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Wessex tales : strange, lively, and commonplace (Volume 1) online

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and fields and lanes were quite so thorough when
it came to the private examination of their own
lofts and outhouses. Stories were afloat of a
mysterious figure being occasionally seen in some



I THE THREE STRANGERS 53

old overgrown trackway or other, reniote from
turnpike roads ; but when a search was instituted
in any of these suspected quarters nobody was
found. Thus the days and weeks passed without
tidings.

In brief, the bass-voiced man of the chimney-
corner was never recaptured. Some said that he
went across the sea, others that he did not, but
buried himself in the depths of a populous city.
At any rate, the gentleman in cinder-gray never
did his morning's work at Casterbridge, nor
met anywhere at all, for business purposes, the
genial comrade with whom he had passed an
hour of relaxation in the lonely house on the
coomb.

The grass has long been green on the graves of
Shepherd Fennel and his frugal wife ; the guests
who made up the christening party have mainly
followed their entertainers to the tomb ; the baby
in whose honour they all had met is a matron in
the sere and yellow leaf. But the arrival of the



54 THE THREE STRANGERS i

three strangers at the shepherd's that night, and
the details connected therewith, is a story as well
known as ever in the country about Higher
Crowstairs.

March 1883.



THE WITHEKED ARM



THE WITHERED ARM



A LORX 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 brings 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



58 THE WITHERED ARM ii

milking- woman, whose face was buried in the flank
of that motionless beast.

' Has anybody seen lier ? ' 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 milk-
maid 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, faded 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 V

' 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 w^as born before our
Great Weir was builded, and I hadn't man's wages
when I laved water there.'



H



THE WITHEEED ARM 59



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 before 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 weddinof, but the first woman murmured
under her cow to her next neighbour, ' 'Tis hard
for she,' signifying the thin worn milkmaid afore-
said.

' Oh no,' said the second. ' He hasn't spoken
to Pihoda Brook for years.'

When the milking was done they washed their
pails and hung them on a many- forked stand made



60 THE WITHERED ARM



II



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 liis 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 she's like, if you do see her.'

' Yes, mother.'



11 THE WITHERED ARM 61

' 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 thatched, and built
of mud-walls, the surface of which had been
washed by many rains into channels and depres-
sions that left none of the original flat face
visible ; while here and there 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 radi-
ance 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



62 THE WITHERED ARM ii

fair, and if you can, notice if her hands are 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 cut-
ting a notch with his pocket-knife in the beech-
backed chair.



THE YOUNG WIFE

The road from Anglebiiry 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



64 THE WITHERED ARM ii

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 turnpike road ; and the long white riband of
gravel that stretched before them was empty, save
of one small scarce -moving speck, which pres-
ently resolved itself into the figure of a 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. Sup-
porting the large bundle by putting one hand on
his hip, he turned and looked straight at the
farmer's wife as thoucjh he would read her throufjh
and through, pacing along abreast of the horse.



II



THE AVITHERED AEM 65



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 what-
ever.

'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 ? '
' Oh yes. You must expect to be stared at
just at first, my pretty Gertrude.'

' I do, — though I think the poor boy may have
VOL. I F



66 THE WITHERED ARM



II



looked at us in the hope we might relieve him of
his heavy load, rather than from curiosity.'

'Oh 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 par-
ticles 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 np 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.



ir THE WITHERED ARM 67

He fluni? down his bundle, held the ed^^e of
the cabbage-net, and as she filled its meshes with
the dripping leaves she went on, ' Well, did you
see her V

' Yes ; quite plain.'

' Is she ladylike ? '

' Yes ; and more. A lady complete.'

' Is she young?'

' Well, she's growed up, and her ways are 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 ? '

' Xo — of a bluish turn, and her mouth is very
nice and red ; and wlien 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-



68 THE AVITPIERED ARM ii

morrow morninu; : 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?'

' / 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.'

ISText 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 w\^s 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 ap-



II



THE WITHERED ARM 69



peared thus for the first time. As all other eyes
were fixed upon her, the youth's stare was not
noticed now.

^\Tien he reached home his mother said ' Well?'
before he had entered the room.

' She is not tall. She is rather short,' he replied.

' Ah 1 ' 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. ' Xow, 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 mornincj ? '

' A white bonnet and a silver-coloured fjownd.
It whewed and whistled so loud when it rubbed



70 THE WITHERED ARM



II



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.
^Ir. Lodge, he seemed pleased, and his waistcoat
stuck out, and his sjreat golden seals huno; 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 Ehoda 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 out-
lying second farm, ever speak on the subject of
the recent marriage. The dairyman, who rented
the cows of Lodge, and knew perfectly the tall



11 THE WITHERED ARM tl

milkmaid's history, witli manly kindliness always
kept the gossip in the cow-barton from annoying
Ehoda. 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, Ehoda Brook
could raise a mental imacje of the unconscious
Mrs. Lodge that was realistic as a photograph.



Ill

One nidit, two or three weeks after the bridal
return, when the boy was gone to bed, Ehoda sat
a lon^r time over the turf ashes that she had raked
out in front of her to extinguish them. She con-
templated 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. Ehoda Brook dreamed — since her asser-
tion that she really saw, before falling asleep, was



II



THE WITHERED ARM 73



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 weddin^^-rino; it wore o'litter in
Khoda'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, Ehoda, in a last desperate
effort, swunc^ out her rif^ht hand, seized the con-
fronting spectre by its obtrusive left arm, and
whirled it backward to the floor, starting up her-
self as she did so with a low cry.

' Oh, merciful heaven ! ' she cried, sitting on
the edge of the bed in a cold sweat, 'that was
not a dream — she was here ! '



74 THE WITHERED ARM II

She could feel her antacjonist'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.

Ehoda 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 supper-time.

* 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



II THE "WITHERED AE.AI 75

eleven and twelve the garden - G^ate clicked, and

CO '

she lifted her eyes to the window. At the bottom
of the garden, within the gate, stood the woman
of her vision. Ehoda seemed transfixed.

'Ah, she said she would come !' exclaimed the
boy, also observing her.

' Said so — when ? How does she know us V

' I have seen and spoken to her. I talked to
her yesterday.'

' I told you,' said the mother, flushing indig-
nantly, ' 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



76 THE WITHERED AKM



II



mother, and we had enough to do to keep our-
selves, 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 Ehoda 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 ex-
perience 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 back-door 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.'



II



THE WITHERED ARM 77



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, Ehoda's heart reproached her bitterly.
This innocent young thing should have her bless-
ing 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 Ehoda
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.'



78 THE WITHERED ARM



II



Elioda 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 ]\Irs. Lodge was leaving,
Ehoda 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 Ehoda's gaze as the
exact original of the limb she had beheld and
seized in her dream. Upon the pink round sur-
face of the arm were faint marks of an unhealthy
colour, as if produced by a rough grasp. Ehoda's



II THE WITHERED ARM 79

eyes became riveted on the discolorations ; she
fancied that she discerned in them the shape of
her own four fimi^ers.

'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 dont remem-
ber 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. Oh, 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 strikini.' two reminded me.'

She had named the night and the hour of



80 THE WITHERED ARM ii

Ehoda'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.

' Oh, 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 explana-
tion, and had such things as this ever happened
before ?



A SUGGESTION

The summer, drew on, and Ehoda Brook almost
dreaded to meet Mrs. Lodge again, notwithstanding
that her feeling for the young wife amounted
wellnigh to affection. Something in her own
individuality seemed to convict Ehoda of crime.
Yet a fatality sometimes would direct the steps
of the latter to the outskirts of Holmstoke when-
ever she left her house for any other purpose
than her daily work ; and hence it happened
that their next encounter was out of doors.
Ehoda 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 consterna-
VOL. I G



82 THE WITHERED ARM



II



tion that Gertrude Lodge carried her left arm
stiffly.

* Xo ; 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 milk-
woman.

Mrs. Lodge pushed up her sleeve and disclosed
the place, which was a few inches above the wrist.
As soon as Ehoda 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



TI



THE WITHERED ARM 83



time. Moreover, she fancied that tliey were im-
printed in precisely the relative position of her
clutch upon the arm in the trance ; the first finger
towards Gertrude's wrist, and the fourtli 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 witli 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.'

Ehoda shivered. ' That's fancy,' she said
Inirriedly. * 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 — lie for one.'

'Yes ; and he was very proud of mine, at
first.'

' Keep your arm covered from his sight.'



84 THE WITHERED ARM il

* Ah — lie knows tlie disfigurement is there ! '
She tried to hide the tears that filled her eyes.

' Well, ma'am, I earnestly hope it will go away
soon.'


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