Poor Miss Finch, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter the Second

Madame Pratolungo makes a Voyage on Land

A WELL-FED boy, with yellow Saxon hair; a little shabby green chaise; and a rough brown pony — these objects confronted me at the Lewes Station. I said to the boy, “Are you Reverend Finch’s servant?” And the boy answered, “I be he.”

We drove through the town — a hilly town of desolate clean houses. No living creatures visible behind the jealously-shut windows. No living creatures entering or departing through the sad-colored closed doors. No theater; no place of amusement except an empty town-hall, with a sad policeman meditating on its spruce white steps. No customers in the shops, and nobody to serve them behind the counter, even if they had turned up. Here and there on the pavements, an inhabitant with a capacity for staring, and (apparently) a capacity for nothing else. I said to Reverend Finch’s boy, “Is this a rich place?” Reverend Finch’s boy brightened and answered, “That it be!” Good. At any rate, they don’t enjoy themselves here — the infamous rich!

Leaving this town of unamused citizens immured in domestic tombs, we got on a fine high road — still ascending — with a spacious open country on either side of it.

A spacious open country is a country soon exhausted by a sight-seer’s eye. I have learnt from my poor Pratolungo the habit of searching for the political convictions of my fellow-creatures, when I find myself in contact with them in strange places. Having nothing else to do, I searched Finch’s boy. His political programme, I found to be:— As much meat and beer as I can contain; and as little work to do for it as possible. In return for this, to touch my hat when I meet the Squire, and to be content with the station to which it has pleased God to call me. Miserable Finch’s boy!

We reached the highest point of the road. On our right hand, the ground sloped away gently into a fertile valley — with a village and a church in it; and beyond, an abominable privileged enclosure of grass and trees torn from the community by a tyrant, and called a Park; with the palace in which this enemy of mankind caroused and fattened, standing in the midst. On our left hand, spread the open country — a magnificent prospect of grand grassy hills, rolling away to the horizon; bounded only by the sky. To my surprise, Finch’s boy descended; took the pony by the head; and deliberately led him off the high road, and on to the wilderness of grassy hills, on which not so much as a footpath was discernible anywhere, far or near. The chaise began to heave and roll like a ship on the sea. It became necessary to hold with both hands to keep my place. I thought first of my luggage — then of myself.

“How much is there of this?” I asked.

“Three mile on’t,” answered Finch’s boy.

I insisted on stopping the ship — I mean the chaise — and on getting out. We tied my luggage fast with a rope; and then we went on again, the boy at the pony’s head, and I after them on foot.

Ah, what a walk it was! What air over my head; what grass under my feet! The sweetness of the inner land, and the crisp saltness of the distant sea, were mixed in that delicious breeze. The short turf, fragrant with odorous herbs, rose and fell elastic, underfoot. The mountain-piles of white cloud moved in sublime procession along the blue field of heaven, overhead. The wild growth of prickly bushes, spread in great patches over the grass, was in a glory of yellow bloom. On we went; now up, now down; now bending to the right, and now turning to the left. I looked about me. No house; no road; no paths, fences, hedges, walls; no land-marks of any sort. All round us, turn which way we might, nothing was to be seen but the majestic solitude of the hills. No living creatures appeared but the white dots of sheep scattered over the soft green distance, and the skylark singing his hymn of happiness, a speck above my head. Truly a wonderful place! Distant not more than a morning’s drive from noisy and populous Brighton — a stranger to this neighborhood could only have found his way by the compass, exactly as if he had been sailing on the sea! The farther we penetrated on our land-voyage, the more wild and the more beautiful the solitary landscape grew. The boy picked his way as he chose — there were no barriers here. Plodding behind, I saw nothing, at one time, but the back of the chaise, tilted up in the air, both boy and pony being invisibly buried in the steep descent of the hill. At other times, the pitch was all the contrary way; the whole interior of the ascending chaise was disclosed to my view, and above the chaise the pony, and above the pony the boy — and, ah, my luggage swaying and rocking in the frail embraces of the rope that held it. Twenty times did I confidently expect to see baggage, chaise, pony, boy, all rolling down into the bottom of a valley together. But no! Not the least little accident happened to spoil my enjoyment of the day. Politically contemptible, Finch’s boy had his merit — he was master of his subject as guide and pony-leader among the South Down Hills.

Arrived at the top of (as it seemed to me) our fiftieth grassy summit, I began to look about for signs of the village.

Behind me, rolled back the long undulations of the hills, with the cloud-shadows moving over the solitudes that we had left. Before me, at a break in the purple distance, I saw the soft white line of the sea. Beneath me, at my feet, opened the deepest valley I had noticed yet — with one first sign of the presence of Man scored hideously on the face of Nature, in the shape of a square brown patch of cleared and ploughed land on the grassy slope. I asked if we were getting near the village now. Finch’s boy winked, and answered, “Yes, we be.”

Astonishing Finch’s boy! Ask him what questions I might, the resources of his vocabulary remained invariably the same. Still this youthful Oracle answered always in three monosyllabic words!

We plunged into the valley.

Arrived at the bottom, I discovered another sign of Man. Behold the first road I had seen yet — a rough wagon-road ploughed deep in the chalky soil! We crossed this, and turned a corner of a hill. More signs of human life. Two small boys started up out of a ditch — apparently posted as scouts to give notice of our approach. They yelled, and set off running before us, by some short cut, known only to themselves. We turned again, round another winding of the valley, and crossed a brook. I considered it my duty to make myself acquainted with the local names. What was the brook called? It was called “The Cockshoot”! And the great hill, here, on my right? It was called “The Overblow”! Five minutes more, and we saw our first house — lonely and little — built of mortar and flint from the hills. A name to this also? Certainly. Name of “Browndown.” Another ten minutes of walking, involving us more and more deeply in the mysterious green windings of the valley — and the great event of the day happened at last. Finch’s boy pointed before him with his whip, and said (even at this supreme moment, still in three monosyllabic words):—

“Here we be!”

So this is Dimchurch! I shake out the chalk-dust from the skirts of my dress. I long (quite vainly) for the least bit of looking-glass to see myself in. Here is the population (to the number of at least five or six), gathered together, informed by the scouts — and it is my woman’s business to produce the best impression of myself that I can. We advance along the little road. I smile upon the population. The population stares at me in return. On one side, I remark three or four cottages, and a bit of open ground; also an inn named “The Cross–Hands,” and a bit more of open ground; also a tiny, tiny butcher’s shop, with sanguinary insides of sheep on one blue pie-dish in the window, and no other meat than that, and nothing to see beyond, but again the open ground, and again the hills; indicating the end of the village this side. On the other side there appears, for some distance, nothing but a long flint wall guarding the outhouses of a farm. Beyond this, comes another little group of cottages, with the seal of civilization set on them, in the form of a post-office. The post-office deals in general commodities — in boots and bacon, biscuits and flannel, crinoline petticoats and religious tracts. Farther on, behold another flint wall, a garden, and a private dwelling-house; proclaiming itself as the rectory. Farther yet, on rising ground, a little desolate church, with a tiny white circular steeple, topped by an extinguisher in red tiles. Beyond this, the hills and the heavens once more. And there is Dimchurch!

As for the inhabitants — what am I to say? I suppose I must tell the truth.

I remarked one born gentleman among the inhabitants, and he was a sheep-dog. He alone did the honors of the place. He had a stump of a tail, which he wagged at me with extreme difficulty, and a good honest white and black face which he poked companionably into my hand. “Welcome, Madame Pratolungo, to Dimchurch; and excuse these male and female laborers who stand and stare at you. The good God who makes us all has made them too, but has not succeeded so well as with you and me.” I happen to be one of the few people who can read dogs’ language as written in dogs’ faces. I correctly report the language of the gentleman sheep-dog on this occasion.

We opened the gate of the rectory, and passed in. So my Land–Voyage over the South Down Hills came prosperously to its end.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30