Poor Miss Finch, by Wilkie Collins


Madame Pratolungo’s Last Words

TWELVE years have passed since the events occurred which it has been the business of these pages to relate. I am at my desk; looking idly at all the leaves of writing which my pen has filled, and asking myself if there is more yet to add, before I have done.

There is more — not much.

Oscar and Lucilla claim me first. Two days after they were restored to each other at Sydenham, they were married at the church in that place. It was a dull wedding. Nobody was in spirits but Mr. Finch. We parted in London. The bride and bridegroom returned to Browndown. The rector remained in town for a day or two visiting some friends. I went back to my father, to accompany him, as I had promised, on his journey from Marseilles to Paris.

As well as I remember, I remained a fortnight abroad. In the course of that time, I received kind letters from Browndown. One of them announced that Oscar had heard from his brother.

Nugent’s letter was not a long one. It was dated at Liverpool, and it announced his embarkation for America in two hours’ time. He had heard of a new expedition to the Arctic regions — then fitting out in the United States — with the object of discovering the open Polar sea, supposed to be situated between Spitzbergen and Nova Zembla. It had instantly struck him that this expedition offered an entirely new field of study to a landscape painter in search of the sublimest aspects of Nature. He had decided on volunteering to join the Arctic explorers — and he had already raised the necessary money for his outfit by the sale of the only valuables he possessed — his jewelry and his books. If he wanted more, he engaged to apply to Oscar. In any case, he promised to write again, before the expedition sailed. And so, for the present only, he would bid his brother and sister affectionately farewell. — When I afterwards looked at the letter myself, I found nothing in it which referred in the slightest degree to the past, or which hinted at the state of the writer’s own health and spirits.

I returned to our remote Southdown village; and occupied the room which Lucilla had herself prepared for me at Browndown.

I found the married pair as tranquil and as happy in their union as a man and woman could be. The absent Nugent dwelt a little sadly in their minds at times, I suspect, as well as in mine. It was perhaps on this account, that Lucilla appeared to me to be quieter than she used to be in her maiden days. However, my presence did something towards restoring her to her old spirits — and Grosse’s speedy arrival exerted its enlivening influence in support of mine.

As soon as the gout would let him get on his feet, he presented himself with his instruments, at Browndown, eager for another experiment on Lucilla’s eyes.

“If my operations had failed,” he said, “I should not have plagued you no more. But my operations has not failed: it is you who have failed to take care of your nice new eyes when I gave them to you.”

In those terms he endeavored to persuade her to let him attempt another operation. She steadily refused to submit to it — and the discussion that followed roused her famously.

More than once afterwards Grosse tried to make her change her mind. He tried in vain. The disputes between the two made the house ring again. Lucilla found all her old gaiety, in refuting the grotesque arguments and persuasions of our worthy German. To me — when I once or twice attempted to shake her resolution — she replied in another way, merely repeating the words she had said to me at Sydenham: “My life lives in my love. And my love lives in my blindness.” It is only right to add that Mr. Sebright, and another competent authority consulted with him, declared unhesitatingly that she was right. Under the circumstances, Mr. Sebright was of opinion that the success of Grosse’s operation could never have been more than temporary. His colleague, after examining Lucilla’s eyes, at a later period, entirely agreed with him. Which was in the right — these two or Grosse — who can say? As blind Lucilla, you first knew her. As blind Lucilla, you see the last of her now. If you feel inclined to regret this, remember that the one thing essential was the thing she possessed. Her life was a happy one. Bear this in mind — and don’t forget that your conditions of happiness need not necessarily be her conditions also.

In the time I am now writing of, the second letter from Nugent arrived. It was written the evening before he sailed for the Polar seas. One line in it touched us deeply. “Who knows whether I shall ever see England again! If a boy is born to you, Oscar, call him by my name — for my sake.”

Enclosed in this letter was a private communication from Nugent, addressed to me. It was the confession to which I have alluded in my notes attached to Lucilla’s Journal. These words only were added at the end: “You now know everything. Forgive me — if you can. I have not escaped without suffering; remember that.” After making use of the narrative, as you already know, I have burnt it all, except those last lines.

At distant intervals, we heard twice of the exploring ship, from whaling vessels. Then, there was a long dreary interval, without news of any sort. Then, a dreadful report that the expedition was lost. Then, the confirmation of the report — a lapse of a whole year, and no tidings of the missing men.

They were well provided with supplies of all kinds; and there was a general hope that they might be holding out. A new expedition was sent — and sent vainly — in search of them overland. Rewards were offered to whaling vessels to find them, and were never earned. We wore mourning for Nugent; we were a melancholy household. Two more years passed — before the fate of the expedition was discovered. A ship in the whale trade, driven out of her course, fell in with a wrecked and dismantled vessel, lost in the ice. Let the last sentences of the captain’s report tell the story.

“The wreck was drifting along a channel of open water, when we first saw it. Before long, it was brought up by an iceberg. I got into my boat with some of my sailors, and we rowed to the vessel.

“Not a man was to be seen on the deck, which was covered with snow. We hailed, and got no reply. I looked in through one of the circular glazed port-holes astern, and saw dimly the figure of a man seated at a table. I knocked on the thick glass, but he never moved. We got on deck, and opened the cabin hatchway, and went below. The man I had seen was before us, at the end of the cabin. I led the way, and spoke to him. He made no answer. I looked closer, and touched one of his hands which lay on the table. To my horror and astonishment, he was a frozen corpse.

“On the table before him was the last entry in the ship’s log!

“‘Seventeen days since we have been shut up in the ice: Our fire went out yesterday. The captain tried to light it again, and has failed. The surgeon and two seamen died of cold this morning. The rest of us must soon follow. If we are ever discovered, I beg the person who finds me to send this ——’

“There the hand that held the pen had dropped into the writer’s lap. The left hand still lay on the table. Between the frozen fingers, we found a long lock of a woman’s hair, tied at each end with a blue ribbon. The open eyes of the corpse were still fixed on the lock of hair.

“The name of this man was found in his pocket-book. It was Nugent Dubourg. I publish the name in my report, in case it may meet the eyes of his friends.

“Examination of the rest of the vessel, and comparison of dates with the date of the log-book, showed that the officers and crew had been dead for more than two years. The positions in which we found the frozen men, and the names, where it was possible to discover them, are here set forth as follows.” . . .

That “lock of a woman’s hair” is now in Lucilla’s possession. It will be buried with her, at her own request, when she dies. Ah, poor Nugent! Are we not all sinners? Remember the best of him, and forget the worst, as I do.

I still linger over my writing — reluctant to leave it, if the truth must be told. But what more is there to say? I hear Oscar hammering away at his chasing, and whistling blithely over his work. In another room, Lucilla is teaching the piano to her little girl. On my table is a letter from Mrs. Finch, dated from one of our distant colonies — over which Mr. Finch (who has risen gloriously in the world) presides pastorally as bishop. He harangues the “natives” to his heart’s content: and the wonderful natives like it. “Jicks” is in her element among the aboriginal members of her father’s congregation: there are fears that the wandering Arab of the Finch family will end in marrying “a chief.” Mrs. Finch — I don’t expect you to believe this — is anticipating another confinement. Lucilla’s eldest boy — called Nugent — has just come in, and stands by my desk. He lifts his bright blue eyes up to mine; his round rosy face expresses strong disapproval of what I am doing. “Aunty,” he says, “you have written enough. Come and play.”

The boy is right. I must put away my manuscript and leave you. My excellent spirits are a little dashed at parting. I wonder whether you are sorry too? I shall never know! Well, I have many blessings to comfort me, on closing my relations with you. I have kind souls who love me; and — observe this! — I stand on my political principles as firmly as ever. The world is getting converted to my way of thinking: the Pratolungo programme, my friends, is coming to the front with giant steps. Long live the Republic! Farewell.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52