The task of seeing an important trial at the Old Bailey is by no means a pleasant business, unless you be what the denizens of the Court would call “one of the swells’ — so as to enjoy the privilege of being a benchfellow with the judge on the seat of judgment. And even in that case the pleasure is not unalloyed. You have, indeed, the gratification of seeing the man whom all the world has been talking about for the last nine days, face to face, and of being seen in a position which causes you to be acknowledged as a man of mark; but the intolerable stenches of the Court and its horrid heat come up to you there, no doubt, as powerfully as they fall on those below. And then the tedium of a prolonged trial, in which the points of interest are apt to be few and far between, grows upon you till you begin to feel that though the Prime Minister who is out should murder the Prime Minister who is in, and all the members of the two Cabinets were to be called in evidence, you would not attend the trial, though the seat of honour next to the judge were accorded to you. Those bewigged ones, who are the performers, are so insufferably long in their parts, so arrogant in their bearing — so it strikes you, though doubtless the fashion of working has been found to be efficient for the purposes they have in hand — and so uninteresting in their repetition, that you first admire, and then question, and at last execrate the imperturbable patience of the judge, who might, as you think, force the thing through in a quarter of the time without any injury to justice. And it will probably strike you that the length of the trial is proportioned not to the complicity but to the importance, or rather to the public interest, of the case — so that the trial which has been suggested of a disappointed and bloody-minded ex-Prime Minister would certainly take at least a fortnight, even though the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Chancellor had seen the blow struck, whereas a collier may knock his wife’s brains out in the dark and be sent to the gallows with a trial that shall not last three hours. And yet the collier has to be hung — if found guilty — and no one thinks that his life is improperly endangered by reckless haste. Whether lives may not be improperly saved by the more lengthened process is another question.
But the honours of such benchfellowship can be accorded but to few, and the task becomes very tiresome when the spectator has to enter the Court as an ordinary mortal. There are two modes open to him, either of which is subject to grievous penalties. If he be the possessor of a decent coat and hat, and can scrape any acquaintance with anyone concerned, he may get introduced to that overworked and greatly perplexed official, the under-sheriff, who will stave him off if possible — knowing that even a under-sheriff cannot make space elastic — but, if the introduction has been acknowledged as good, will probably find a seat for him if he persevere to the end. But the seat when obtained must be kept in possession from morning to evening, and the fight must be renewed from day to day. And the benches are hard, and the space is narrow, and you feel that the under-sheriff would prod you with his sword if you ventured to sneeze, or to put to your lips the flask which you have in your pocket. And then, when all the benchfellows go out to lunch at half-past one, and you are left to eat your dry sandwich without room for your elbows, a feeling of unsatisfied ambition will pervade you. It is all very well to be the friend of an under-sheriff, but if you could but have known the judge, or have been a cousin of the real sheriff, how different it might have been with you!
But you may be altogether independent, and, as a matter of right, walk into an open English court of law as one of the British public. You will have to stand of course — and to commence standing very early in the morning if you intend to succeed in witnessing any portion of the performance. And when you have made once good your entrance as one of the British public, you are apt to be a good deal knocked about, not only by your public brethren, but also by those who have to keep the avenues free for witnesses, and who will regard you from first to last as a disagreeable excrescence on the officialities of the work on hand. Upon the whole it may be better for you, perhaps, to stay at home and read the record of the affair as given in the next day’s Times. Impartial reporters, judicious readers, and able editors between them will preserve for you all the kernel, and will save you from the necessity of having to deal with the shell.
At this trial there were among the crowd who succeeded in entering the Court three persons of our acquaintance who had resolved to overcome the various difficulties. Mr Monk, who had formerly been a Cabinet Minister, was seated on the bench — subject, indeed, to the heat and stenches, but priviledged to eat the lunch. Mr Quintus Slide, of the People’s Banner — who knew the Court well, for in former days he had worked many an hour in it as a reporter — had obtained the good graces of the under-sheriff. And Mr Bunce, with all the energy of the British Public, had forced his way in among the crowd, and had managed to wedge himself near to the dock, so that he might be able by a hoist of the neck to see his lodger as he stood at the bar. Of these three men, Bunce was assured that the prisoner was innocent — led to such assurance partly by belief in the man, and partly by an innate spirit of opposition to all exercise of restrictive power. Mr Quintus Slide was certain of the prisoner’s guilt, and gave himself considerable credit for having assisted in running down the criminal. It seemed to be natural to Mr Quintus Slide that a man who had openly quarrelled with the Editor of the People’s Banner should come to the gallows. Mr Monk, as Phineas himself well knew, had doubted. He had received the suspected murderer into his warmest friendship, and was made miserable even by his doubts. Since the circumstances of the case had come to his knowledge, they had weighed upon his mind so as to sadden his whole life. But he was a man who could not make his reason subordinate to his feelings. If the evidence against his friend was strong enough to send his friend for trial, how should he dare to discredit the evidence because the man was his friend? He had visited Phineas in prison, and Phineas had accused him of doubting. “You need not answer me,” the unhappy man had said, “but do not come unless you are able to tell me from your heart that you are sure of my innocence. There is no person living who could comfort me by such assurance as you could do.” Mr Monk had thought about it very much, but he had not repeated his visit.
At a quarter past ten the Chief Justice was on the bench, with a second judge to help him, and with lords and distinguished commoners and great City magnates crowding the long seat between him and the doorway; the Court was full, so that you would say that another head could not be made to appear; and Phineas Finn, the member for Tankerville, was in the dock. Barrington Erle, who was there to see — as one of the great ones, of course — told the Duchess of Omnium that night that Phineas was thin and pale, and in many respects an altered man — but handsomer than ever.
“He bore himself well?” asked the Duchess.
“Very well — very well indeed. We were there for six hours, and he maintained the same demeanour throughout. He never spoke but once, and that was when Chaffanbrass began his fight about the jury.”
“What did he say?”
“He addressed the judge, interrupting Slope, who was arguing that some man would make a very good juryman, and declared that it was not by his wish that any objection was raised against any gentleman.”
“What did the judge say?”
“Told him to abide by his counsel. The Chief Justice was very civil to him — indeed better than civil.”
“We’ll have him down to Matching, and make ever so much of him,” said the Duchess.
“Don’t go too fast, Duchess, for he may have to hang poor Phineas yet.”
“Oh dear; I wish you wouldn’t use that word. But what did he say?”
“He told Finn that as he had thought fit to employ counsel for his defence — in doing which he had undoubtedly acted wisely — he must leave the case to the discretion of his counsel.”
“And then poor Phineas was silenced?”
“He spoke another word. “My lord,”” said he, ““I for my part wish that the first twelve men on the list might be taken.’” But old Chaffanbrass went on just the same. It took them two hours and a half before they could swear a jury.”
“But, Mr Erle — taking it altogether — which way is it going?”
“Nobody can even guess as yet. There was ever so much delay besides that about the jury. It seemed that somebody had called him Phinees instead of Phineas, and that took half an hour. They begin with the quarrel at the club, and are to call the first witness tomorrow morning. They are to examine Ratler about the quarrel, and Fitzgibbon, and Monk, and, I believe, old Bouncer, the man who writes, you know. They all heard what took place.”
“So did you?”
“I have managed to escape that. They can’t very well examine all the club. But I shall be called afterwards as to what took place at the door. They will begin with Ratler.”
“Everybody knows there was a quarrel, and that Mr Bonteen had been drinking, and that he behaved as badly as a man could behave.”
“It must all be proved, Duchess.”
“I’ll tell you what, Mr Erle. If — if — if this ends badly for Mr Finn I’ll wear mourning to the day of my death. I’ll go to the Drawing Room in mourning, to show what I think of it.”
Lord Chiltern, who was also on the bench, took his account of the trial home to his wife and sister in Portman Square. At this time Miss Palliser was staying with them, and the three ladies were together when the account was brought to them. In that house it was taken as doctrine that Phineas Finn was innocent. In the presence of her brother, and before her sister-in-law’s visitor, Lady Laura had learned to be silent on the subject, and she now contented herself with listening, knowing that she could relieve herself by speech when alone with Lady Chiltern. “I never knew anything so tedious in my life,” said the Master of the Brake hounds. “They have not done anything yet.”
“I suppose they have made their speeches?” said his wife.
“Sir Gregory Grogram opened the case, as they call it; and a very strong case he made of it. I never believe anything that a lawyer says when he has a wig on his head and a fee in his hand. I prepare myself beforehand to regard it all as mere words, supplied at so much the thousand. I know he’ll say whatever he thinks most likely to forward his own views. But upon my word he put it very strongly. He brought it all within so very short a space of time! Bonteen and Finn left the club within a minute of each other. Bonteen must have been at the top of the passage five minutes afterwards, and Phineas at that moment could not have been above two hundred yards from him. There can be no doubt of that.”
“Oswald, you don’t mean to say that it’s going against him!” exclaimed Lady Chiltern.
“It’s not going anyway at present. The witnesses have not been examined. But so far, I suppose, the Attorney-General was right. He has got to prove it all, but so much no doubt he can prove. He can prove that the man was killed with some blunt weapon, such as Finn had. And he can prove that exactly at the same time a man was running to the spot very like to Finn, and that by a route which would not have been his route, but by using which he could have placed himself at that moment where the man was seen.”
“How very dreadful!” said Miss Palliser.
“And yet I feel that I know it was that other man,” said Lady Chiltern. Lady Laura sat silent through it all, listening with her eyes intent on her brother’s face, with her elbow on the table and her brow on her hand. She did not speak a word till she found herself alone with her sister-in-law, and then it was hardly more than a word. “Violet, they will murder him!” Lady Chiltern endeavoured to comfort her, telling her that as yet they had heard but one side of the case; but the wretched woman only shook her head. “I know they will murder him”, she said, “and then when it is too late they will find out what they have done!”
On the following day the crowd in Court was if possible greater, so that the benchfellows were very much squeezed indeed. But it was impossible to exclude from the high seat such men as Mr Ratler and Lord Fawn when they were required in the Court as witnesses — and not a man who had obtained a seat on the first day was willing to be excluded on the second. And even then the witnesses were not called at once. Sir Gregory Grogram began the work of the day by saying that he had heard that morning for the first time that one of his witnesses had been — “tampered with” was the word that he unfortunately used — by his learned friend on the other side. He alluded, of course, to Lord Fawn, and poor Lord Fawn, sitting up there on the seat of honour, visible to all the world, became very hot and very uncomfortable. Then there arose a vehement dispute between Sir Gregory, assisted by Sir Simon, and old Mr Chaffanbrass, who rejected with disdain any assistance from the gentler men who were with him. “Tampered with! That word should be recalled by the honourable gentleman who was at the head of the bar, or — or — .” Had Mr Chaffanbrass declared that as an alternative he would pull the Court about their ears, it would have been no more than he meant. Lord Fawn had been invited — not summoned to attend; and why? In order that no suspicion of guilt might be thrown on another man, unless the knowledge that was in Lord Fawn’s bosom, and there alone, would justify such a line of defence. Lord Fawn had been attended by his own solicitor, and might have brought the Attorney-General with him had he so pleased. There was a great deal said on both sides, and something said also by the judge. At last Sir Gregory withdrew the objectionable word, and substituted in lieu of it an assertion that his witness had been “indiscreetly questioned”, Mr Chaffanbrass would not for a moment admit the indiscretion, but bounced about in his place, tearing his wig almost off his head, and defying everyone in the Court. The judge submitted to Mr Chaffanbrass that he had been indiscreet — “I never contradicted the Bench yet, my lord,” said Mr Chaffanbrass — at which there was a general titter throughout the bar — “but I must claim the privilege of conducting my own practice according to my own views. In this Court I am subject to the Bench. In my own chamber I am subject only to the law of the land.” The judge looking over his spectacles said a mild word about the profession at large. Mr Chaffanbrass, twisting his wig quite on one side, so that it nearly fell on Mr Serjeant Birdbott’s face, muttered something as to having seen more work done in that Court than any other living lawyer, let his rank be what it might. When the little affair was over, everybody felt that Sir Gregory had been vanquished.
Mr Ratler, and Laurence Fitzgibbon, and Mr Monk, and Mr Bouncer were examined about the quarrel at the club, and proved that the quarrel had been a very bitter quarrel. They all agreed that Mr Bonteen had been wrong, and that the prisoner had had cause for anger. Of the three distinguished legislators and statesmen above named Mr Chaffanbrass refused to take the slightest notice. “I have no question to put to you,” he said to Mr Ratler. “Of course there was a quarrel. We all know that.” But he did ask a question or two of Mr Bouncer. “You write books, I think, Mr Bouncer?”
“I do,” said Mr Bouncer, with dignity. Now there was no peculiarity in a witness to which Mr Chaffanbrass was so much opposed as an assumption of dignity.
“What sort of books, Mr Bouncer?”
“I write novels,” said Mr Bouncer, feeling that Mr Chaffanbrass must have been ignorant indeed of the polite literature of the day to make such a question necessary.
“You mean fiction.”
“Well, yes; fiction — if you like that word better.”
“I don’t like either, particularly. You have to find plots, haven’t you?”
Mr Bouncer paused a moment. “Yes; yes,” he said. “In writing a novel it is necessary to construct a plot.”
“Where do you get ’em from?”
“Where do I get ’em from?”
“Yes — where do you find them? You take them from the French mostly — don’t you?” Mr Bouncer became very red. “Isn’t that the way our English writers get their plots?”
“Sometimes — perhaps.”
“Yours ain’t French then?”
“Well — no — that is — I won’t undertake to say that — that — ”
“You won’t undertake to say that they’re not French.”
“Is this relevant to the case before us, Mr Chaffanbrass?” asked the judge.
“Quite so, my lud. We have a highly-distinguished novelist before us, my lud, who, as I have reason to believe, is intimately acquainted with the French system of the construction of plots. It is a business which the French carry to perfection. The plot of a novel should, I imagine, be constructed in accordance with human nature?”
“Certainly,” said Mr Bouncer.
“You have murders in novels?”
“Sometimes,” said Mr Bouncer, who had himself done many murders in his time.
“Did you ever know a French novelist have a premeditated murder committed by a man who could not possibly have conceived the murder ten minutes before he committed it; with whom the cause of the murder anteceded the murder no more than ten minutes?” Mr Bouncer stood thinking for a while. “We will give you your time, because an answer to the question from you will be important testimony.”
“I don’t think I do,” said Mr Bouncer, who in his confusion had been quite unable to think of the plot of a single novel.
“And if there were such a French plot that would not be the plot that you would borrow?”
“Certainly not,” said Mr Bouncer.
“Did you ever read poetry, Mr Bouncer?”
“Oh yes — I read a great deal of poetry.”
“Shakespeare, perhaps?” Mr Bouncer did not condescend to do more than nod his head. “There is a murder described in Hamlet. Was that supposed by the poet to have been devised suddenly?”
“I should say not.”
“So should I, Mr Bouncer. Do you remember the arrangements for the murder in Macbeth? That took a little time in concocting — didn’t it?”
“No doubt it did.”
“And when Othello murdered Desdemona, creeping up to her in her sleep, he had been thinking of it for some time?”
“I suppose he had.”
“Do you ever read English novels as well as French, Mr Bouncer?” The unfortunate author again nodded his head. “When Amy Robsart was lured to her death, there was some time given to the preparation — eh?”
“Of course there was.”
“Of course there was. And Eugene Aram, when he murdered a man in Bulwer’s novel, turned the matter over in his mind before he did it?”
“He was thinking a long time about it, I believe.”
“Thinking about it a long time! I rather think he was. Those great masters of human nature, those men who knew the human heart, did not venture to describe a secret murder as coming from a man’s brain without premeditation?”
“Not that I can remember.”
“Such also is my impression. But now, I bethink me of a murder that was almost as sudden as this is supposed to have been. Didn’t a Dutch smuggler murder a Scotch lawyer, all in a moment as it were?”
“Dirk Hatteraick did murder Glossin in Guy Mannering very suddenly — but he did it from passion.”
“Just so, Mr Bouncer. There was no plot there, was there? No arrangement; no secret creeping up to his victim; no escape even?”
“He was chained.”
“So he was; chained like a dog — and like a dog he flew at his enemy. If I understand you, then, Mr Bouncer, you would not dare so to violate probability in a novel, as to produce a murderer to the public who should contrive a secret hidden murder — contrive it and execute it, all within a quarter of an hour?”
Mr Bouncer, after another minute’s consideration, said that he thought he would not do so. “Mr Bouncer,” said Mr Chaffanbrass, “I am uncommonly obliged to our excellent friend, Sir Gregory, for having given us the advantage of your evidence.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14