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.