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The Book of Dreams and Ghosts by Andrew Lang online

The Book of Dreams and Ghosts by Andrew Lang


Unpopular for his politics, hated by the Dissenters, and at odds with the "cunning men," or local wizards against whom he had frequently preached, Mr. Wesley was certainly apt to have tricks played on him by his neighbours. His house, though surrounded by a wall, a hedge, and its own grounds, was within a few yards of the nearest dwelling in the village street.

In 1716, when the disturbances began, Mr. Wesley's family consisted of his wife; his eldest son, Sam, aged about twenty-three, and then absent at his duties as an usher at Westminster; John, aged twelve, a boy at Westminster School; Charles, a boy of eight, away from home, and the girls, who were all at the parsonage. They were Emily, about twenty-two, Mary, Nancy and Sukey, probably about twenty-one, twenty and nineteen, and Hetty, who may have been anything between nineteen and twelve, but who comes after John in Dr. Clarke's list, and is apparently reckoned among "the children". {212} Then there was Patty, who may have been only nine, and little Keziah.

All except Patty were very lively young people, and Hetty, afterwards a copious poet, "was gay and sprightly, full of mirth, good-humour, and keen wit. She indulged this disposition so much that it was said to have given great uneasiness to her parents." The servants, Robin Brown, Betty Massy and Nancy Marshall, were recent comers, but were acquitted by Mrs. Wesley of any share in the mischief. The family, though, like other people of their date, they were inclined to believe in witches and "warnings," were not especially superstitious, and regarded the disturbances, first with some apprehension, then as a joke, and finally as a bore.

The authorities for what occurred are, first, a statement and journal by Mr. Wesley, then a series of letters of 1717 to Sam at Westminster by his mother, Emily and Sukey, next a set of written statements made by these and other witnesses to John Wesley in 1726, and last and worst, a narrative composed many years after by John Wesley for The Arminian Magazine.

The earliest document, by a few days, is the statement of Mr. Wesley, written, with a brief journal, between 21st December, 1716, and 1st January, 1717. Comparing this with Mrs. Wesley's letter to Sam of 12th January, 1716 and Sukey's letter of 24th January, we learn that the family for some weeks after 1st December had been "in the greatest panic imaginable," supposing that Sam, Jack, or Charlie (who must also have been absent from home) was dead, "or by some misfortune killed". The reason for these apprehensions was that on the night of 1st December the maid "heard at the dining-room door several dreadful groans, like a person in extremes". They laughed at her, but for the whole of December "the groans, squeaks, tinglings and knockings were frightful enough". The rest of the family (Mr. Wesley always excepted) "heard a strange knocking in divers places," chiefly in the green room, or nursery, where (apparently) Hetty, Patty and Keziah lay. Emily heard the noises later than some of her sisters, perhaps a week after the original groans. She was locking up the house about ten o'clock when a sound came like the smashing and splintering of a huge piece of coal on the kitchen floor. She and Sukey went through the rooms on the ground floor, but found the dog asleep, the cat at the other end of the house, and everything in order. From her bedroom Emily heard a noise of breaking the empty bottles under the stairs, but was going to bed, when Hetty, who had been sitting on the lowest step of the garret stairs beside the nursery door, waiting for her father, was chased into the nursery by a sound as of a man passing her in a loose trailing gown. Sukey and Nancy were alarmed by loud knocks on the outside of the dining-room door and overhead. All this time Mr. Wesley heard nothing, and was not even told that anything unusual was heard. Mrs. Wesley at first held her peace lest he should think it "according to the vulgar opinion, a warning against his own death, which, indeed, we all apprehended". Mr. Wesley only smiled when he was informed; but, by taking care to see all the girls safe in bed, sufficiently showed his opinion that the young ladies and their lovers were the ghost. Mrs. Wesley then fell back on the theory of rats, and employed a man to blow a horn as a remedy against these vermin. But this measure only aroused the emulation of the sprite, whom Emily began to call "Jeffrey".