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.