Poor Mrs. Finch – Wilkie Collins
Mr. Wilkie Collins brings to his work, along with other and valuable qualities, the special talent of the private detective and the criminal lawyer. Almost no modern novelist stands in any comparison with him for skill in constructing the engrenage, as a Frenchman would call it, of personal complication, for subtle delicacy in fitting together wheel and spring, pivot and pinion of his dramatic clockwork, in such fascinating interplay as shall lead the attention of the breathless spectator smoothly, imperceptibly, but inevitably to the final wind-up of the catastrophe. This skill in combining events is supplemented by, or rather cognate with, his shrewd analysis of character and motive. It is his favorite plan to suppose a case of private relation where virtuous personages or important interests are threatened by the schemes of some clever villain. Against him Mr. Collins, in the person of his beneficent and equally clever hero or heroine, straight sets his wits to defend the interests or persons attacked. The resulting struggle is carried on with the most exquisite skill of fence, involving both practical device and metaphysical penetration and shrewdness, till the final triumph of the right and confusion of the wrong-doers. In this book the metaphysical element assumes unusual importance. The book is in so far an exception to the usual run of Mr. Collins’s works, that it is less a leaf from the records of Scotland Yard than an extract from the diary of a psychologist. There is a villain and a protecting genius, as usual ; but the villain is only a half one after all, and we are less interested in the actual facts of his rascality than in the causes which lead him to it, and the temperament which renders it possible. In the leading character, poor Miss Finch herself, the author develops an interesting question of medical psychology. A young girl, blind almost from her birth, loves one of two twin brothers, who has, in the process of medical treatment for epilepsy, been terribly disfigured in complexion by the use of nitrate of silver. From Lucilla’s instinctive horror of dark objects, the injudicious and timid concealment by the lover of his dusky hue, and the treacherous advantage taken of these things by the other twin, Nugent, to supplant his brother – the whole complicated by Lucilla’s temporary restoration to sight and subsequent relapse – arises the whole intrigue of the story …
Poor Mrs. Finch.
Excerpt from the text:
THE rectory resembled, in one respect, this narrative that I am now writing. It was in Two Parts. Part the First, in front, composed of the everlasting flint and mortar of the neighborhood, failed to interest me. Part the Second, running back at a right angle, asserted itself as ancient. It had been, in its time, as I afterwards heard, a convent of nuns. Here were snug little Gothic windows, and dark ivy-covered walls of venerable stone: repaired in places, at some past period, with quaint red bricks. I had hoped that I should enter the house by this side of it. But no. The boy—after appearing to be at a loss what to do with me—led the way to a door on the modern side of the building, and rang the bell.
A slovenly young maid-servant admitted me to the house.
Possibly, this person was new to the duty of receiving visitors. Possibly, she was bewildered by a sudden invasion of children in dirty frocks, darting out on us in the hall, and then darting away again into invisible back regions, screeching at the sight of a stranger. At any rate, she too appeared to be at a loss what to do with me. After staring hard at my foreign face, she suddenly opened a door in the wall of the passage, and admitted me into a small room. Two more children in dirty frocks darted, screaming, out of the asylum thus offered to me. I mentioned my name, as soon as I could make myself heard. The maid appeared to be terrified at the length of it. I gave her my card. The maid took it between a dirty finger and thumb—looked at it as if it was some extraordinary natural curiosity—turned it round, exhibiting correct black impressions in various parts of it of her finger and thumb—gave up understanding it in despair, and left the room. She was stopped outside (as I gathered from the sounds) by a returning invasion of children in the hall. There was whispering; there was giggling; there was, every now and then, a loud thump on the door. Prompted by the children, as I suppose—pushed in by them, certainly—the maid suddenly reappeared with a jerk, “Oh, if you please, come this way,” she said. The invasion of children retreated again up the stairs—one of them in possession of my card, and waving it in triumph on the first landing. We penetrated to the other end of the passage. Again, a door was opened. Unannounced, I entered another, and a larger room. What did I see?
Fortune had favored me at last. My lucky star had led me to the mistress of the house.
I made my best curtsey, and found myself confronting a large, light-haired, languid, lymphatic lady—who had evidently been amusing herself by walking up and down the room, at the moment when I appeared. If there can be such a thing as a damp woman—this was one. There was a humid shine on her colorless white face, and an overflow of water in her pale blue eyes. Her hair was not dressed; and her lace cap was all on one side. The upper part of her was clothed in a loose jacket of blue merino; the lower part was robed in a dimity dressing gown of doubtful white. In one hand, she held a dirty dogs’-eared book, which I at once detected to be a Circulating Library novel. Her other hand supported a baby enveloped in flannel, sucking at her breast. Such was my first experience of Reverend Finch’s Wife—destined to be also the experience of all aftertime. Never completely dressed; never completely dry; always with a baby in one hand and a novel in the other—such was Finch’s wife.
“Oh! Madame Pratolungo? Yes. I hope somebody has told Miss Finch you are here. She has her own establishment, and manages everything herself. Have you had a pleasant journey?” (These words were spoken vacantly, as if her mind was occupied with something else. My first impression of her suggested that she was a weak, good-natured woman, and that she must have originally occupied a station in the humbler ranks of life.)
“Thank you, Mrs. Finch,” I said. “I have enjoyed most heartily my journey among your beautiful hills.”
“Oh! you like the hills? Excuse my dress. I was half an hour late this morning. When you lose half an hour in this house, you never can pick it up again, try how you may.” (I soon discovered that Mrs. Finch was always losing half an hour out of her day, and that she never, by any chance, succeeded in ending it again, as she had just told me.)
“I understand, madam. The cares of a numerous family—”
“Ah! that’s just where it is.” (This was a favorite phrase with Mrs. Finch). “There’s Finch, he gets up in the morning and goes and works in the garden. Then there’s the washing of the children; and the dreadful waste that goes on in the kitchen. And Finch, he comes in without any notice, and wants his breakfast. And of course I can’t leave the baby. And half an hour does slip away so easily, that how to overtake it again, I do assure you I really don’t know.” Here the baby began to exhibit symptoms of having taken more maternal nourishment than his infant stomach could comfortably contain. I held the novel, while Mrs. Finch searched for her handkerchief—first in her bedgown pocket; secondly, here, there, and everywhere in the room.
At this interesting moment there was a knock at the door. An elderly woman appeared—who offered a most refreshing contrast to the members of the household with whom I had made acquaintance thus far. She was neatly dressed, and she saluted me with the polite composure of a civilized being.
“I beg your pardon, ma’am. My young lady has only this moment heard of your arrival. Will you be so kind as to follow me?”
I turned to Mrs. Finch. She had found her handkerchief, and had put her overflowing baby to rights again. I respectfully handed back the novel. “Thank you,” said Mrs. Finch. “I find novels compose my mind. Do you read novels too? Remind me—and I’ll lend you this one to-morrow.” I expressed my acknowledgments, and withdrew. At the door, I look round, saluting the lady of the house. Mrs. Finch was promenading the room, with the baby in one hand and the novel in the other, and the dimity bedgown trailing behind her.
We ascended the stairs, and entered a bare white-washed passage, with drab-colored doors in it, leading, as I presumed, into the sleeping chambers of the house.
Every door opened as we passed; children peeped out at me, screamed at me, and banged the door to again. “What family has the present Mrs. Finch?” I asked. The decent elderly woman was obliged to stop, and consider. “Including the baby, ma’am, and two sets of twins, and one seven months’ child of deficient intellect—fourteen in all.” Hearing this, I began—though I consider priests, kings, and capitalists to be the enemies of the human race—to feel a certain exceptional interest in Reverend Finch. Did he never wish that he had been a priest of the Roman Catholic Church, mercifully forbidden to marry at all? While the question passed through my mind, my guide took out a key, and opened a heavy oaken door at the further end of the passage.
“We are obliged to keep the door locked, ma’am,” she explained, “or the children would be in and out of our part of the house all day long.”
After my experience of the children, I own I looked at the oaken door with mingled sentiments of gratitude and respect.
We turned a corner, and found ourselves in the vaulted corridor of the ancient portion of the house.
The casement windows, on one side—sunk deep in recesses—looked into the garden. Each recess was filled with groups of flowers in pots. On the other side, the old wall was gaily decorated with hangings of bright chintz. The doors were colored of a creamy white, with gilt moldings. The brightly ornamented matting under our feet I at once recognized as of South American origin. The ceiling above was decorated in delicate pale blue, with borderings of flowers. Nowhere down the whole extent of the place was so much as a single morsel of dark color to be seen anywhere.
At the lower end of the corridor, a solitary figure in a pure white robe was bending over the flowers in the window. This was the blind girl whose dark hours I had come to cheer. In the scattered villages of the South Downs, the simple people added their word of pity to her name, and called her compassionately—”Poor Miss Finch.” As for me, I can only think of her by her pretty Christian name. She is “Lucilla” when my memory dwells on her. Let me call her “Lucilla” here.
When my eyes first rested on her, she was picking off the dead leaves from her flowers. Her delicate ear detected the sound of my strange footstep, long before I reached the place at which she was standing. She lifted her head—and advanced quickly to meet me with a faint flush on her face, which came and died away again in a moment. I happen to have visited the picture gallery at Dresden in former years. As she approached me, nearer and nearer, I was irresistibly reminded of the gem of that superb collection—the matchless Virgin of Raphael, called “The Madonna di San Sisto.” The fair broad forehead; the peculiar fullness of the flesh between the eyebrow and the eyelid; the delicate outline of the lower face; the tender, sensitive lips; the color of the complexion and the hair—all reflected, with a startling fidelity, the lovely creature of the Dresden picture. The one fatal point at which the resemblance ceased, was in the eyes. The divinely-beautiful eyes of Raphael’s Virgin were lost in the living likeness of her that confronted me now. There was no deformity; there was nothing to recoil from, in my blind Lucilla. The poor, dim, sightless eyes had a faded, changeless, inexpressive look—and that was all. Above them, below them, round them, to the very edges of her eyelids, there was beauty, movement, life. In them—death! A more charming creature—with that one sad drawback—I never saw. There was no other personal defect in her. She had the fine height, the well-balanced figure, and the length of the lower limbs, which make all a woman’s movements graceful of themselves. Her voice was delicious—clear, cheerful, sympathetic. This, and her smile—which added a charm of its own to the beauty of her mouth—won my heart, before she had got close enough to me to put her hand in mine. “Ah, my dear!” I said, in my headlong way, “I am so glad to see you!” The instant the words passed my lips, I could have cut my tongue out for reminding her in that brutal manner that she was blind.
To my relief, she showed no sign of feeling it as I did. “May I see you, in my way?” she asked gently—and held up her pretty white hand. “May I touch your face?”
I sat down at once on the window-seat. The soft rosy tips of her fingers seemed to cover my whole face in an instant. Three separate times she passed her hand rapidly over me; her own face absorbed all the while in breathless attention to what she was about. “Speak again!” she said suddenly, holding her hand over me in suspense. I said a few words. She stopped me by a kiss. “No more!” she exclaimed joyously. “Your voice says to my ears, what your face says to my fingers. I know I shall like you. Come in, and see the rooms we are going to live in together.”
As I rose, she put her arm round my waist—then instantly drew it away again, and shook her fingers impatiently, as if something had hurt them.
“A pin?” I asked.
“No! no! What colored dress have you got on?”
“Ah! I knew it! Pray don’t wear dark colors. I have my own blind horror of anything that is dark. Dear Madame Pratolungo, wear pretty bright colors, to please me!” She put her arm caressingly round me again—round my neck, however, this time, where her hand could rest on my linen collar. “You will change your dress before dinner—won’t you?” she whispered. “Let me unpack for you, and choose which dress I like.”
The brilliant decorations of the corridor were explained to me now!
We entered the rooms; her bed-room, my bed-room, and our sitting-room between the two. I was prepared to find them, what they proved to be—as bright as looking-glasses, and gilding, and gaily-colored ornaments, and cheerful knick-knacks of all sorts could make them. They were more like rooms in my lively native country than rooms in sober colorless England. The one thing which I own did still astonish me, was that all this sparkling beauty of adornment in Lucilla’s habitation should have been provided for the express gratification of a young lady who could not see. Experience was yet to show me that the blind can live in their imaginations, and have their favorite fancies and illusions like the rest of us.
To satisfy Lucilla by changing my dark purple dress, it was necessary that I should first have my boxes. So far as I knew, Finch’s boy had taken my luggage, along with the pony, to the stables. Before Lucilla could ring the bell to make inquiries, my elderly guide (who had silently left us while we were talking together in the corridor) re-appeared, followed by the boy and a groom, carrying my things. These servants also brought with them certain parcels for their young mistress, purchased in the town, together with a bottle, wrapped in fair white paper, which looked like a bottle of medicine—and which had a part of its own to play in our proceedings, later in the day.
“This is my old nurse,” said Lucilla, presenting her attendant to me. “Zillah can do a little of everything—cooking included. She has had lessons at a London Club. You must like Zillah, Madame Pratolungo, for my sake. Are your boxes open?”
She went down on her knees before the boxes, as she asked the question. No girl with the full use of her eyes could have enjoyed more thoroughly than she did the trivial amusement of unpacking my clothes. This time, however, her wonderful delicacy of touch proved to be at fault. Of two dresses of mine which happened to be exactly the same in texture, though widely different in color, she picked out the dark dress as being the light one. I saw that I disappointed her sadly when I told her of her mistake. The next guess she made, however, restored the tips of her fingers to their place in her estimation: she discovered the stripes in a smart pair of stockings of mine, and brightened up directly. “Don’t be long dressing,” she said, on leaving me. “We shall have dinner in half an hour. French dishes, in honor of your arrival. I like a nice dinner—I am what you call in your country, gourmande. See the sad consequence!” She put one finger to her pretty chin. “I am getting fat! I am threatened with a double chin—at two and twenty. Shocking! shocking!”
So she left me. And such was the first impression produced on my mind by “Poor Miss Finch.”