phineas would not believe him. It had seemed to him as he had listened to the whole proceeding that the Court had been against him. The Attorney and Solicitor-General had appeared to him resolved upon hanging him — men who had been, at any rate, his intimate acquaintances, with whom he had sat on the same bench, who ought to have known him. And the judge had taken the part of Lord Fawn, who had seemed to Phineas to be bent on swearing away his life. He had borne himself very gallantly during that week, having in all his intercourse with his attorney, spoken without a quaver in his voice, and without a flaw in the perspicuity of his intelligence. But now, when Mr Low came to him, explaining to him that it was impossible that a verdict should be found against him, he was quite broken down. “There is nothing left of me,” he said at the end of the interview. “I feel that I had better take to my bed and die. Even when I think of all that friends have done for me, it fails to cheer me. In this matter I should not have had to depend on friends. Had not she gone for me to that place everyone would have believed me to be a murderer.”

And yet in his solitude he thought very much of the marvellous love shown to him by his friends. Words had been spoken which had been very sweet to him in all his misery — words such as neither men nor women can say to each other in the ordinary intercourse of life, much as they may wish that their purport should be understood. Lord Chiltern, Lord Cantrip, and Mr Monk had alluded to him as a man specially singled out by them for their friendship. Lady Cantrip, than whom no woman in London was more discreet, had been equally enthusiastic. Then how gracious, how tender, how inexpressibly sweet had been the words of her who had been Violet Effingham! And now the news had reached him of Madame Goesler’s journey to the continent. “It was a wonderful thing for her to do,” Mr Low had said. Yes, indeed! Remembering all that had passed between them he acknowledged to himself that it was very wonderful. Were it not that his back was now broken, that he was prostrate and must remain so, a man utterly crushed by what he had endured, it might have been possible that she should do more for him even than she yet had done.

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