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Title: Collected Stories
Author: Thomas Hardy
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Language: English
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Collected Stories
Thomas Hardy



Table of Contents

The Withered Arm
The Superstitious Man's Story




THE WITHERED ARM


Chapter I. A LORN MILKMAID



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.'

'Yes, mother.'

'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.'

'Yes.'

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.



Chapter II. THE YOUNG WIFE



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?'

'None.'

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.



Chapter III. A VISION



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?



Chapter IV. A SUGGESTION



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.



Chapter V. CONJUROR TRENDLE



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.



Chapter VI. A SECOND ATTEMPT



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.



Chapter VII. A RIDE



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 facade,
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.



Chapter VIII. A WATER-SIDE HERMIT



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?'

'No--husband.'

'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.



Chapter IX. A RENCOUNTER



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 facade 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.




THE SUPERSTITIOUS MAN'S STORY

"THERE was something very strange about William's death--very strange
indeed!" sighed a melancholy man in the back of the van. It was the
seedman's father, who had hitherto kept silence.

"And what might that have been?" asked Mr Lackland.

"William, as you may know, was a curious, silent man; you could feel
when he came near 'ee; and if he was in the house or anywhere behind
you without your seeing him, there seemed to be something clammy in
the air, as if a cellar door opened close by your elbow. Well, one
Sunday, at a time that William was in very good health to all
appearance, the bell that was ringing for church went very heavy all
of a sudden; the sexton, who told me o't, said he had not known the
bell go so heavy in his hand for years--it was just as if the gudgeons
wanted oiling. That was on the Sunday, as I say.

"During the week after, it chanced that William's wife was staying up
late one night to finish her ironing, she doing the washing for Mr and
Mrs Hardcome. Her husband had finished his supper, and gone to bed as
usual some hour or two before. While she ironed she heard him coming
downstairs; he stopped to put on his boots at the stair-foot, where he
always left them, and then came on into the living-room where she was
ironing, passing through it towards the door, this being the only way
from the staircase to the outside of the house. No word was said on
either side, William not being a man given to much speaking, and his
wife being occupied with her work. He went out and closed the door
behind him. As her husband had now and then gone out in this way at
night before when unwell, or unable to sleep for want of a pipe, she
took no particular notice, and continued at her ironing. This she
finished shortly after, and, as he had not come in, she waited awhile
for him, putting away the irons and things, and preparing the table
for his breakfast in the morning. Still he did not return, but
supposing him not far off, and wanting to go to bed herself, tired as
she was, she left the door unbarred and went to the stairs, after
writing on the back of the door with chalk: Mind and do the door
(because he was a forgetful man).

"To her great surprise, and I might say alarm, on reaching the foot of
the stairs his boots were standing there as they always stood when he
had gone to rest. Going up to their chamber, she found him in bed
sleeping as sound as a rock. How he could have got back again without
her seeing or hearing him was beyond her comprehension. It could only
have been by passing behind her very quietly while she was bumping
with the iron. But this notion did not satisfy her: it was surely
impossible that she should not have seen him come in through a room so
small. She could not unravel the mystery, and felt very queer and
uncomfortable about it. However, she would not disturb him to question
him then, and went to bed herself.

"He rose and left for his work very early the next morning, before she
was awake, and she waited his return to breakfast with much anxiety
for an explanation, for thinking over the matter by daylight made it
seem only the more startling. When he came in to the meal he said,
before she could put her question, 'What's the meaning of them words
chalked on the door?'

"She told him, and asked him about his going out the night before.
William declared that he had never left the bedroom after entering it,
having in fact undressed, lain down, and fallen asleep directly, never
once waking till the clock struck five, and he rose up to go to his
labour.

"Betty Privett was as certain in her own mind that he did go out as
she was of her own existence, and was little less certain that he did
not return. She felt too disturbed to argue with him, and let the
subject drop as though she must have been mistaken. When she was
walking down Longpuddle Street later in the day she met Jim Weedle's
daughter Nancy, and said: 'Well Nancy, you do look sleepy to-day!'

"'Yes, Mrs Privett,' said Nancy. 'Now, don't tell anybody, but I don't
mind letting you know what the reason o't is. Last night, being Old
Midsummer Eve, some of us church porch, and didn't get home till near
one.'

"'Did ye?' says Mrs Privett. 'Old Midsummer yesterday was it? Faith, I
didn't think whe'r 'twas Midsummer or Michaelmas; I'd too much work to
do.'

"'Yes. And we were frightened enough, I can tell 'ee by what we saw.'

"'What did ye see?'

"(You may not remember, sir, having gone off to foreign parts so
young, that on Midsummer Night it is believed hereabout that the faint
shapes of all the folk in the parish who are going to be at death's
door within the year can be seen entering the church. Those who get
over their illness come out again after awhile; those that are doomed
to die do not return.)

"'What did you see?' asked William's wife.

"'Well,' says Nancy, backwardly--'we needn't tell what we saw or who
we saw.'

"'You saw my husband,' said Betty Privettin a quiet way.

"'Well, since you put it so,' says Nancy, hanging fire, 'we--thought
we did see him; but it was darkish and we was frightened, and of
course it might not have been he.'

"'Nancy, you needn't mind letting it out, though 'tis kept back in
kindness. And he didn't come out of the church again: I know it as
well as you.'

"Nancy did not answer yes or no to that, and no more was said. But
three days after, William Privett was mowing with John Chiles in Mr
Hardcome's meadow, and in the heat of the day they sat down to their
bit o' lunch under a tree, and empty their flagon. Afterwards both of
'em fell asleep as they sat. John Chiles was the first to wake, and,
as he looked towards his fellow-mower, he saw one of those great white
miller's-souls as we call 'em--that is to say, a miller moth--come
from William's open mouth while he slept and fly straight away. John
thought it odd enough, as William had worked in a mill for several
years when he was a boy. He then looked at the sun, and found by the
place o't that they had slept a long while, and, as William did not
wake, John called to him and said it was high time to begin work
again. He took no notice, and then John went up and shook him and
found he was dead.

"Now on that very day old Philip Hookhorn was down at Longpuddle
Spring, dipping up a pitcher of water; and, as he turned away, who
should he see coming down to the spring on the other side but William,
looking very pale and old? This surprised Philip Hookhorn very much,
for years before that time William's little son--his only child--had
been drowned in that spring while at play there, and this had so
preyed upon William's mind that he'd never been seen near the spring
afterwards, and had been known to go half a mile out of his way to
avoid the place. On enquiry, it was found that William in body could
not have stood by the spring, being in the mead two miles off; and it
also came out that at the time at which he was seen at the spring was
the very time when he died."

"A rather melancholy story," observed the emigrant, after a minute's
silence.

"Yes, yes. Well, we must take ups and downs together," said the
seedman's father.



THE END



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