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from Atlantic Monthly (1895-dec)
A young minister was walking through the streets of a small town in the island of Cape Breton. The minister was only a theological student who had been sent to preach in this remote place during his summer holiday. The town was at once very primitive and very modern. Many log-houses still remained in it; almost all the other houses were built of wood. The little churches, which represented as many sects, looked like the churches in a child's Dutch village. The town hall had only a brick facing. On the hillsides that surrounded the town far and wide were many fields, in which the first stumps were still standing, charred by the fires that had been kindled to kill them. There were also patches of forest still to be seen among these fields, where the land had not yet been cleared. In spite of all this the town was very modern, every improvement being of the newest kind because so recently achieved. Upon huge ungainly tree-trunks, roughly erected along the streets, electric lamps hung and telephone wires crossed and recrossed one another from roof to roof There was even an electric tram that ran straight through the town and some distance into the country on either side. The general store had a gayly dressed lay figure in its window, a female figure, and its gown was labeled "The latest Parisian novelty." The theological student was going out to take tea. He was a tall, active fellow, and his long strides soon brought him to a house a little way out of the town, which was evidently the abode of some degree of taste and luxury. The house was of wood, painted in dull colors of red and brown; it had large comfortable verandas under shingled roofs. Its garden was not old-fashioned in the least; but though it aspired to trimness, the grass had not grown there long enough to make a good lawn, so the ribbon flower-beds and plaster vases of flowers lacked the green velvet setting that would have made them appear better. The student was the less likely to criticise the lawn because a very nice, fresh-looking girl met him at the gate. She was really a fine girl. Her dress showed rather more effort at fashion than was quite in keeping with her very rural surroundings, and her speech and accent betrayed a childhood spent among uneducated folk, and only overlaid by more recent schooling. Her face had the best parts of beauty; health and good sense were written there, also flashes of humor and an habitual sweet seriousness. She had chanced to be at the gate gathering flowers. Her reception of the student was frank, and yet there was just a touch of blushing dignity about it which suggested that she took a special interest in him. The student, also, it would appear, took an interest in her, for, on their way to the house, he made a variety of remarks upon the weather which proved that he was a little excited, and unable to observe that he was talking nonsense. In a little while the family were gathered round the tea-table. Miss Torrance sat at the head of the table. Her father was a banker and insurance agent. He sat opposite his eldest daughter, and did the honors of the meal with the utmost hospitality, yet with reserve of manner caused by his evident consciousness that his grammar and manners were not equal to those of his children and their guest. There were several daughters and two sons younger than Miss Torrance. They talked with vivacity. The conversation soon turned upon the fact that the abundant supply of cream to which the family were accustomed was not forthcoming. Strawberries were being served with the tea; some sort of cold pudding was also on the table: and all this to be eaten without cream! These young people might have been asked to go without their supper, so indignant they were. Now, Mr. Torrance had been decorously trying to talk of the young minister's last sermon, and of the affairs of the small Scotch church of which he was an elder; and Miss Torrance was ably seconding his effort by comparing the sentiments of the sermon with a recent magazine article, but against her will she was forced to attend to the young people's clamor about the cream. It seemed that Trilium, the cow, had recently refused to give her milk. Mary Torrance was about eighteen: she suddenly gave it as her opinion that Trilium was bewitched; there was no other explanation, she said, no other possible explanation of Trilium's extraordinary conduct. A flush mounted over Miss Torrance's face; she frowned at her sister when the student was not looking. "It's wonderful, the amount of witchcraft we have about here, Mr. Howitt," said the master of the house tentatively to the minister. Howitt had taken Mary's words in jest. He gave his smooth-shaven face the twist that with him always expressed ideas wonderful or grotesque. It was a strong, thin face, full of intelligence. "I never could have conceived anything like it," said he. "I come across witch tales here, there, everywhere; and the marvelous thing is, some of the people really seem to believe them." The younger members of the Torrance family fixed their eyes upon him with apprehensive stare. "You can't imagine anything more degrading," continued the student, who came from afar. "Degrading, of course." Mr. Torrance sipped his tea hastily. "The Cape Breton people are superstitious, I believe." An expression that might have betokened a new and noble resolution appeared upon the fine face of the eldest daughter. "We are Cape Breton people, father," she said, with dignified reproach. "I hope" here a timid glance as if imploring support "I hope we know better than to place any real faith in these degrading superstitions." Howitt observed nothing but the fine face and the words that appeared to him natural. Torrance looked at them both with the air of an honest man who was still made somewhat cowardly by new-fashioned propriety. "I never put much o' my faith in these things myself," he said at last in broad accents; "still," an honest shake of the head, "there's queer things happens." "It is like going back to the Middle ages" Howitt was still impervious "to hear some of these poor creatures talk. I never thought it would be my lot to come across anything so delightfully absurd." "Perhaps, for the sake of the ministry, ye'd better be careful how ye say your mind about it," suggested Mr. Torrance; "in the hearing of the poor and uneducated, of course, I mean. But if ye like to make a study o' that sort of thing, I'd advise ye to go and have a talk with Mistress Betty McLeod. She's got a great repertory of tales, has Mistress Betty." Mary spoke again. Mary was a young woman who had the courage of her opinions. "And if you go to Mistress McLeod, Mr. Howitt, will you just be kind enough to ask her how to cure poor Trilium? And don't forget anything of what she says." Miss Torrance gave her sister a word of reproof. There was still upon her face the fine glow born of her resolution never again to listen to a word of witchcraft. As for Howitt, there came across his clever face the whimsical look which denoted that he understood Mary perfectly. "I will go tomorrow!" he exclaimed. "When the wise woman has told me who has bewitched Trilium, we will make a waxen figure and stick pins in it." The next day Howitt went over the hills in search of Mistress Betty McLeod. The lake of the Bras d'Or held the sheen of the western sun in its breast. The student walked upon green slopes far above the water, and watched the outline of the hills on the other side of the inlet, and thought upon many things. He thought upon religion and philosophy, for he was religious and studious; he thought upon practical details of his present work, for he was anxious for the welfare of the souls under his charge; but on whatever subject his thoughts dwelt, they came back at easy intervals to the fair, dignified face of his new friend, Miss Torrance. "There's a fine girl for you," he said to himself repeatedly, with boyish enthusiasm. He thought, too, how nobly her life would be spent if she chose to be the helpmeet of a Christian minister. He wondered whether Mary could take her sister's place in the home circle. Yet with all this he made no decision as to his own course. He was discreet, and in minds like his decisions upon important matters are fruits of slow growth. He came at last to a farm, a very goodly farm for so hilly a district. It lay, a fertile flat, in a notch of the green hillside. When he reached the houseyard, he asked for Mistress Betty McLeod, and was led to her presence. The old dame sat at her spinning-wheel in a farm kitchen. Her white hair was drawn closely, like a thin veil, down the sides of her head and pinned at the back. Her features were small, her eyes bright; she was not unlike a squirrel in her sharp little movements and quick glances. She wore a small shawl pinned around her bare shoulders. Her skirts fell upon the treadle of the spinning-wheel. The kitchen in which she sat was unused; there was no fire in the stove. The brick floor, the utensils hanging on the walls, had the appearance of undisturbed rest. Doors and windows were open to the view of the green slopes and the golden sea beneath them. "You come from Canada?" said the old dame. She left her spinning with a certain interested formality of manner. "From Montreal," he replied. "That's the same. Canada is a terrible way off." "And now," he said, "I hear there are witches in this part of the land." Whereupon he smiled in an incredulous, cultured way. She nodded her head as if she had gauged his thought. "Ay, there's many a minister believes in them, if they don't let on they do. I mind" "Yes," said he. "I mind how my sister went out early one morning, and saw a witch milking one of our cows." "How did you know she was a witch?" "Och, she was a neighbor we knew to be a witch real well. My sister didn't anger her. It's terrible unlucky to vex them. But would you believe it? as long as we had that cow her cream gave no butter. We had to sell her and get another. And one time it was years ago, when Donald and me was young the first sacrament came round" "Yes," said he, looking sober. "And all the milk of our cows would give hardly any butter for a whole year! And at house-cleaning time, there, above the milk shelves, what did they find but a bit of hair rope! Cows' and horses' hair it was. Oh, it was terrible knotted, and knotted just like anything! So then, of course, we knew." "Knew what?" "Why, that the milk was bewitched. We took the rope away. Well, that very day more butter came at the churning, and from that time on, more, but still not so much as ought by rights to have come. Then, one day, I thought to unknot the rope, and I undid, and undid, and undid. Well, when I had got it undone, that day the butter came as it should!" "But what about the sacrament?" asked he. "That was the time of the year it was. Oh, but I could tell you a sad, sad story of the wickedness of witches. When Donald and me was young, and had a farm up over on the other hill well, there was a poor widow with seven daughters. It was hard times then for us all, but for her, she only had a bit of flat land with some bushes, and four cows and some sheep, and you see she sold butter to put meat in the children's mouths. Butter was all she could sell. "Well, there came to live near her on the hill an awful wicked old man and woman. I'll tell you who their daughter is: she's married to Mr. McCurdy, who keeps the store. The old man and his wife were awful wicked to the widow and the fatherless. I'LL tell you what they did. Well the widow's butter failed. Not one bit more could she get. The milk was just the same, but not one bit of butter. 'Oh,' said she, 'it's a hard world, and me a widow!' But she was a brave woman, bound to get along some way. So now that she had nothing to sell to buy meal, she made curds of the milk, and fed the children on that. "Well, one day the old man came in to see her in a neighboring way, and she, being a good woman, oh, but she was a good woman! set a dish of curds before him. 'Oh,' said he, 'these are very fine curds!' So he went away, and next day she put the rennet in the milk, and not a bit would the curd come. 'Oh,' said she, 'but I must put something in the children's mouths!' She was a fine woman, she was. So she kept the lambs from the sheep all night, and next morning she milked the sheep. Sheep's milk is rich, and she put rennet in that, and fed the children on curd. "So one day the old man came in again. He was a wicked one; he was dreadful selfish; and as he was there, she, being a hospitable woman, gave him some of the curd. 'That's good curd,' said he. Next day she put the rennet in the sheep's milk, and not a bit would the curd come. She felt it bitterly, poor woman; but she had a fine spirit, and she fed the children on a few bits of potato she had growing. "Well, one day the eldest daughter got up very early to spin, in the twilight of the dawn it was; and she looked out, and there was the old woman coming from her house on the hill, with a shawl over her head and a tub in her arms. Oh, but she was a really wicked one, for I'll tell you what she did. Well, the girl watched and wondered, and in the twilight of the dawn she saw the old woman crouch down by one of the alder bushes, and put her tub under it, and go milking with her hands; and after a bit she lifted her tub, that seemed to have something in it, and set it over against another alder bush, and went milking with her hands again. So the girl said, 'Mother, mother, wake up, and see what the neighbor woman is doing!' So the mother looked out, and there, in the twilight of the dawn, she saw her four cows in the bit of land among the alder bushes, and the old neighbor woman milking away at a bush. And then the old woman moved her tub likewise to another bush, and likewise, and likewise, until she had milked four bushes; and she took up her tub, and it seemed awful heavy, and she had her shawl over it, and was going up the hill. "So the mother said to the girl, 'Run, run, and see what she has got in it.' For they weren't up to the ways of witches, and they were astonished like. But the girl, she said, 'Oh, mother, I don't like!' Well, she was timid, anyway, the eldest girl. But the second girl was a romping thing, not afraid of anything, so they sent her. By this time the wicked old woman was high on the hill; so she ran and ran, but she could not catch her before she was in at her own door. But that second girl, she was not afraid of anything, so she runs in at the door, too. Now, in those days they used to have sailing-chests that lock up; they had iron bars over them, so you could keep anything in that was a secret. They got them from the ships, and this old woman kept her milk in hers. So when the girl bounced in at the door, there she saw that wicked old woman pouring milk out of the tub into her chest, and the chest half-full of milk, and the old man looking on! So then, of course, they knew where the good of their milk had gone." The story was finished. The old dame looked at the student and nodded her head, with eyes that awaited some outburst of his righteous indignation. "What did they know?" asked he. "Know! Oh, why, that the old woman was an awful wicked witch, and she'd taken the good of their milk. " "Oh, indeed!" said the student; and then, "But what became of the widow and the seven daughters?" "Well, of course she had to sell her cows and get others, and then it was all right. But that old man and his wife were that selfish they'd not have cared if she'd starved. And I tell you, it's one of the things witches can do to take the good out of food, if they've an eye to it; they can take every bit of nouriture out of it that's in it. There were two young men that went from here to the States, that's Boston, ye know. Well, pretty soon one, that was named McPherson, came back, looking so white like and ill that nothing would do him any good. He drooped and he died. Well, years after, the other, whose name was McVey, came back. He was of the same wicked stock as the old folks I've been telling ye of. Well, one day he was in low spirits like, and he chanced to be talking to my father, and says he, 'It's one of the sins I'll have to 'count for at the judgment that I took the good out of McPherson's food till he died. I sat opposite to him at the table when we was at Boston together, and I took the good out of his food, and it's the blackest sin I done,' said he. "Oh, they're awful wicked people, these witches! One of them offered to teach my sister how to take the good out of food, but my sister was too honest; she said, 'I'LL learn to keep the good of my own, if ye like.' However, the witch wouldn't teach her that because she wouldn't learn the other. Oh, but I cheated a witch once. Donald, he brought me a pound of tea. 'Twasn't always we got tea in those days, so I put it in the tin box; and there was just a little over, so I was forced to leave that in the paper bag. Well, that day a neighbor came in from over the hill. I knew fine she was a witch; so we sat and gossiped a bit. She was a real pleasant woman, and she sat and sat, and the time of day went by. So I made her a cup of tea, her and me; but I used the drawing that was in the paper bag. Said she, 'I just dropped in to borrow a bit of tea going home, but if that's all ye have' Oh, but I could see her eying round; so I was too sharp for her, and I says, 'Well, I've no more in the paper just now, but if ye'll wait till Donald comes, maybe he'll bring some.' So she saw I was too sharp for her, and away she went. If I'd as much as opened the tin she'd have had every grain of good out of it with her eyes." At first the student had had the grave and righteous intention of denouncing the superstition, but gradually he had perceived that to do so would be futile. The artistic soul of him was caught by the curious recital. He remembered now the bidding of Mary Torrance, and thought with pleasure that he would go back and repeat these strange stories to Miss Torrance, and smile at them in her company. "Now, for instance," he said aloud, "if a good cow, that is a great pet in the family, should suddenly cease to give her milk, how would you set about curing her?" The dame's small bright eyes grew keener. She moved to her spinning-wheel, and gave it a turn. "Ay," she said, "and whose is the cow?" He was not without a genuine curiosity. "What would you do for any cow in that case?" "And is it Torrance's cow?" asked Mistress Betty. "Och, but I know it's Torrance's cow that ye're speiring for." The young minister was recalled to a sense of his duty. He rose up with brisk dignity. "I only asked you to see what you would say. I do not believe the stories you have been telling me." She nodded her head, taking his assertion as a matter of course. "But I'LL tell you exactly what they must do," she said. "Ye can tell Miss Torrance she must get a pound of pins." "A pound of pins!" said he. "Ay, it's a large quantity, but they'll have them at the store, for it's more than sometimes they're wanted, a time here, a time there, against the witches. And she's to boil them in whatever milk the cow gives, and she's to pour them boiling hot into a hole in the ground; and when she's put the earth over them, and the sod over that, she's to tether the animal there and milk it there, and the milk will come right enough." While the student was making his way home along the hillside, through field and forest, the long arm of the sea turned to red and gold in the light of the clouds which the sun had left behind when it sank down over the distant region that the Cape Breton folk call Canada. The minister meditated upon what he had heard, but not for long. He could not bring his mind into such attitude towards the witchtales as to conceive of belief in them as an actual part of normal human experience. Insanity, or the love of making a good story out of notions which have never been seriously entertained, was, he supposed, the warp and woof of the fabric of such strange imaginings. It is thus we account for most experiences we do not understand. The next evening the Torrance family were walking to meeting. The student joined himself to Miss Torrance. He greeted her with the whimsical look of grave humor. "You are to take a pound of pins," he said. "I do not believe it would do any good," she interrupted eagerly. It struck him as very curious that she should assert her unbelief. He was too nonplused to go on immediately. Then he supposed it was part of the joke, and proceeded to give the other details. "Mr. Howitt," a tremulous pause, "it is very strange about poor Trilium, she has always been such a good, dear cow; the children are very fond of her, and my mother was very fond of her when she was a heifer. The last summer before she died, Trilium fed out of mother's hand, and now she's in perfect health as far as we can see, but father says that if she keeps on refusing to give her milk he will be obliged to sell her." Miss Torrance, who was usually strong and dignified, spoke now in an appealing voice. "Couldn't you get an old farmer to look at her, or a vet?" "But why do you think she has suddenly stopped giving milk?" persisted the girl. "I am very sorry, but I really don't know anything about animals," said he. "Oh, then, if you don't know anything about them "- She paused. There had been such an evident tone of relief in her voice that he wondered much what could be coming next. In a moment she said, "I quite agreed with you, the other night, when you said that the superstition about witchcraft was degrading." "No one could think otherwise." He was much puzzled at the turn of her thought. "Still, of course, about animals old people like Mistress Betty McLeod may know something." As they talked they were walking down the street in the calm of the summer evening to the prayer-meeting. The student's mind was intent upon his duties, for, as they neared the little white-washed church, many groups were seen coming from all sides across the grassy space in which it stood. He was an earnest man, and his mind now became occupied with the thought of the spiritual needs of these others who were flocking to hear him preach and pray. Inside the meeting-room, unshaded oil lamps flared upon a congregation most serious and devout. The student felt that their earnestness and devotion laid upon him the greater responsibility; he also felt much hindered in his speech because of their ignorance and remote ways of thought. It was a comfort to him to feel that there was at least one family among his hearers whose education would enable them to understand him clearly. He looked with satisfaction at the bench where Mr. Torrance sat with his children. He looked with more satisfaction to where Miss Torrance sat at the little organ. She presided over it with dignity and sweet seriousness. She drew music even out of its squeaking keys. A few days after that prayer-meeting the student happened to be in the post office. It was a small, rough place; a wooden partition shut off the public from the postmistress and her helpers. He was waiting for some information for which he had asked; he was forced to stand outside the little window in this partition. He listened to women's voices speaking on the other side, as one listens to that which in no way concerns himself. "It's just like her, stuck up as she is since she came from school, setting herself and her family up to be better than other folks." "Perhaps they were out of them at the store," said a gentler voice. "Oh, don't tell me. It's on the sly she's doing it, and then pretending to be grander than other folks." Then the postmistress came to the window with the required information. When she saw who was there, she said something else also. "There's a parcel come for Miss Torrance, if you happen to be going up that way," she simpered. The student became aware for the first time that his friendship with Miss Torrance was a matter of public interest. He was not entirely displeased. "I will take the parcel," he said. As he went along the sunny road, he felt so light-hearted that, hardly thinking what he did, he began throwing up the parcel and catching it again in his hands. It was not large, and it was very tightly done up in thick paper, and had an ironmonger's label attached; so that, though he paid small attention, it did not impress him as a thing that could be easily injured. Something, however, did soon make a sharp impression upon him: once as he caught the parcel he felt his hand deeply pricked. Looking closely, he saw that a pin was working its way through the thick paper. After that he walked more soberly, and did not play ball. He remembered what he had heard at the post office. The parcel was certainly addressed to Miss Torrance. It was very strange. He remembered now with displeasure the assumption of the postmistress that he would be glad to carry this parcel. He delivered the pound of pins at the door without making a call. His own mind had never come to any decision as regarded his feeling for Miss Torrance, and now he was more undecided than ever. He was full of curiosity about the pins. He found it hard to believe that they were to be used for a base purpose, but suspicion had entered his mind. The knowledge that the eyes of the little public were upon him made him realize that he could not continue to frequent the house merely to satisfy his curiosity. He was destined to know more. That night, long after dark, he was called to visit a dying man, an the messenger led him somewhat out of the town. He performed his duty to the dying with wistful eagerness. The spirit passed from earth while he yet knelt beside the bed. When he was returning home alone in the darkness, he felt his soul open to the power of unseen spirit, and to him the power of the spiritual unseen was the power of God. Walking on the soft, quiet road, he came near the house where he had lately loved to visit, and his eye was arrested by seeing a lantern twinkling in the paddock where Trilium grazed. He saw the forms of two women moving in its little circle of light; they were digging in the ground. He felt that he had a right to make sure of the thing he suspected. The two women were not far from a fence by which he could pass and he did pass that way, looking and looking till a beam of the lantern fell full on the bending faces. When he saw that Miss Torrance was actually there, he went on without speaking. After that two facts became known in the village, each much discussed in its own way; yet they were not connected with each other in the common mind. One was that the young minister had ceased to call frequently upon Miss Torrance; the other, that Trilium, the cow, was giving her milk.