The Outlandish Ladies


From Noughts and Crosses: Stories, Studies and Sketches.

A mile beyond the fishing village, as you follow the road that climbs inland towards Tregarrick, the two tall hills to right and left of the coombe diverge to make room for a third, set like a wedge in the throat of the vale. Here the road branches into two, with a sign-post at the angle; and between the sign-post and the grey scarp of the hill there lies an acre of waste ground that the streams have turned into a marsh. This is Loose-heels. Long before I learnt the name's meaning, in the days when I trod the lower road with slate and satchel, this spot was a favourite of mine--but chiefly in July, when the monkey-flower was out, and the marsh aflame with it.

There was a spell in that yellow blossom with the wicked blood-red spots, that held me its mere slave. Also the finest grew in desperate places. So that, day after day, when July came round, my mother would cry shame on my small-clothes, and my father take exercise upon them; and all the month I went tingling. They were pledged to "break me of it"; but they never did. Now they are dead, and the flowers--the flowers last always, as Victor Hugo says. When, after many years, I revisited the valley, the stream had carried the seeds half a mile below Loose-heels, and painted its banks with monkey-blossoms all the way. But the finest, I was glad to see, still inhabited the marsh.

Now, it is rare to find this plant growing wild; for, in fact, it is a garden flower. And its history here is connected with a bit of mud wall, ruined and covered with mosses and ragwort, that still pushed up from the swampy ground when I knew it, and had once been part of a cottage. How a cottage came here, and how its inhabitants entered and went out, are questions past guessing; for the marsh hemmed it in on three sides, and the fourth is a slope of hill fit to break your neck. But there was the wall, and here is the story.

* * * * * * *

One morning, near the close of the last century, a small child came running down to the village with news that the cottage, which for ten years had stood empty, was let; there was smoke coming out at the chimney, and an outlandish lady walking in the garden. Being catechised, he added that the lady wore bassomy bows in her cap, and had accosted him in a heathen tongue that caused him to flee, fearing worse things. This being told, two women, rulers of their homes, sent their husbands up the valley to spy, who found the boy had spoken truth.

Smoke was curling from the chimney, and in the garden the lady was still moving about--a small yellow creature, with a wrinkled but pleasant face, white curls, and piercing black eyes. She wore a black gown, cut low in the neck, a white kerchief, and bassomy (or purplish) bows in her cap as the child had stated. Just at present she was busy with a spade, and showed an ankle passing neat for her age, as she turned up the neglected mould. When the men plucked up gallantry enough to offer their services, she smiled and thanked them in broken English, but said that her small forces would serve.

So they went back to their wives; and their wives, recollecting that the cottage formed part of the glebe, went off to inquire of Parson Morth, "than whom," as the tablet to his memory relates, "none was better to castigate the manners of the age." He was a burly, hard-riding ruffian, and the tale of his great fight with Gipsy Ben in Launceston streets is yet told on the countryside.

Parson Morth wanted to know if he couldn't let his cottage to an invalid lady and her sister without consulting every wash-mouth in the parish.

"Aw, so there's two!" said one of them, nodding her head. "But tell us, Parson dear, ef 'tes fitty for two unmated women to come trapesing down in a po'shay at dead o' night, when all modest flesh be in their bed-gowns?"

Upon this the Parson's language became grossly indelicate, after the fashion of those days. He closed his peroration by slamming the front door on his visitors; and they went down the hill "blushing" (as they said) "all over, at his intimate words."

So nothing more was known of the strangers. But it was noticed that Parson Morth, when he passed the cottage on his way to meet or market, would pull up his mare, and, if the outlandish lady were working in the garden, would doff his hat respectfully.

"Bon jour, Mdmzelle Henriette"--this was all the French the Parson knew. And the lady would smile back and answer in English.

"Good-morning, Parson Morth."

"And Mamzelle Lucille?"

"Ah, just the same, my God! All the day stare--stare. If you had known her before!--so be-eautiful, so gifted, si bien elevee! It is an affliction: but I think she loves the flowers."

And the Parson rode on with a lump in his throat.

* * * * * * *

So two years passed, during which Mademoiselle Henriette tilled her garden and turned it into a paradise. There were white roses on the south wall, and in the beds mignonette and boy's-love, pansies, carnations, gillyflowers, sweet-williams, and flaming great hollyhocks; above all, the yellow monkey-blossoms that throve so well in the marshy soil. And all that while no one had caught so much as a glimpse of her sister, Lucille. Also how they lived was a marvel. The outlandish lady bought neither fish, nor butcher's meat, nor bread. To be sure, the Parson sent down a pint of milk every morning from his dairy; the can was left at the garden-gate and fetched at noon, when it was always found neatly scrubbed, with the price of the milk inside. Besides, there was a plenty of vegetables in the garden.

But this was not enough to avert the whisper of witchcraft. And one day, when Parson Morth had ridden off to the wrestling matches at Exeter, the blow fell.

Farmer Anthony of Carne--great-grandfather of the present farmer--had been losing sheep. Now, not a man in the neighbourhood would own to having stolen them; so what so easy to suspect as witchcraft? Who so fatally open to suspicion as the two outlandish sisters? Men, wives, and children formed a procession.

The month was July; and Mademoiselle Henriette was out in the garden, a bunch of monkey-flowers in her hand, when they arrived. She turned all white, and began to tremble like a leaf. But when the spokesman stated the charge, there was another tale.

"It was an infamy. Steal! She would have them know that she and her sister were of good West Indian family--tres bien elevees." Then followed a torrent of epithets. They were laches-poltrons. Why were they not fighting Bonaparte, instead of sending their wives up to the cliffs, dressed in red cloaks, to scare him away, while they bullied weak women?

They pushed past her. The cottage held two rooms on the ground floor. In the kitchen, which they searched first, they found only some garden-stuff and a few snails salted in a pan. There was a door leading to the inner room, and the foremost had his hand on it, when Mademoiselle Henriette rushed before him, and flung herself at his feet. The yellow monkey-blossoms were scattered and trampled on the floor.

"Ah--non, non, messieurs! Je vous prie--Elle est si--si horrible!"

They flung her down, and pushed on.

The invalid sister lay in an arm-chair with her back to the doorway, a bunch of monkey-flowers beside her. As they burst in, she started, laid both hands on the arms of her chair, and turned her face slowly upon them.

She was a leper!

They gave one look at that featureless face, with the white scales shining upon it, and ran back with their arms lifted before their eyes. One woman screamed. Then a dead stillness fell on the place, and the cottage was empty.

On the following Saturday Parson Morth walked down to the inn, just ten minutes after stalling his mare. He strode into the tap-room in his muddy boots, took two men by the neck, knocked their skulls together, and then demanded to hear the truth.

"Very well," he said, on hearing the tale; "to-morrow I march every man Jack of you up to the valley, if it's by the scruff of your necks, and in the presence of both of those ladies--of both, mark you--you shall kneel down and ask them to come to church. I don't care if I empty the building. Your fathers (who were men, not curs) built the south transept for those same poor souls, and cut a slice in the chancel arch through which they might see the Host lifted. That's where you sit, Jim Trestrail, churchwarden; and by the Lord Harry, they shall have your pew."

He marched them up the very next morning. He knocked, but no one answered. After waiting a while, he put his shoulder against the door, and forced it in.

There was no one in the kitchen. In the inner room one sister sat in the arm-chair. It was Mademoiselle Henriette, cold and stiff. Her dead hands were stained with earth.

At the back of the cottage they came on a freshly-formed mound, and stuck on the top of it a piece of slate, such as children erect over a thrush's grave.

On it was scratched--

Ci-Git Lucille, Jadis si Belle; Dont dix-neuf Jeunes Hommes, Planteurs de Saint Domingue. ont demande la Main. Mais La Petite ne Voulait Pas. R.I.P.

This is the story of Loose-heels, otherwise Lucille's.



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