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?