Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/April 1887/Rustic Superstition


THAT "the days of superstition are past" is an announcement frequently and triumphantly made by those who advocate the disestablishment or destruction of any institution or belief that happens not to be in accordance with their own interests or theories. Little, indeed, must such speakers know of the minds, not only of the poorer classes, but of those whose education, as one would suppose, should have raised them above the influence of the grosser and more vulgar forms of superstition. We are not now speaking of the newly invented astral bodies or telepathy; these are the latest refinements of spiritualism, and may die out; we refer to the fine old-fashioned belief in ghosts, witches, wizards, and "uncanniness," which is still far more prevalent than even the believers themselves realize, they being usually more or less ashamed of and reticent as to the faith that is in them.

Mr. Hardy, who has an unusual knowledge of rustic life and habits of thought, in a recent novel, "The Mayor of Casterbridge," gave a wonderful sketch of a local soothsayer, his patrons, and his profits; and though the date of the story lies as far as some fifty or more years behind us, there can be. little doubt that the sorcerers of whom "Wide-oh" is the type still flourish in our midst. To this fact the daily papers bear witness, since we often read of some wretched old woman being haled before the bench, and sentenced to fine or a term of imprisonment for pretending to tell the fortunes of servant-girls with a pack of dirty cards or the dregs in a coffee-cup, though, by-the-way, there is considerable inconsistency in a legislation which punishes the old woman and yet permits turf-touters to advertise with impunity that they have the winner of the next three Derbies in their pockets, and are willing to part with the information on the transference of a certain number of half-crowns from those of a credulous public. Still, though the wise woman, usually a denizen of cities, is occasionally caught napping, owing perhaps to an infelicitous habit of mixing up magic with the reception of stolen goods, the wise man of the provinces is more wide-awake and carries on his trade without interference from the police, his specialty being the cure of warts, toothache, and certain cattle-diseases by incantation or other mystic rites.

We happened not long ago to meet a young, well-to-do, and well-educated farmer in a market town not on a market day, and in the course of conversation casually asked what particular business he had on hand. "A very bad toothache," he replied. The next and natural question was to inquire if he had "been and had it out." Blushing to his eyes he said: "I dare say you'll think me very foolish, sir, but I've been to a wise man to have the pain charmed away. Folks say as he's wonderful at that sort of thing, so I thought I might as well give him a trial." This announcement being received with the burst of laughter he evidently expected, he hastily added, "Believe it or not as you like, sir, as soon as he said something the pain went clean away, and I've been easy ever since." It was worse than useless to explain the well-known effect on the nerves, of a visit to any sort of dental operator, and the agriculturist wended his way to spread abroad the fame of his healer, and no doubt to suffer renewed agonies as soon as he got home. It may be added that under no circumstances will a countryman, if he can help it, have a tooth taken out by a regular practitioner—a baker, grocer, or blacksmith, with a local reputation of being "uncommon handy," is almost always resorted to for this extreme measure. It is but another form of provincial superstition.

The familiar occurrence of a mysterious ringing of bells by some occult agency is a never-failing source of awful joy to the country town or neighborhood to which this supposed supernatural manifestation is vouchsafed. The house thus favored is the constant center of thought, conversation, and pilgrimage; groups of true believers stand outside with upturned gaze, as though expecting to see the ghost appear out of one of the chimney-pots and address the audience from the roof, while those who are sufficiently in the intimacy of the terrified though flattered household to be admitted to the haunted dwelling, would not change places with Mr. Rider Haggard's heroes. And when the inevitable dénoúment comes, when the half-silly servant-girl or wholly mischievous boy has been accidentally discovered throwing a rolled-up stocking or cap at the bell, in the general disappointment and sense of injury which ensues, faith though shaken is not destroyed. A few steadfast ones gather together, and comfort each other with such sayings as "'Twas better to make believe as 'twas all nat'ral," "Folks don't like their housen to get a bad name," or "Don't tell I as any gell could have kept they bells ringing the night through"; and the lump of incredulity thus gradually releavened, the next announcement that the spirits are at work again finds acceptance ready as ever. It must be frankly admitted that churchyards have of late years fallen from their high estate in rural estimation as the recognized ghost's playground; not that a countryman would willingly linger within these precincts after nightfall, nor would he appoint such a tryst for his lady-love, but he no longer regards the burying-place with his former feeling of reverential fear. The reason of this change is not easy to discover, as it can hardly be attributed to intellectual enlightenment. Perhaps he has good grounds for his confidence. It may be that since the passing of Mr. Osborne Morgan's bill, the manes of the older and orthodoxically interred residents sulk in their sepulchres, holding themselves aloof from possible contact with new-comers "licensed to walk" under a Nonconformist ritual, and that these latter, out of respect to class prejudice, or from a feeling of diffidence unknown in a previous existence, shrink from obtruding themselves on public notice. If, however, churchyards have somewhat abated their terrors, it is as aforesaid owing to no decay of superstition; for certain lonely lanes or portions of roads supposed to be more or less haunted are still only willingly traversed in company or by daylight. And the peculiarity of these places is that they seldom, if ever, are the "walk" of any definite specter. The rustic, if he will talk on the subject at all, will tell you that he "have heard tell there's summat," but what "Summat" is, having no idea on the subject, he will certainly not attempt to express one; meanwhile "Summat" gallantly holds his allotted territory, and causes the belated villager to commit various acts of trespass in order to avoid Tom Tidler's ground.

"Summat" unfortunately does not always choose to live out-of-doors, as a landlord may find to his cost. Old farmhouses not unfrequently have a chamber set apart for the residence of this vaguest of phantoms; and as the growing-up family requires more room, the tenant will ask for partitions or fresh building rather than disturb "Summat" in his dusty though inhabitable apartment. A little way up the glen of Rothes, in Morayshire, is a large hillock, locally known as the "Doonie." A few years ago, and probably to this day, it had the reputation of being no canny after dusk. A Scotch "Summat" graced it with his presence, though in this particular instance he was probably originally inducted by illicit distillers, who sought his protection against disturbance in their business.

The old conventionally haunted family mansion, though fairly holding its own among the tenets of rustic superstition, does not—inasmuch as it is not open to the public—greatly exercise the rustic mind. The White Lady appears only on special occasions, the wheels of the invisible carriage rumble up only to that one door, and in neither case does the phenomenon bode evil to aught but the lawful proprietors of the ghost, though it is a drawback to service which has to be duly considered in the domestics' wages. Yet is there a country house we wot of in the west, where the atmosphere was so full of supernatural electricity, and so light a friction was necessary to secure its discharge, that the place acquired a local celebrity as inconvenient to the owner—who was non-resident, and wanted to find a tenant—as it was interesting to the neighborhood. In this case the disturbing agents were a skull and a couple of thigh-bones, said to have been the property of an ancestor who had been either hanged or murdered, both of which incidents had embellished the chronicles of a lively and aggressive race. Whether these relics had been collected from the gallows, or kept in memoriam of a coroner's inquest and a post-mortem examination, deponent sayeth not, nor is it known why they had been denied the rights of burial; but from some misplaced sentiment they were preserved, irreverently stowed in the cupboard of an attic, and there left to disturb the peace of the inmates, the specialty of these bones being, that if untouched they were as well-behaved remnants of mortality as could be desired, but if meddled with, and the cupboard seems to have been always unlocked, they instantly resented the affront with knockings, rustlings, banging of doors, steps on the staircase, and other manifestations of outraged spirits. All this was alarming enough, and there was for a long time considerable difficulty in finding a care-taker, the simple expedient of burying the bones or of locking them securely away never apparently having occurred to any one. At last an old family gamekeeper (whom it was supposed the family ghost might tolerate), with his wife and a mischievous boy of about ten, were installed in charge. Gamekeepers are not as a rule much troubled with nerves. Familiarity in this instance, as in most others, bred contempt, till in a year or two the only notice the old man took of a violent outbreak on the part of his spiritual associates was to remark, "There's that dratted boy been a-playing w' they bones again" as if the youth were surreptitiously preparing to join an Ethiopian troupe!

Rain seldom fails us in England, and very rarely do we suffer from anything approaching to drought. The ordinary wells, pits, and springs suffice for the farmers' needs, and they can dispense with resort to magic arts in search of water. Yet in the provinces would a man be deemed worse than profane who should express doubt in the virtue of the divining-rod. It is true that search for hidden treasure is not as general a pursuit as it was before the days of the rural police; but when Dousterswivel makes his appearance, as he still does from time to time in quiet country towns, he can reckon upon many believers and a fair supply of victims.

Can we fail to join "Wide-oh"—Mr. Hardy's rural wizard—in his astonishment "that men could profess so little and believe so much at his house, when at church they professed so much and believed so little"?—Saturday Review.