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PAGE 5

The Withered Arm
by [?]

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.’