It was an eighty-cow dairy, and the troop of milkers, regular and supernumerary, were all at work; for, though the time of year was as yet but early April, the feed lay entirely in water-meadows, and the cows were ‘in full pail.’ The hour was about six in the evening, and three-fourths of the large, red, rectangular animals having been finished off, there was opportunity for a little conversation.
‘He do bring home his bride to-morrow, I hear. They’ve come as far as Anglebury to-day.’
The voice seemed to proceed from the belly of the cow called Cherry, but the speaker was a milking-woman, whose face was buried in the flank of that motionless beast.
‘Hav’ anybody seen her?’ said another.
There was a negative response from the first. ‘Though they say she’s a rosy-cheeked, tisty-tosty little body enough,’ she added; and as the milkmaid spoke she turned her face so that she could glance past her cow’s tail to the other side of the barton, where a thin, fading woman of thirty milked somewhat apart from the rest.
‘Years younger than he, they say,’ continued the second, with also a glance of reflectiveness in the same direction.
‘How old do you call him, then?’
‘Thirty or so.’
‘More like forty,’ broke in an old milkman near, in a long white pinafore or ‘wropper,’ and with the brim of his hat tied down, so that he looked like a woman. ‘’A was born before our Great Weir was builded, and I hadn’t man’s wages when I laved water there.’
The discussion waxed so warm that the purr of the milk-streams became jerky, till a voice from another cow’s belly cried with authority, ‘Now then, what the Turk do it matter to us about Farmer Lodge’s age, or Farmer Lodge’s new mis’ess? I shall have to pay him nine pound a year for the rent of every one of these milchers, whatever his age or hers. Get on with your work, or ’twill be dark afore we have done. The evening is pinking in a’ready.’ This speaker was the dairyman himself; by whom the milkmaids and men were employed.
Nothing more was said publicly about Farmer Lodge’s wedding, but the first woman murmured under her cow to her next neighbour, ‘’Tis hard for she,’ signifying the thin worn milkmaid aforesaid.
‘O no,’ said the second. ‘He ha’n’t spoke to Rhoda Brook for years.’
When the milking was done they washed their pails and hung them on a many-forked stand made of the peeled limb of an oak-tree, set upright in the earth, and resembling a colossal antlered horn. The majority then dispersed in various directions homeward. The thin woman who had not spoken was joined by a boy of twelve or thereabout, and the twain went away up the field also.
Their course lay apart from that of the others, to a lonely spot high above the water-meads, and not far from the border of Egdon Heath, whose dark countenance was visible in the distance as they drew nigh to their home.
‘They’ve just been saying down in barton that your father brings his young wife home from Anglebury to-morrow,’ the woman observed. ‘I shall want to send you for a few things to market, and you’ll be pretty sure to meet ’em.’
‘Yes, mother,’ said the boy. ‘Is father married then?’
‘Yes . . . You can give her a look, and tell me what’s she’s like, if you do see her.’
‘If she’s dark or fair, and if she’s tall—as tall as I. And if she seems like a woman who has ever worked for a living, or one that has been always well off, and has never done anything, and shows marks of the lady on her, as I expect she do.’
They crept up the hill in the twilight, and entered the cottage. It was built of mud-walls, the surface of which had been washed by many rains into channels and depressions that left none of the original flat face visible; while here and there in the thatch above a rafter showed like a bone protruding through the skin.
She was kneeling down in the chimney-corner, before two pieces of turf laid together with the heather inwards, blowing at the red-hot ashes with her breath till the turves flamed. The radiance lit her pale cheek, and made her dark eyes, that had once been handsome, seem handsome anew. ‘Yes,’ she resumed, ‘see if she is dark or fair, and if you can, notice if her hands be white; if not, see if they look as though she had ever done housework, or are milker’s hands like mine.’
The boy again promised, inattentively this time, his mother not observing that he was cutting a notch with his pocket-knife in the beech-backed chair.
The road from Anglebury to Holmstoke is in general level; but there is one place where a sharp ascent breaks its monotony. Farmers homeward-bound from the former market-town, who trot all the rest of the way, walk their horses up this short incline.
The next evening, while the sun was yet bright, a handsome new gig, with a lemon-coloured body and red wheels, was spinning westward along the level highway at the heels of a powerful mare. The driver was a yeoman in the prime of life, cleanly shaven like an actor, his face being toned to that bluish-vermilion hue which so often graces a thriving farmer’s features when returning home after successful dealings in the town. Beside him sat a woman, many years his junior—almost, indeed, a girl. Her face too was fresh in colour, but it was of a totally different quality—soft and evanescent, like the light under a heap of rose-petals.
Few people travelled this way, for it was not a main road; and the long white riband of gravel that stretched before them was empty, save of one small scarce-moving speck, which presently resolved itself into the figure of boy, who was creeping on at a snail’s pace, and continually looking behind him—the heavy bundle he carried being some excuse for, if not the reason of, his dilatoriness. When the bouncing gig-party slowed at the bottom of the incline above mentioned, the pedestrian was only a few yards in front. Supporting the large bundle by putting one hand on his hip, he turned and looked straight at the farmer’s wife as though he would read her through and through, pacing along abreast of the horse.
The low sun was full in her face, rendering every feature, shade, and contour distinct, from the curve of her little nostril to the colour of her eyes. The farmer, though he seemed annoyed at the boy’s persistent presence, did not order him to get out of the way; and thus the lad preceded them, his hard gaze never leaving her, till they reached the top of the ascent, when the farmer trotted on with relief in his lineaments—having taken no outward notice of the boy whatever.
‘How that poor lad stared at me!’ said the young wife.
‘Yes, dear; I saw that he did.’
‘He is one of the village, I suppose?’
‘One of the neighbourhood. I think he lives with his mother a mile or two off.’
‘He knows who we are, no doubt?’
‘O yes. You must expect to be stared at just at first, my pretty Gertrude.’
‘I do,—though I think the poor boy may have looked at us in the hope we might relieve him of his heavy load, rather than from curiosity.’
‘O no,’ said her husband off-handedly. ‘These country lads will carry a hundredweight once they get it on their backs; besides his pack had more size than weight in it. Now, then, another mile and I shall be able to show you our house in the distance—if it is not too dark before we get there.’ The wheels spun round, and particles flew from their periphery as before, till a white house of ample dimensions revealed itself, with farm-buildings and ricks at the back.
Meanwhile the boy had quickened his pace, and turning up a by-lane some mile and half short of the white farmstead, ascended towards the leaner pastures, and so on to the cottage of his mother.
She had reached home after her day’s milking at the outlying dairy, and was washing cabbage at the doorway in the declining light. ‘Hold up the net a moment,’ she said, without preface, as the boy came up.
He flung down his bundle, held the edge of the cabbage-net, and as she filled its meshes with the dripping leaves she went on, ‘Well, did you see her?’
‘Yes; quite plain.’
‘Is she ladylike?’
‘Yes; and more. A lady complete.’
‘Is she young?’
‘Well, she’s growed up, and her ways be quite a woman’s.’
‘Of course. What colour is her hair and face?’
‘Her hair is lightish, and her face as comely as a live doll’s.’
‘Her eyes, then, are not dark like mine?’
‘No—of a bluish turn, and her mouth is very nice and red; and when she smiles, her teeth show white.’
‘Is she tall?’ said the woman sharply.
‘I couldn’t see. She was sitting down.’
‘Then do you go to Holmstoke church to-morrow morning: she’s sure to be there. Go early and notice her walking in, and come home and tell me if she’s taller than I.’
‘Very well, mother. But why don’t you go and see for yourself?’
‘I go to see her! I wouldn’t look up at her if she were to pass my window this instant. She was with Mr. Lodge, of course. What did he say or do?’
‘Just the same as usual.’
‘Took no notice of you?’
Next day the mother put a clean shirt on the boy, and started him off for Holmstoke church. He reached the ancient little pile when the door was just being opened, and he was the first to enter. Taking his seat by the font, he watched all the parishioners file in. The well-to-do Farmer Lodge came nearly last; and his young wife, who accompanied him, walked up the aisle with the shyness natural to a modest woman who had appeared thus for the first time. As all other eyes were fixed upon her, the youth’s stare was not noticed now.
When he reached home his mother said, ‘Well?’ before he had entered the room.
‘She is not tall. She is rather short,’ he replied.
‘Ah!’ said his mother, with satisfaction.
‘But she’s very pretty—very. In fact, she’s lovely.’
The youthful freshness of the yeoman’s wife had evidently made an impression even on the somewhat hard nature of the boy.
‘That’s all I want to hear,’ said his mother quickly. ‘Now, spread the table-cloth. The hare you caught is very tender; but mind that nobody catches you.—You’ve never told me what sort of hands she had.’
‘I have never seen ’em. She never took off her gloves.’
‘What did she wear this morning?’
‘A white bonnet and a silver-coloured gownd. It whewed and whistled so loud when it rubbed against the pews that the lady coloured up more than ever for very shame at the noise, and pulled it in to keep it from touching; but when she pushed into her seat, it whewed more than ever. Mr. Lodge, he seemed pleased, and his waistcoat stuck out, and his great golden seals hung like a lord’s; but she seemed to wish her noisy gownd anywhere but on her.’
‘Not she! However, that will do now.’
These descriptions of the newly-married couple were continued from time to time by the boy at his mother’s request, after any chance encounter he had had with them. But Rhoda Brook, though she might easily have seen young Mrs. Lodge for herself by walking a couple of miles, would never attempt an excursion towards the quarter where the farmhouse lay. Neither did she, at the daily milking in the dairyman’s yard on Lodge’s outlying second farm, ever speak on the subject of the recent marriage. The dairyman, who rented the cows of Lodge, and knew perfectly the tall milkmaid’s history, with manly kindliness always kept the gossip in the cow-barton from annoying Rhoda. But the atmosphere thereabout was full of the subject during the first days of Mrs. Lodge’s arrival; and from her boy’s description and the casual words of the other milkers, Rhoda Brook could raise a mental image of the unconscious Mrs Lodge that was realistic as a photograph.
One night, two or three weeks after the bridal return, when the boy was gone to bed, Rhoda sat a long time over the turf ashes that she had raked out in front of her to extinguish them. She contemplated so intently the new wife, as presented to her in her mind’s eye over the embers, that she forgot the lapse of time. At last, wearied with her day’s work, she too retired.
But the figure which had occupied her so much during this and the previous days was not to be banished at night. For the first time Gertrude Lodge visited the supplanted woman in her dreams. Rhoda Brook dreamed—since her assertion that she really saw, before falling asleep, was not to be believed—that the young wife, in the pale silk dress and white bonnet, but with features shockingly distorted, and wrinkled as by age, was sitting upon her chest as she lay. The pressure of Mrs. Lodge’s person grew heavier; the blue eyes peered cruelly into her face; and then the figure thrust forward its left hand mockingly, so as to make the wedding-ring it wore glitter in Rhoda’s eyes. Maddened mentally, and nearly suffocated by pressure, the sleeper struggled; the incubus, still regarding her, withdrew to the foot of the bed, only, however, to come forward by degrees, resume her seat, and flash her left hand as before.
Gasping for breath, Rhoda, in a last desperate effort, swung out her right hand, seized the confronting spectre by its obtrusive left arm, and whirled it backward to the floor, starting up herself as she did so with a low cry.
‘O, merciful heaven!’ she cried, sitting on the edge of the bed in a cold sweat; ‘that was not a dream—she was here!’
She could feel her antagonist’s arm within her grasp even now—the very flesh and bone of it, as it seemed. She looked on the floor whither she had whirled the spectre, but there was nothing to be seen.
Rhoda Brook slept no more that night, and when she went milking at the next dawn they noticed how pale and haggard she looked. The milk that she drew quivered into the pail; her hand had not calmed even yet, and still retained the feel of the arm. She came home to breakfast as wearily as if it had been suppertime.
‘What was that noise in your chimmer, mother, last night?’ said her son. ‘You fell off the bed, surely?’
‘Did you hear anything fall? At what time?’
‘Just when the clock struck two.’
She could not explain, and when the meal was done went silently about her household work, the boy assisting her, for he hated going afield on the farms, and she indulged his reluctance. Between eleven and twelve the garden-gate clicked, and she lifted her eyes to the window. At the bottom of the garden, within the gate, stood the woman of her vision. Rhoda seemed transfixed.
‘Ah, she said she would come!’ exclaimed the boy, also observing her.
‘Said so—when? How does she know us?’
‘I have seen and spoken to her. I talked to her yesterday.’
‘I told you,’ said the mother, flushing indignantly, ‘never to speak to anybody in that house, or go near the place.’
‘I did not speak to her till she spoke to me. And I did not go near the place. I met her in the road.’
‘What did you tell her?’
‘Nothing. She said, “Are you the poor boy who had to bring the heavy load from market?” And she looked at my boots, and said they would not keep my feet dry if it came on wet, because they were so cracked. I told her I lived with my mother, and we had enough to do to keep ourselves, and that’s how it was; and she said then, “I’ll come and bring you some better boots, and see your mother.” She gives away things to other folks in the meads besides us.’
Mrs. Lodge was by this time close to the door—not in her silk, as Rhoda had seen her in the bed-chamber, but in a morning hat, and gown of common light material, which became her better than silk. On her arm she carried a basket.
The impression remaining from the night’s experience was still strong. Brook had almost expected to see the wrinkles, the scorn, and the cruelty on her visitor’s face.
She would have escaped an interview, had escape been possible. There was, however, no backdoor to the cottage, and in an instant the boy had lifted the latch to Mrs. Lodge’s gentle knock.
‘I see I have come to the right house,’ said she, glancing at the lad, and smiling. ‘But I was not sure till you opened the door.’
The figure and action were those of the phantom; but her voice was so indescribably sweet, her glance so winning, her smile so tender, so unlike that of Rhoda’s midnight visitant, that the latter could hardly believe the evidence of her senses. She was truly glad that she had not hidden away in sheer aversion, as she had been inclined to do. In her basket Mrs. Lodge brought the pair of boots that she had promised to the boy, and other useful articles.
At these proofs of a kindly feeling towards her and hers Rhoda’s heart reproached her bitterly. This innocent young thing should have her blessing and not her curse. When she left them a light seemed gone from the dwelling. Two days later she came again to know if the boots fitted; and less than a fortnight after that paid Rhoda another call. On this occasion the boy was absent.
‘I walk a good deal,’ said Mrs. Lodge, ‘and your house is the nearest outside our own parish. I hope you are well. You don’t look quite well.’
Rhoda said she was well enough; and, indeed, though the paler of the two, there was more of the strength that endures in her well-defined features and large frame, than in the soft-cheeked young woman before her. The conversation became quite confidential as regarded their powers and weaknesses; and when Mrs. Lodge was leaving, Rhoda said, ‘I hope you will find this air agree with you, ma’am, and not suffer from the damp of the water-meads.’
The younger one replied that there was not much doubt of it, her general health being usually good. ‘Though, now you remind me,’ she added, ‘I have one little ailment which puzzles me. It is nothing serious, but I cannot make it out.’
She uncovered her left hand and arm; and their outline confronted Rhoda’s gaze as the exact original of the limb she had beheld and seized in her dream. Upon the pink round surface of the arm were faint marks of an unhealthy colour, as if produced by a rough grasp. Rhoda’s eyes became riveted on the discolorations; she fancied that she discerned in them the shape of her own four fingers.
‘How did it happen?’ she said mechanically.
‘I cannot tell,’ replied Mrs. Lodge, shaking her head. ‘One night when I was sound asleep, dreaming I was away in some strange place, a pain suddenly shot into my arm there, and was so keen as to awaken me. I must have struck it in the daytime, I suppose, though I don’t remember doing so.’ She added, laughing, ‘I tell my dear husband that it looks just as if he had flown into a rage and struck me there. O, I daresay it will soon disappear.’
‘Ha, ha! Yes . . . On what night did it come?’
Mrs. Lodge considered, and said it would be a fortnight ago on the morrow. ‘When I awoke I could not remember where I was,’ she added, ’till the clock striking two reminded me.’
She had named the night and the hour of Rhoda’s spectral encounter, and Brook felt like a guilty thing. The artless disclosure startled her; she did not reason on the freaks of coincidence; and all the scenery of that ghastly night returned with double vividness to her mind.
‘O, can it be,’ she said to herself, when her visitor had departed, ‘that I exercise a malignant power over people against my own will?’ She knew that she had been slily called a witch since her fall; but never having understood why that particular stigma had been attached to her, it had passed disregarded. Could this be the explanation, and had such things as this ever happened before?
The summer drew on, and Rhoda Brook almost dreaded to meet Mrs. Lodge again, notwithstanding that her feeling for the young wife amounted well-nigh to affection. Something in her own individuality seemed to convict Rhoda of crime. Yet a fatality sometimes would direct the steps of the latter to the outskirts of Holmstoke whenever she left her house for any other purpose than her daily work; and hence it happened that their next encounter was out of doors. Rhoda could not avoid the subject which had so mystified her, and after the first few words she stammered, ‘I hope your—arm is well again, ma’am?’ She had perceived with consternation that Gertrude Lodge carried her left arm stiffly.
‘No; it is not quite well. Indeed it is no better at all; it is rather worse. It pains me dreadfully sometimes.’
‘Perhaps you had better go to a doctor, ma’am.’
She replied that she had already seen a doctor. Her husband had insisted upon her going to one. But the surgeon had not seemed to understand the afflicted limb at all; he had told her to bathe it in hot water, and she had bathed it, but the treatment had done no good.
‘Will you let me see it?’ said the milkwoman.
Mrs. Lodge pushed up her sleeve and disclosed the place, which was a few inches above the wrist. As soon as Rhoda Brook saw it, she could hardly preserve her composure. There was nothing of the nature of a wound, but the arm at that point had a shrivelled look, and the outline of the four fingers appeared more distinct than at the former time. Moreover, she fancied that they were imprinted in precisely the relative position of her clutch upon the arm in the trance; the first finger towards Gertrude’s wrist, and the fourth towards her elbow.
What the impress resembled seemed to have struck Gertrude herself since their last meeting. ‘It looks almost like finger-marks,’ she said; adding with a faint laugh, ‘my husband says it is as if some witch, or the devil himself, had taken hold of me there, and blasted the flesh.’
Rhoda shivered. ‘That’s fancy,’ she said hurriedly. ‘I wouldn’t mind it, if I were you.’
‘I shouldn’t so much mind it,’ said the younger, with hesitation, ‘if—if I hadn’t a notion that it makes my husband—dislike me—no, love me less. Men think so much of personal appearance.’
‘Some do—he for one.’
‘Yes; and he was very proud of mine, at first.’
‘Keep your arm covered from his sight.’
‘Ah—he knows the disfigurement is there!’ She tried to hide the tears that filled her eyes.
‘Well, ma’am, I earnestly hope it will go away soon.’
And so the milkwoman’s mind was chained anew to the subject by a horrid sort of spell as she returned home. The sense of having been guilty of an act of malignity increased, affect as she might to ridicule her superstition. In her secret heart Rhoda did not altogether object to a slight diminution of her successor’s beauty, by whatever means it had come about; but she did not wish to inflict upon her physical pain. For though this pretty young woman had rendered impossible any reparation which Lodge might have made Rhoda for his past conduct, everything like resentment at the unconscious usurpation had quite passed away from the elder’s mind.
If the sweet and kindly Gertrude Lodge only knew of the scene in the bed-chamber, what would she think? Not to inform her of it seemed treachery in the presence of her friendliness; but tell she could not of her own accord—neither could she devise a remedy.
She mused upon the matter the greater part of the night; and the next day, after the morning milking, set out to obtain another glimpse of Gertrude Lodge if she could, being held to her by a gruesome fascination. By watching the house from a distance the milkmaid was presently able to discern the farmer’s wife in a ride she was taking alone—probably to join her husband in some distant field. Mrs. Lodge perceived her, and cantered in her direction.
‘Good morning, Rhoda!’ Gertrude said, when she had come up. ‘I was going to call.’
Rhoda noticed that Mrs. Lodge held the reins with some difficulty.
‘I hope—the bad arm,’ said Rhoda.
‘They tell me there is possibly one way by which I might be able to find out the cause, and so perhaps the cure, of it,’ replied the other anxiously. ‘It is by going to some clever man over in Egdon Heath. They did not know if he was still alive—and I cannot remember his name at this moment; but they said that you knew more of his movements than anybody else hereabout, and could tell me if he were still to be consulted. Dear me—what was his name? But you know.’
‘Not Conjuror Trendle?’ said her thin companion, turning pale.
‘Trendle—yes. Is he alive?’
‘I believe so,’ said Rhoda, with reluctance.
‘Why do you call him conjuror?’
‘Well—they say—they used to say he was a—he had powers other folks have not.’
‘O, how could my people be so superstitious as to recommend a man of that sort! I thought they meant some medical man. I shall think no more of him.’
Rhoda looked relieved, and Mrs. Lodge rode on. The milkwoman had inwardly seen, from the moment she heard of her having been mentioned as a reference for this man, that there must exist a sarcastic feeling among the work-folk that a sorceress would know the whereabouts of the exorcist. They suspected her, then. A short time ago this would have given no concern to a woman of her common-sense. But she had a haunting reason to be superstitious now; and she had been seized with sudden dread that this Conjuror Trendle might name her as the malignant influence which was blasting the fair person of Gertrude, and so lead her friend to hate her for ever, and to treat her as some fiend in human shape.
But all was not over. Two days after, a shadow intruded into the window-pattern thrown on Rhoda Brook’s floor by the afternoon sun. The woman opened the door at once, almost breathlessly.
‘Are you alone?’ said Gertrude. She seemed to be no less harassed and anxious than Brook herself.
‘Yes,’ said Rhoda.
‘The place on my arm seems worse, and troubles me!’ the young farmer’s wife went on. ‘It is so mysterious! I do hope it will not be an incurable wound. I have again been thinking of what they said about Conjuror Trendle. I don’t really believe in such men, but I should not mind just visiting him, from curiosity—though on no account must my husband know. Is it far to where he lives?’
‘Yes—five miles,’ said Rhoda backwardly. ‘In the heart of Egdon.’
‘Well, I should have to walk. Could not you go with me to show me the way—say to-morrow afternoon?’
‘O, not I—that is,’ the milkwoman murmured, with a start of dismay. Again the dread seized her that something to do with her fierce act in the dream might be revealed, and her character in the eyes of the most useful friend she had ever had be ruined irretrievably.
Mrs. Lodge urged, and Rhoda finally assented, though with much misgiving. Sad as the journey would be to her, she could not conscientiously stand in the way of a possible remedy for her patron’s strange affliction. It was agreed that, to escape suspicion of their mystic intent, they should meet at the edge of the heath at the corner of a plantation which was visible from the spot where they now stood.
By the next afternoon Rhoda would have done anything to escape this inquiry. But she had promised to go. Moreover, there was a horrid fascination at times in becoming instrumental in throwing such possible light on her own character as would reveal her to be something greater in the occult world than she had ever herself suspected.
She started just before the time of day mentioned between them, and half-an-hour’s brisk walking brought her to the south-eastern extension of the Egdon tract of country, where the fir plantation was. A slight figure, cloaked and veiled, was already there. Rhoda recognized, almost with a shudder, that Mrs. Lodge bore her left arm in a sling.
They hardly spoke to each other, and immediately set out on their climb into the interior of this solemn country, which stood high above the rich alluvial soil they had left half-an-hour before. It was a long walk; thick clouds made the atmosphere dark, though it was as yet only early afternoon; and the wind howled dismally over the hills of the heath—not improbably the same heath which had witnessed the agony of the Wessex King Ina, presented to after-ages as Lear. Gertrude Lodge talked most, Rhoda replying with monosyllabic preoccupation. She had a strange dislike to walking on the side of her companion where hung the afflicted arm, moving round to the other when inadvertently near it. Much heather had been brushed by their feet when they descended upon a cart-track, beside which stood the house of the man they sought.
He did not profess his remedial practices openly, or care anything about their continuance, his direct interests being those of a dealer in furze, turf, ‘sharp sand,’ and other local products. Indeed, he affected not to believe largely in his own powers, and when warts that had been shown him for cure miraculously disappeared—which it must be owned they infallibly did—he would say lightly, ‘O, I only drink a glass of grog upon ’em—perhaps it’s all chance,’ and immediately turn the subject.
He was at home when they arrived, having in fact seen them descending into his valley. He was a gray-bearded man, with a reddish face, and he looked singularly at Rhoda the first moment he beheld her. Mrs. Lodge told him her errand; and then with words of self-disparagement he examined her arm.
‘Medicine can’t cure it,’ he said promptly. ‘’Tis the work of an enemy.’
Rhoda shrank into herself, and drew back.
‘An enemy? What enemy?’ asked Mrs. Lodge.
He shook his head. ‘That’s best known to yourself,’ he said. ‘If you like, I can show the person to you, though I shall not myself know who it is. I can do no more; and don’t wish to do that.’
She pressed him; on which he told Rhoda to wait outside where she stood, and took Mrs. Lodge into the room. It opened immediately from the door; and, as the latter remained ajar, Rhoda Brook could see the proceedings without taking part in them. He brought a tumbler from the dresser, nearly filled it with water, and fetching an egg, prepared it in some private way; after which he broke it on the edge of the glass, so that the white went in and the yolk remained. As it was getting gloomy, he took the glass and its contents to the window, and told Gertrude to watch them closely. They leant over the table together, and the milkwoman could see the opaline hue of the egg-fluid changing form as it sank in the water, but she was not near enough to define the shape that it assumed.
‘Do you catch the likeness of any face or figure as you look?’ demanded the conjuror of the young woman.
She murmured a reply, in tones so low as to be inaudible to Rhoda, and continued to gaze intently into the glass. Rhoda turned, and walked a few steps away.
When Mrs. Lodge came out, and her face was met by the light, it appeared exceedingly pale—as pale as Rhoda’s—against the sad dun shades of the upland’s garniture. Trendle shut the door behind her, and they at once started homeward together. But Rhoda perceived that her companion had quite changed.
‘Did he charge much?’ she asked tentatively.
‘O no—nothing. He would not take a farthing,’ said Gertrude.
‘And what did you see?’ inquired Rhoda.
‘Nothing I—care to speak of.’ The constraint in her manner was remarkable; her face was so rigid as to wear an oldened aspect, faintly suggestive of the face in Rhoda’s bed-chamber.
‘Was it you who first proposed coming here?’ Mrs. Lodge suddenly inquired, after a long pause. ‘How very odd, if you did!’
‘No. But I am not sorry we have come, all things considered,’ she replied. For the first time a sense of triumph possessed her, and she did not altogether deplore that the young thing at her side should learn that their lives had been antagonized by other influences than their own.
The subject was no more alluded to during the long and dreary walk home. But in some way or other a story was whispered about the many-dairied lowland that winter that Mrs. Lodge’s gradual loss of the use of her left arm was owing to her being ‘overlooked’ by Rhoda Brook. The latter kept her own counsel about the incubus, but her face grew sadder and thinner; and in the spring she and her boy disappeared from the neighbourhood of Holmstoke.
Half-a-dozen years passed away, and Mr. and Mrs. Lodge’s married experience sank into prosiness, and worse. The farmer was usually gloomy and silent: the woman whom he had wooed for her grace and beauty was contorted and disfigured in the left limb; moreover, she had brought him no child, which rendered it likely that he would be the last of a family who had occupied that valley for some two hundred years. He thought of Rhoda Brook and her son; and feared this might be a judgment from heaven upon him.
The once blithe-hearted and enlightened Gertrude was changing into an irritable, superstitious woman, whose whole time was given to experimenting upon her ailment with every quack remedy she came across. She was honestly attached to her husband, and was ever secretly hoping against hope to win back his heart again by regaining some at least of her personal beauty. Hence it arose that her closet was lined with bottles, packets, and ointment-pots of every description—nay, bunches of mystic herbs, charms, and books of necromancy, which in her schoolgirl time she would have ridiculed as folly.
‘Damned if you won’t poison yourself with these apothecary messes and witch mixtures some time or other,’ said her husband, when his eye chanced to fall upon the multitudinous array.
She did not reply, but turned her sad, soft glance upon him in such heart-swollen reproach that he looked sorry for his words, and added, ‘I only meant it for your good, you know, Gertrude.’
‘I’ll clear out the whole lot, and destroy them,’ said she huskily, ‘and try such remedies no more!’
‘You want somebody to cheer you,’ he observed. ‘I once thought of adopting a boy; but he is too old now. And he is gone away I don’t know where.’
She guessed to whom he alluded; for Rhoda Brook’s story had in the course of years become known to her; though not a word had ever passed between her husband and herself on the subject. Neither had she ever spoken to him of her visit to Conjuror Trendle, and of what was revealed to her, or she thought was revealed to her, by that solitary heath-man.
She was now five-and-twenty; but she seemed older.
‘Six years of marriage, and only a few months of love,’ she sometimes whispered to herself. And then she thought of the apparent cause, and said, with a tragic glance at her withering limb, ‘If I could only again be as I was when he first saw me!’
She obediently destroyed her nostrums and charms; but there remained a hankering wish to try something else—some other sort of cure altogether. She had never revisited Trendle since she had been conducted to the house of the solitary by Rhoda against her will; but it now suddenly occurred to Gertrude that she would, in a last desperate effort at deliverance from this seeming curse, again seek out the man, if he yet lived. He was entitled to a certain credence, for the indistinct form he had raised in the glass had undoubtedly resembled the only woman in the world who—as she now knew, though not then—could have a reason for bearing her ill-will. The visit should be paid.
This time she went alone, though she nearly got lost on the heath, and roamed a considerable distance out of her way. Trendle’s house was reached at last, however: he was not indoors, and instead of waiting at the cottage, she went to where his bent figure was pointed out to her at work a long way off. Trendle remembered her, and laying down the handful of furze-roots which he was gathering and throwing into a heap, he offered to accompany her in her homeward direction, as the distance was considerable and the days were short. So they walked together, his head bowed nearly to the earth, and his form of a colour with it.
‘You can send away warts and other excrescences I know,’ she said; ‘why can’t you send away this?’ And the arm was uncovered.
‘You think too much of my powers!’ said Trendle; ‘and I am old and weak now, too. No, no; it is too much for me to attempt in my own person. What have ye tried?’
She named to him some of the hundred medicaments and counterspells which she had adopted from time to time. He shook his head.
‘Some were good enough,’ he said approvingly; ‘but not many of them for such as this. This is of the nature of a blight, not of the nature of a wound; and if you ever do throw it off; it will be all at once.’
‘If I only could!’
‘There is only one chance of doing it known to me. It has never failed in kindred afflictions,—that I can declare. But it is hard to carry out, and especially for a woman.’
‘Tell me!’ said she.
‘You must touch with the limb the neck of a man who’s been hanged.’
She started a little at the image he had raised.
‘Before he’s cold—just after he’s cut down,’ continued the conjuror impassively.
‘How can that do good?’
‘It will turn the blood and change the constitution. But, as I say, to do it is hard. You must get into jail, and wait for him when he’s brought off the gallows. Lots have done it, though perhaps not such pretty women as you. I used to send dozens for skin complaints. But that was in former times. The last I sent was in ‘13—near twenty years ago.’
He had no more to tell her; and, when he had put her into a straight track homeward, turned and left her, refusing all money as at first.
The communication sank deep into Gertrude’s mind. Her nature was rather a timid one; and probably of all remedies that the white wizard could have suggested there was not one which would have filled her with so much aversion as this, not to speak of the immense obstacles in the way of its adoption.
Casterbridge, the county-town, was a dozen or fifteen miles off; and though in those days, when men were executed for horse-stealing, arson, and burglary, an assize seldom passed without a hanging, it was not likely that she could get access to the body of the criminal unaided. And the fear of her husband’s anger made her reluctant to breathe a word of Trendle’s suggestion to him or to anybody about him.
She did nothing for months, and patiently bore her disfigurement as before. But her woman’s nature, craving for renewed love, through the medium of renewed beauty (she was but twenty-five), was ever stimulating her to try what, at any rate, could hardly do her any harm. ‘What came by a spell will go by a spell surely,’ she would say. Whenever her imagination pictured the act she shrank in terror from the possibility of it: then the words of the conjuror, ‘It will turn your blood,’ were seen to be capable of a scientific no less than a ghastly interpretation; the mastering desire returned, and urged her on again.
There was at this time but one county paper, and that her husband only occasionally borrowed. But old-fashioned days had old-fashioned means, and news was extensively conveyed by word of mouth from market to market, or from fair to fair, so that, whenever such an event as an execution was about to take place, few within a radius of twenty miles were ignorant of the coming sight; and, so far as Holmstoke was concerned, some enthusiasts had been known to walk all the way to Casterbridge and back in one day, solely to witness the spectacle. The next assizes were in March; and when Gertrude Lodge heard that they had been held, she inquired stealthily at the inn as to the result, as soon as she could find opportunity.
She was, however, too late. The time at which the sentences were to be carried out had arrived, and to make the journey and obtain admission at such short notice required at least her husband’s assistance. She dared not tell him, for she had found by delicate experiment that these smouldering village beliefs made him furious if mentioned, partly because he half entertained them himself. It was therefore necessary to wait for another opportunity.
Her determination received a fillip from learning that two epileptic children had attended from this very village of Holmstoke many years before with beneficial results, though the experiment had been strongly condemned by the neighbouring clergy. April, May, June, passed; and it is no overstatement to say that by the end of the last-named month Gertrude well-nigh longed for the death of a fellow-creature. Instead of her formal prayers each night, her unconscious prayer was, ‘O Lord, hang some guilty or innocent person soon!’
This time she made earlier inquiries, and was altogether more systematic in her proceedings. Moreover, the season was summer, between the haymaking and the harvest, and in the leisure thus afforded him her husband had been holiday-taking away from home.
The assizes were in July, and she went to the inn as before. There was to be one execution—only one—for arson.
Her greatest problem was not how to get to Casterbridge, but what means she should adopt for obtaining admission to the jail. Though access for such purposes had formerly never been denied, the custom had fallen into desuetude; and in contemplating her possible difficulties, she was again almost driven to fall back upon her husband. But, on sounding him about the assizes, he was so uncommunicative, so more than usually cold, that she did not proceed, and decided that whatever she did she would do alone.
Fortune, obdurate hitherto, showed her unexpected favour. On the Thursday before the Saturday fixed for the execution, Lodge remarked to her that he was going away from home for another day or two on business at a fair, and that he was sorry he could not take her with him.
She exhibited on this occasion so much readiness to stay at home that he looked at her in surprise. Time had been when she would have shown deep disappointment at the loss of such a jaunt. However, he lapsed into his usual taciturnity, and on the day named left Holmstoke.
It was now her turn. She at first had thought of driving, but on reflection held that driving would not do, since it would necessitate her keeping to the turnpike-road, and so increase by tenfold the risk of her ghastly errand being found out. She decided to ride, and avoid the beaten track, notwithstanding that in her husband’s stables there was no animal just at present which by any stretch of imagination could be considered a lady’s mount, in spite of his promise before marriage to always keep a mare for her. He had, however, many cart-horses, fine ones of their kind; and among the rest was a serviceable creature, an equine Amazon, with a back as broad as a sofa, on which Gertrude had occasionally taken an airing when unwell. This horse she chose.
On Friday afternoon one of the men brought it round. She was dressed, and before going down looked at her shrivelled arm. ‘Ah!’ she said to it, ‘if it had not been for you this terrible ordeal would have been saved me!’
When strapping up the bundle in which she carried a few articles of clothing, she took occasion to say to the servant, ‘I take these in case I should not get back to-night from the person I am going to visit. Don’t be alarmed if I am not in by ten, and close up the house as usual. I shall be at home to-morrow for certain.’ She meant then to privately tell her husband: the deed accomplished was not like the deed projected. He would almost certainly forgive her.
And then the pretty palpitating Gertrude Lodge went from her husband’s homestead; but though her goal was Casterbridge she did not take the direct route thither through Stickleford. Her cunning course at first was in precisely the opposite direction. As soon as she was out of sight, however, she turned to the left, by a road which led into Egdon, and on entering the heath wheeled round, and set out in the true course, due westerly. A more private way down the county could not be imagined; and as to direction, she had merely to keep her horse’s head to a point a little to the right of the sun. She knew that she would light upon a furze-cutter or cottager of some sort from time to time, from whom she might correct her bearing.
Though the date was comparatively recent, Egdon was much less fragmentary in character than now. The attempts—successful and otherwise—at cultivation on the lower slopes, which intrude and break up the original heath into small detached heaths, had not been carried far; Enclosure Acts had not taken effect, and the banks and fences which now exclude the cattle of those villagers who formerly enjoyed rights of commonage thereon, and the carts of those who had turbary privileges which kept them in firing all the year round, were not erected. Gertrude, therefore, rode along with no other obstacles than the prickly furze bushes, the mats of heather, the white water-courses, and the natural steeps and declivities of the ground.
Her horse was sure, if heavy-footed and slow, and though a draught animal, was easy-paced; had it been otherwise, she was not a woman who could have ventured to ride over such a bit of country with a half-dead arm. It was therefore nearly eight o’clock when she drew rein to breathe the mare on the last outlying high point of heath-land towards Casterbridge, previous to leaving Egdon for the cultivated valleys.
She halted before a pool called Rushy-pond, flanked by the ends of two hedges; a railing ran through the centre of the pond, dividing it in half. Over the railing she saw the low green country; over the green trees the roofs of the town; over the roofs a white flat façade, denoting the entrance to the county jail. On the roof of this front specks were moving about; they seemed to be workmen erecting something. Her flesh crept. She descended slowly, and was soon amid corn-fields and pastures. In another half-hour, when it was almost dusk, Gertrude reached the White Hart, the first inn of the town on that side.
Little surprise was excited by her arrival; farmers’ wives rode on horseback then more than they do now; though, for that matter, Mrs. Lodge was not imagined to be a wife at all; the innkeeper supposed her some harum-skarum young woman who had come to attend ‘hang-fair’ next day. Neither her husband nor herself ever dealt in Casterbridge market, so that she was unknown. While dismounting she beheld a crowd of boys standing at the door of a harness-maker’s shop just above the inn, looking inside it with deep interest.
‘What is going on there?’ she asked of the ostler.
‘Making the rope for to-morrow.’
She throbbed responsively, and contracted her arm.
‘’Tis sold by the inch afterwards,’ the man continued. ‘I could get you a bit, miss, for nothing, if you’d like?’
She hastily repudiated any such wish, all the more from a curious creeping feeling that the condemned wretch’s destiny was becoming interwoven with her own; and having engaged a room for the night, sat down to think.
Up to this time she had formed but the vaguest notions about her means of obtaining access to the prison. The words of the cunning-man returned to her mind. He had implied that she should use her beauty, impaired though it was, as a pass-key. In her inexperience she knew little about jail functionaries; she had heard of a high-sheriff and an under-sheriff; but dimly only. She knew, however, that there must be a hangman, and to the hangman she determined to apply.
At this date, and for several years after, there was a hangman to almost every jail. Gertrude found, on inquiry, that the Casterbridge official dwelt in a lonely cottage by a deep slow river flowing under the cliff on which the prison buildings were situate—the stream being the self-same one, though she did not know it, which watered the Stickleford and Holmstoke meads lower down in its course.
Having changed her dress, and before she had eaten or drunk—for she could not take her ease till she had ascertained some particulars—Gertrude pursued her way by a path along the water-side to the cottage indicated. Passing thus the outskirts of the jail, she discerned on the level roof over the gateway three rectangular lines against the sky, where the specks had been moving in her distant view; she recognized what the erection was, and passed quickly on. Another hundred yards brought her to the executioner’s house, which a boy pointed out It stood close to the same stream, and was hard by a weir, the waters of which emitted a steady roar.
While she stood hesitating the door opened, and an old man came forth shading a candle with one hand. Locking the door on the outside, he turned to a flight of wooden steps fixed against the end of the cottage, and began to ascend them, this being evidently the staircase to his bedroom. Gertrude hastened forward, but by the time she reached the foot of the ladder he was at the top. She called to him loudly enough to be heard above the roar of the weir; he looked down and said, ‘What d’ye want here?’
‘To speak to you a minute.’
The candle-light, such as it was, fell upon her imploring, pale, upturned face, and Davies (as the hangman was called) backed down the ladder. ‘I was just going to bed,’ he said; ‘“Early to bed and early to rise,” but I don’t mind stopping a minute for such a one as you. Come into house.’ He reopened the door, and preceded her to the room within.
The implements of his daily work, which was that of a jobbing gardener, stood in a corner, and seeing probably that she looked rural, he said, ‘If you want me to undertake country work I can’t come, for I never leave Casterbridge for gentle nor simple—not I. My real calling is officer of justice,’ he added formally.
‘Yes, yes! That’s it. To-morrow!’
‘Ah! I thought so. Well, what’s the matter about that? ’Tis no use to come here about the knot—folks do come continually, but I tell ’em one knot is as merciful as another if ye keep it under the ear. Is the unfortunate man a relation; or, I should say, perhaps’ (looking at her dress) ‘a person who’s been in your employ?’
‘No. What time is the execution?’
‘The same as usual—twelve o’clock, or as soon after as the London mail-coach gets in. We always wait for that, in case of a reprieve.’
‘O—a reprieve—I hope not!’ she said involuntarily,
‘Well,—hee, hee!—as a matter of business, so do I! But still, if ever a young fellow deserved to be let off, this one does; only just turned eighteen, and only present by chance when the rick was fired. Howsomever, there’s not much risk of it, as they are obliged to make an example of him, there having been so much destruction of property that way lately.’
‘I mean,’ she explained, ‘that I want to touch him for a charm, a cure of an affliction, by the advice of a man who has proved the virtue of the remedy.’
‘O yes, miss! Now I understand. I’ve had such people come in past years. But it didn’t strike me that you looked of a sort to require blood-turning. What’s the complaint? The wrong kind for this, I’ll be bound.’
‘My arm.’ She reluctantly showed the withered skin.
‘Ah—’tis all a-scram!’ said the hangman, examining it.
‘Yes,’ said she.
‘Well,’ he continued, with interest, ‘that is the class o’ subject, I’m bound to admit! I like the look of the place; it is truly as suitable for the cure as any I ever saw. ’Twas a knowing-man that sent ‘ee, whoever he was.’
‘You can contrive for me all that’s necessary?’ she said breathlessly.
‘You should really have gone to the governor of the jail, and your doctor with ‘ee, and given your name and address—that’s how it used to be done, if I recollect. Still, perhaps, I can manage it for a trifling fee.’
‘O, thank you! I would rather do it this way, as I should like it kept private.’
‘Lover not to know, eh?’
‘Aha! Very well. I’ll get ee’ a touch of the corpse.’
‘Where is it now?’ she said, shuddering.
‘It?—he, you mean; he’s living yet. Just inside that little small winder up there in the glum.’ He signified the jail on the cliff above.
She thought of her husband and her friends. ‘Yes, of course,’ she said; ‘and how am I to proceed?’
He took her to the door. ‘Now, do you be waiting at the little wicket in the wall, that you’ll find up there in the lane, not later than one o’clock. I will open it from the inside, as I shan’t come home to dinner till he’s cut down. Good-night. Be punctual; and if you don’t want anybody to know ‘ee, wear a veil. Ah—once I had such a daughter as you!’
She went away, and climbed the path above, to assure herself that she would be able to find the wicket next day. Its outline was soon visible to her—a narrow opening in the outer wall of the prison precincts. The steep was so great that, having reached the wicket, she stopped a moment to breathe; and, looking back upon the water-side cot, saw the hangman again ascending his outdoor staircase. He entered the loft or chamber to which it led, and in a few minutes extinguished his light.
The town clock struck ten, and she returned to the White Hart as she had come.
It was one o’clock on Saturday. Gertrude Lodge, having been admitted to the jail as above described, was sitting in a waiting-room within the second gate, which stood under a classic archway of ashlar, then comparatively modern, and bearing the inscription, ‘COVNTY JAIL: 1793.’ This had been the façade she saw from the heath the day before. Near at hand was a passage to the roof on which the gallows stood.
The town was thronged, and the market suspended; but Gertrude had seen scarcely a soul. Having kept her room till the hour of the appointment, she had proceeded to the spot by a way which avoided the open space below the cliff where the spectators had gathered; but she could, even now, hear the multitudinous babble of their voices, out of which rose at intervals the hoarse croak of a single voice uttering the words, ‘Last dying speech and confession!’ There had been no reprieve, and the execution was over; but the crowd still waited to see the body taken down.
Soon the persistent girl heard a trampling overhead, then a hand beckoned to her, and, following directions, she went out and crossed the inner paved court beyond the gatehouse, her knees trembling so that she could scarcely walk. One of her arms was out of its sleeve, and only covered by her shawl.
On the spot at which she had now arrived were two trestles, and before she could think of their purpose she heard heavy feet descending stairs somewhere at her back. Turn her head she would not, or could not, and, rigid in this position, she was conscious of a rough coffin passing her shoulder, borne by four men. It was open, and in it lay the body of a young man, wearing the smockfrock of a rustic, and fustian breeches. The corpse had been thrown into the coffin so hastily that the skirt of the smockfrock was hanging over. The burden was temporarily deposited on the trestles.
By this time the young woman’s state was such that a gray mist seemed to float before her eyes, on account of which, and the veil she wore, she could scarcely discern anything: it was as though she had nearly died, but was held up by a sort of galvanism.
‘Now!’ said a voice close at hand, and she was just conscious that the word had been addressed to her.
By a last strenuous effort she advanced, at the same time hearing persons approaching behind her. She bared her poor curst arm; and Davies, uncovering the face of the corpse, took Gertrude’s hand, and held it so that her arm lay across the dead man’s neck, upon a line the colour of an unripe blackberry, which surrounded it.
Gertrude shrieked: ‘the turn o’ the blood,’ predicted by the conjuror, had taken place. But at that moment a second shriek rent the air of the enclosure: it was not Gertrude’s, and its effect upon her was to make her start round.
Immediately behind her stood Rhoda Brook, her face drawn, and her eyes red with weeping. Behind Rhoda stood Gertrude’s own husband; his countenance lined, his eyes dim, but without a tear.
‘D-n you! what are you doing here?’ he said hoarsely.
‘Hussy—to come between us and our child now!’ cried Rhoda. ‘This is the meaning of what Satan showed me in the vision! You are like her at last!’ And clutching the bare arm of the younger woman, she pulled her unresistingly back against the wall. Immediately Brook had loosened her hold the fragile young Gertrude slid down against the feet of her husband. When he lifted her up she was unconscious.
The mere sight of the twain had been enough to suggest to her that the dead young man was Rhoda’s son. At that time the relatives of an executed convict had the privilege of claiming the body for burial, if they chose to do so; and it was for this purpose that Lodge was awaiting the inquest with Rhoda. He had been summoned by her as soon as the young man was taken in the crime, and at different times since; and he had attended in court during the trial. This was the ‘holiday’ he had been indulging in of late. The two wretched parents had wished to avoid exposure; and hence had come themselves for the body, a waggon and sheet for its conveyance and covering being in waiting outside.
Gertrude’s case was so serious that it was deemed advisable to call to her the surgeon who was at hand. She was taken out of the jail into the town; but she never reached home alive. Her delicate vitality, sapped perhaps by the paralyzed arm, collapsed under the double shock that followed the severe strain, physical and mental, to which she had subjected herself during the previous twenty-four hours. Her blood had been ‘turned’ indeed—too far. Her death took place in the town three days after.
Her husband was never seen in Casterbridge again; once only in the old market-place at Anglebury, which he had so much frequented, and very seldom in public anywhere. Burdened at first with moodiness and remorse, he eventually changed for the better, and appeared as a chastened and thoughtful man. Soon after attending the funeral of his poor young wife he took steps towards giving up the farms in Holmstoke and the adjoining parish, and, having sold every head of his stock, he went away to Port-Bredy, at the other end of the county, living there in solitary lodgings till his death two years later of a painless decline. It was then found that he had bequeathed the whole of his not inconsiderable property to a reformatory for boys, subject to the payment of a small annuity to Rhoda Brook, if she could be found to claim it.
For some time she could not be found; but eventually she reappeared in her old parish,—absolutely refusing, however, to have anything to do with the provision made for her. Her monotonous milking at the dairy was resumed, and followed for many long years, till her form became bent, and her once abundant dark hair white and worn away at the forehead—perhaps by long pressure against the cows. Here, sometimes, those who knew her experiences would stand and observe her, and wonder what sombre thoughts were beating inside that impassive, wrinkled brow, to the rhythm of the alternating milk-streams.
End of The Withered Arm by Writer 28