Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 67

The Verdict

On the Wednesday morning Phineas Finn was again brought into the Court, and again placed in the dock. There was a general feeling that he should not again have been so disgraced; but he was still a prisoner under a charge of murder, and it was explained to him that the circumstances of the case and the stringency of the law did not admit of his being seated elsewhere during his trial. He treated the apology with courteous scorn. He should not have chosen, he said, to have made any change till after the trial was over, even had any change been permitted. When he was brought up the steps into the dock after the judges had taken their seats there was almost a shout of applause. The crier was very angry, and gave it to be understood that everybody would be arrested unless everybody was silent; but the Chief Justice said not a word, nor did those great men the Attorney and Solicitor-General express any displeasure. The bench was again crowded with Members of Parliament from both Houses, and on this occasion Mr Gresham himself had accompanied Lord Cantrip. The two dukes were there, and men no bigger than Laurence Fitzgibbon were forced to subject themselves to the benevolence of the Under-Sheriff.

Phineas himself was pale and haggard. It was observed that he leaned forward on the rail of the dock all the day, not standing upright as he had done before; and they who watched him closely said that he never once raised his eyes on this day to meet those of the men opposite to him on the bench, although heretofore throughout the trial he had stood with his face raised so as to look directly at those who were there seated. On this occasion he kept his eyes fixed upon the speaker. But the whole bearing of the man, his gestures, his gait, and his countenance were changed. During the first long week of his trial, his uprightness, the manly beauty of his countenance, and the general courage and tranquillity of his deportment had been conspicuous. Whatever had been his fatigue, he had managed not to show the outward signs of weariness. Whatever had been his fears, no mark of fear had disfigured his countenance. He had never once condescended to the exhibition of any outward show of effrontery. Through six weary days he had stood there, supported by a manhood sufficient for the terrible emergency. But now it seemed that at any rate the outward grace of his demeanour had deserted him. But it was known that he had been ill during the last few days, and it had been whispered through the Court that he had not slept at nights. Since the adjournment of the Court there had been bulletins as to his health, and everybody knew that the confinement was beginning to tell upon him.

On the present occasion the proceedings of the day were opened by the Attorney-General, who began by apologising to the jury. Apologies to the jury had been very frequent during the trial, and each apology had called forth fresh grumbling. On this occasion the foreman expressed a hope that the Legislature would consider the condition of things which made it possible that twelve gentlemen all concerned extensively in business should be confined for fourteen days because a mistake had been made in the evidence as to a murder. Then the Chief Justice, bowing down his head and looking at them over the rim of his spectacles with an expression of wisdom that almost convinced them, told them that he was aware of no mistake in the evidence. It might become their duty, on the evidence which they had heard and the further evidence which they would hear, to acquit the prisoner at the bar; but not on that account would there have been any mistake or erroneous procedure in the Court, other than such error on the part of the prosecution in regard to the alleged guilt of the prisoner as it was the general and special duty of jurors to remedy. Then he endeavoured to reconcile them to their sacrifice by describing the importance and glorious British nature of their position. “My lord,” said one of the jurors, “if you was a salesman, and hadn’t got no partner, only a very young ’un, you’d know what it was to be kept out of your business for a fortnight.” Then that salesman wagged his head, and put his handkerchief up to his eyes, and there was pity also for him in the Court.

After that the Attorney-General went on. His learned friend on the other side — and he nodded to Mr Chaffanbrass — had got some further evidence to submit to them on behalf of the prisoner who was still on his trial before them. He now addressed them with the view of explaining to them that if that evidence should be such as he believed, it would become his duty on behalf of the Crown to join with his learned friend in requesting the Court to direct the jury to acquit the prisoner. Not the less on that account would it be the duty of the jury to form their own opinion as to the credibility of the fresh evidence which would be brought before them.

“There won’t be much doubt about the credibility,” said Mr Chaffanbrass, rising in his place. “I am not a bit afraid about the credibility, gentlemen; and I don’t think that you need be afraid either. You must understand, gentlemen, that I am now going on calling evidence for the defence. My last witness was the Right Honourable M. Monk, who spoke as to character. My next will be a Bohemian blacksmith named Praska — Peter Praska — who naturally can’t speak a word of English, and unfortunately can’t speak a word of German either. But we have got an interpreter, and I dare say we shall find out without much delay what Peter Praska has to tell us.” Then Peter Praska was handed up to the rostrum for the witnesses, and the man learned in Czech and also in English was placed close to him, and sworn to give a true interpretation.

Mealyus the unfortunate one was also in Court, brought in between two policemen, and the Bohemian blacksmith swore that he had made a certain key on the instructions of the man he now saw. The reader need not be further troubled with all the details of the evidence about the key. It was clearly proved that in a village near to Prague a key had been made such as would open Mr Meager’s door in Northumberland Street, and it was also proved that it was made from a mould supplied by Mealyus. This was done by the joint evidence of Mr Meager and of the blacksmith. “And if I lose my key,” said the reverend gentleman, “why should I not have another made? Did I ever deny it? This, I think, is very strange.” But Mr Emilius was very quickly walked back out of the Court between the two policemen, as his presence would not be required in regard to the further evidence regarding the bludgeon.

Mr Chaffanbrass, having finished his business with the key, at once began with the bludgeon. The bludgeon was produced, and was handed up to the bench, and inspected by the Chief Justice. The instrument excited great interest. Men rose on tiptoe to look at it even from a distance, and the Prime Minister was envied because for a moment it was placed in his hands. As the large-eyed little boy who had found it was not yet six years old, there was a difficulty in perfecting the thread of the evidence. It was not held to be proper to administer an oath to an infant. But in a roundabout way it was proved that the identical bludgeon had been picked up in the garden. There was an elaborate surveyor’s plan produced of the passage, the garden, and the wall — with the steps on which it was supposed that the blow had been struck; and the spot was indicated on which the child had said that he had found the weapon. Then certain workers in leather were questioned, who agreed in asserting that no such instrument as that handed to them had ever been made in England. After that, two scientific chemists told the jury that they had minutely examined the knob of the instrument with reference to the discovery of human blood — but in vain. They were, however, of opinion that the man might very readily have been killed by the instrument without any effusion of blood at the moment of the blows. This seemed to the jury to be the less necessary, as three or four surgeons who had examined the murdered man’s head had already told them that in all probability there had been no such effusion. When the judges went out to lunch at two o’clock the jury were trembling as to their fate for another night.

The fresh evidence, however, had been completed, and on the return of the Court Mr Chaffanbrass said that he should only speak a very few words. For a few words he must ask indulgence, though he knew them to be irregular. But it was the speciality of this trial that everything in it was irregular, and he did not think that his learned friend the Attorney-General would dispute the privilege. The Attorney-General said nothing, and Mr Chaffanbrass went on with his little speech — with which he took up the greatest part of an hour. It was thought to have been unnecessary, as nearly all that he said was said again — and was sure to have been so said — by the judge. It was not his business — the business of him, Mr Chaffanbrass — to accuse another man of the murder of Mr Bonteen. It was not for him to tell the jury whether there was or was not evidence on which any other man should be sent to trial. But it was his bounden duty in defence of his client to explain to them that a collection of facts tending to criminate another man — which when taken together made a fair probability that another man had committed the crime — rendered it quite out of the question that they should declare his client to be guilty. He did not believe that there was a single person in the Court who was not now convinced of the innocence of his client — but it was not permitted to him to trust himself solely to that belief. It was his duty to show them that, of necessity, they must acquit his client. When Mr Chaffanbrass sat down, the Attorney-General waived any right he might have of further reply.

It was half past three when the judge began his charge. He would, he said, do his best to enable the jury to complete their tedious duty, so as to return to their families on that night. Indeed he would certainly finish his charge before he rose from the seat, let the hour be what it might: and though time must be occupied by him in going through the evidence and explaining the circumstances of this very singular trial, it might not be improbable that the jury would be able to find their verdict without any great delay among themselves. “There won’t be any delay at all, my lord,” said the suffering and very irrational salesman. The poor man was again rebuked, mildly, and the Chief Justice continued his charge.

As it occupied four hours in the delivery, of which by far the greater part was taken up in recapitulating and sifting evidence with which the careful reader, if such there be, has already been made too intimately acquainted, the account of it here shall be very short. The nature of circumstantial evidence was explained, and the truth of much that had been said in regard to such evidence by Mr Chaffanbrass admitted — but, nevertheless, it would be impossible — so said his lordship — to administer justice if guilt could never be held to have been proved by circumstantial evidence alone. In this case it might not improbably seem to them that the gentleman who had so long stood before them as a prisoner at the bar had been the victim of a most singularly untoward chain of circumstances, from which he would have to be liberated, should he be at last liberated, by another chain of circumstances as singular; but it was his duty to inform them now, after they had heard what he might call the double evidence, that he could not have given it to them as his opinion that the charge had been brought home against the prisoner, even had those circumstances of the Bohemian key and of the foreign bludgeon never been brought to light. He did not mean to say that the evidence had not justified the trial. He thought that the trial had been fully justified. Nevertheless, had nothing arisen to point to the possibility of guilt in another man, he should not the less have found himself bound in duty to explain to them that the thread of the evidence against Mr Finn had been incomplete — or, he would rather say, the weight of it had been, to his judgment, insufficient. He was the more intent on saying so much, as he was desirous of making it understood that, even had the bludgeon still remained buried beneath the leaves, had the manufacturer of that key never been discovered, the great evil would not, he thought, have fallen upon them of punishing the innocent instead of the guilty — that most awful evil of taking innocent blood in their just attempt to punish murder by death. As far as he knew, to the best of his belief, that calamity had never fallen upon the country in his time. The administration of the law was so careful of life that the opposite evil was fortunately more common. He said so much because he would not wish that this case should be quoted hereafter as showing the possible danger of circumstantial evidence. It had been a case in which the evidence given as to character alone had been sufficient to make him feel that the circumstances which seemed to affect the prisoner injuriously could not be taken as establishing his guilt. But now other and imposing circumstances had been brought to light, and he was sure that the jury would have no difficulty with their verdict. A most frightful murder had no doubt been committed in the dead of the night. A gentleman coming home from his club had been killed — probably by the hand of one who had himself moved in the company of gentlemen. A plot had been made — had probably been thought of for days and weeks before — and had been executed with extreme audacity, in order that an enemy might be removed. There could, he thought, be but little doubt that Mr Bonteen had been killed by the instrument found in the garden, and if so, he certainly had not been killed by the prisoner, who could not be supposed to have carried two bludgeons in his pocket, and whose quarrel with the murdered man had been so recent as to have admitted of no preparation. They had heard the story of Mr Meager’s grey coat, and of the construction of the duplicate key for Mr Meager’s house-door. It was not for him to tell them on the present occasion whether these stories, and the evidence by which they had been supported, tended to affix guilt elsewhere. It was beyond his province to advert to such probability or possibility; but undoubtedly the circumstances might be taken by them as an assistance, if assistance were needed, in coming to a conclusion on the charge against the prisoner. “Gentlemen,” he said at last, “I think you will find no difficulty in acquitting the prisoner of the murder laid to his charge,” whereupon the jurymen put their heads together; and the foreman, without half a minute’s delay, declared that they were unanimous, and that they found the prisoner Not Guilty. “And we are of opinion”, said the foreman, “that Mr Finn should not have been put upon his trial on such evidence as has been brought before us.”

The necessity of liberating poor Phineas from the horrors of his position was too urgent to allow of much attention being given at the moment to this protest. “Mr Finn,” said the judge, addressing the poor broken wretch, “you have been acquitted of the odious and abominable charge brought against you, with the concurrence, I am sure, not only of those who have heard this trial, but of all your countrymen and countrywomen. I need not say that you will leave that dock with no stain on your character. It has, I hope, been some consolation to you in your misfortune to hear the terms in which you have been spoken of by such friends as they who came here to give their testimony on your behalf. It is, and it has been, a great sorrow to me to see such a one as you subjected to so unmerited an ignominy; but a man educated in the laws of his country, as you have been, and understanding its constitution fundamentally, as you do, will probably have acknowledged that, great as has been the misfortune to you personally, nothing more than a proper attempt has been made to execute justice. I trust that you may speedily find yourself able to resume your place among the legislators of the country.” Thus Phineas Finn was acquitted, and the judges, collecting up their robes, trooped off from the bench, following the long line of their assessors who had remained even to that hour to hear the last word of the trial. Mr Chaffanbrass collected his papers, with the assistance of Mr Wickerby — totally disregardful of his junior counsel, and the Attorney and Solicitor-General congratulated each other on the successful termination of a very disagreeable piece of business.

And Phineas was discharged. According to the ordinary meaning of the words he was now to go about his business as he pleased, the law having no further need of his person. We can understand how in common cases the prisoner discharged on his acquittal — who probably in nine cases out of ten is conscious of his own guilt — may feel the sweetness of his freedom and enjoy his immunity from danger with a light heart. He is received probably by his wife or young woman — or perhaps, having no wife or young woman to receive him, betakes himself to his usual haunts. The interest which has been felt in his career is over, and he is no longer the hero of an hour — but he is a free man, and may drink his gin-and-water where he pleases. Perhaps a small admiring crowd may welcome him as he passes out into the street, but he has become nobody before he reaches the corner. But it could not be so with this discharged prisoner — either as regarded himself and his own feelings, or as regarded his friends. When the moment came he had hardly as yet thought about the immediate future — had not considered how he would live, or where, during the next few months. The sensations of the moment had been so full, sometimes of agony and at others of anticipated triumph, that he had not attempted as yet to make for himself any schemes. The Duchess of Omnium had suggested that he would be received back into society with an elaborate course of fashionable dinners; but that view of his return to the world had certainly not occurred to him. When he was led down from the dock he hardly knew whither he was being taken, and when he found himself in a small room attached to the Court, clasped on one arm by Mr Low and on the other by Lord Chiltern, he did not know what they would propose to him — nor had he considered what answer he would make to any proposition. “At last you are safe,” said Mr Low.

“But think what he has suffered,” said Lord Chiltern.

Phineas looked round to see if there was any other friend present. Certainly among all his friends he had thought most of her who had travelled half across Europe for evidence to save him. He had seen Madame Goesler last on the evening preceding the night of the murder, and had not even heard from her since. But he had been told what she had done for him, and now he had almost fancied that he would have found her waiting for him. He smiled first at the one man and then at the other, and made an effort to carry himself with his ordinary tranquillity. “It will be all right now, I dare say,” he said. “I wonder whether I could have a glass of water.”

He sat down while the water was brought to him, and his two friends stood over him, hardly knowing how to do more than support him by their presence.

Then Lord Cantrip made his way into the room. He had sat on the bench to the last, whereas the other two had gone down to receive the prisoner when acquitted — and with him came Sir Harry Coldfoot, the Home Secretary. “My friend,” said the former, “the bitter day has passed over you, and I hope that the bitterness will soon pass away also.” Phineas again attempted to smile as he held the hand of the man with whom he had formerly been associated in office.

“I should not intrude, Mr Finn,” said Sir Harry, “did I not feel myself bound in a special manner to express my regret at the great trouble to which you have been subjected.” Phineas rose, and bowed stiffly. He had conceived that everyone connected with the administration of the law had believed him to be guilty, and none in his present mood could be dear to him but they who from the beginning trusted in his innocence. “I am requested by Mr Gresham,” continued Sir Harry, “to express to you his entire sympathy, and his joy that all this is at last over.” Phineas tried to make some little speech, but utterly failed. Then Sir Harry left them, and he burst out into tears.

“Who can be surprised?” said Lord Cantrip. “The marvel is that he should have been able to bear it so long.”

“It would have crushed me utterly, long since,” said the other lord. Then there was a question asked as to what he would do, and Mr Low proposed that he should be allowed to take Phineas to his own house for a few days. His wife, he said, had known their friend so long and so intimately that she might perhaps be able to make herself more serviceable than any other lady, and at their house Phineas could receive his sisters just as he would at his own. His sisters had been lodging near the prison almost ever since the committal, and it had been thought well to remove them to Mr Low’s house in order that they might meet their brother there.

“I think I’ll go to my — own room — in Marlborough Street.” These were the first intelligible words he had uttered since he had been led out of the dock, and to that resolution he adhered. Lord Cantrip offered the retirements of a country house belonging to himself within an hour’s journey of London, and Lord Chiltern declared that Harrington Hall, which Phineas knew, was altogether at his service — but Phineas decided in favour of Mrs Bunce, and to Great Marlborough Street he was taken by Mr Low.

“I’ll come to you tomorrow — with my wife,” — said Lord Chiltern, as he was going.

“Not tomorrow, Chiltern. But tell your wife how deeply I value her friendship.” Lord Cantrip also offered to come, but was asked to wait awhile. “I am afraid I am hardly fit for visitors yet. All the strength seems to have been knocked out of me this last week.”

Mr Low accompanied him to his lodgings, and then handed him over to Mrs Bunce, promising that his two sisters should come to him early on the following morning. On that evening he would prefer to be quite alone. He would not allow the barrister even to go upstairs with him; and when he had entered his room, almost rudely begged his weeping landlady to leave him.

“Oh, Mr Phineas, let me do something for you,” said the poor woman. “You have not had a bit of anything all day. Let me get you just a cup of tea and a chop.”

In truth he had dined when the judges went out to their lunch — dined as he had been wont to dine since the trial had been commenced — and wanted nothing. She might bring him tea, he said, if she would leave him for an hour. And then at last he was alone. He stood up in the middle of the room, stretching forth his hands, and putting one first to his breast and then to his brow, feeling himself as though doubting his own identity. Could it be that the last week had been real — that everything had not been a dream? Had he in truth been suspected of a murder and tried for his life? And then he thought of him who had been murdered, of Mr Bonteen, his enemy. Was he really gone — the man who the other day was to have been Chancellor of the Exchequer — the scornful, arrogant, loud, boastful man? He had hardly thought of Mr Bonteen before, during these weeks of his own incarceration. He had heard all the details of the murder with a fulness that had been at last complete. The man who had oppressed him, and whom he had at times almost envied, was indeed gone, and the world for awhile had believed that he, Phineas Finn, had been the man’s murderer!

And now what should be his own future life? One thing seemed certain to him. He could never again go into the House of Commons, and sit there, an ordinary man of business, with other ordinary men. He had been so hacked and hewed about, so exposed to the gaze of the vulgar, so mauled by the public, that he could never more be anything but the wretched being who had been tried for the murder of his enemy. The pith had been taken out of him, and he was no longer a man fit for use. He could never more enjoy that freedom from self-consciousness, that inner tranquillity of spirit, which are essential to public utility. Then he remembered certain lines which had long been familiar to him, and he repeated them aloud, with some conceit that they were apposite to him:

The true gods sigh for the cost and pain — For the reed that grows never more again As a reed with the reeds in the river .

He sat drinking his tea, still thinking of himself — knowing how infinitely better it would be for him that he should indulge in no such thought, till an idea struck him, and he got up, and, drawing back the blinds from the open window, looked out into the night. It was the last day of June, and the weather was very sultry; but the night was dark, and it was now near midnight. On a sudden he took his hat, and feeling with a smile for the latch-key which he always carried in his pocket — thinking of the latch-key which had been made at Prague for the lock of a house in Northumberland Street, New Road, he went down to the front door. “You’ll be back soon, Mr Finn, won’t you now?” said Mrs Bunce, who had heard his step, and had remained up, thinking it better this, the first night of his return, not to rest till he had gone to his bed.

“Why should I be back soon?” he said, turning upon her. But then he remembered that she had been one of those who were true to him, and he took her hand and was gracious to her. “I will be back soon, Mrs Bunce, and you need fear nothing. But recollect how little I have had of liberty lately, I have not even had a walk for six weeks. You cannot wonder that I should wish to roam about a little.” Nevertheless she would have preferred that he should not have gone out all alone on that night.

He had taken off the black morning coat which he had worn during the trial, and had put on that very grey garment by which it had been sought to identify him with the murderer. So clad he crossed Regent Street into Hanover Square, and from thence went a short way down Bond Street, and by Bruton Street into Berkeley Square. He took exactly the reverse of the route by which he had returned home from the club on the night of the murder. Every now and then he trembled as he passed some figure which might be that of a man who would recognise him. But he walked fast, and went on till he came to the spot at which the steps descend from the street into the passage — the very spot at which the murder had been committed. He looked down it with an awful dread, and stood there as though he were fascinated, thinking of all the details which he had heard throughout the trial. Then he looked around him, and listened whether there were any step approaching through the passage. Hearing none and seeing no one he at last descended, and for the first time in his life passed through that way into Bolton Row. Here it was that the wretch of whom he had now heard so much had waited for his enemy — the wretch for whom during the last six weeks he had been mistaken. Heavens! — that men who had known him should have believed him to have done such a deed as that! He remembered well having shown the life-preserver to Erle and Fitzgibbon at the door of the club; and it had been thought that after having so shown it he had used it for the purpose to which in his joke he had alluded! Were men so blind, so ignorant of nature, so little capable of discerning the truth as this? Then he went on till he came to the end of Clarges Street, and looked up the mews opposite to it — the mews from which the man had been seen to hurry. The place was altogether unknown to him. He had never thought whither it had led when passing it on his way up from Piccadilly to the club. But now he entered the mews so as to test the evidence that had been given, and found that it brought him by a turn close up to the spot at which he had been described as having been last seen by Erle and Fitzgibbon. When there he went on, and crossed the street, and looking back saw the club was lighted up. Then it struck him for the first time that it was the night of the week on which the members were wont to assemble. Should he pluck up courage, and walk in among them? He had not lost his right of entry there because he had been accused of murder. He was the same now as heretofore — if he could only fancy himself to be the same. Why not go in, and have done with all this? He would be the wonder of the club for twenty minutes, and then it would all be over. He stood close under the shade of a heavy building as he thought of this, but he found that he could not do it. He had known from the beginning that he could not do it. How callous, how hard, how heartless, must he have been, had such a course been possible to him! He again repeated the lines to himself —

The reed that grows never more again As a reed with the reeds in the river .

He felt sure that never again would he enter that room, in which no doubt all those assembled were now talking about him.

As he returned home he tried to make out for himself some plan for his future life — but, interspersed with any idea that he could weave were the figures of two women, Lady Laura Kennedy and Madame Max Goesler. The former could be nothing to him but a friend: and though no other friend would love him as she loved him, yet she could not influence his life. She was very wealthy, but her wealth could be nothing to him. She would heap it all upon him if he would take it. He understood and knew that. Taking no pride to himself that it was so, feeling no conceit in her love, he was conscious of her devotion to him. He was poor, broken in spirit, and almost without a future — and yet could her devotion avail him nothing!

But how might it be with that other woman? Were she, after all that had passed between then, to consent to be his wife — and it might be that she would consent — how would the world be with him then? He would be known as Madame Goesler’s husband, and have to sit at the bottom of her table — and be talked of as the man who had been tried for the murder of Mr Bonteen. Look at it in which way he might, he thought that no life could any longer be possible to him in London.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01