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by Lily Dougall

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

  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

  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

  "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

  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

  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

  "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

  "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

  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

  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

  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

  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

  "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

  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

  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.