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N° 117. SATURDAY, JULY 14, 1711.
- Ipsi sibi somnia fingunt.
VIRG. Ecl. viii. ver. 108. Their own imaginations they deceive. THERE are some opinions in which a man should stand neuter, without engaging his assent to one side or the other. Such a hovering faith as this, which refuses to settle upon any determination, is absolutely necessary in a mind that is careful to avoid errors and prepossessions. When the arguments press equally on both sides in matters that are indifferent to us, the safest method is to give up ourselves to neither.
It is with this temper of mind that I consider the subject of witchcraft. When I hear the relations that are made from all parts of the world, not only from Norway and Lapland, from the East and West Indies, but from every particular nation in Europe, I cannot forbear thinking that there is such an intercourse and commerce with evil spirits, as that which we express by the name of witchcraft. But when I consider that the ignorant and credulous parts of the world abound most in these relations, and that the persons among us, who are supposed to engage in such an infernal commerce, are people of a weak understanding and crazed imagination, and at the same time reflect upon the many impostures and delusions of this nature that have been detected in all ages, I endeavour to suspend my belief till I hear more certain accounts than any which have yet come to my knowledge. In short, when I consider the question, whe
ther there are such persons in the world as those we call witches, my mind is divided between the two opposite opinions, or rather (to speak my thoughts freely) I believe in general that there is, and has been such a thing as witchcraft; but at the same time can give no credit to any particular instance of it.
I am engaged in this speculation, by some occurrences that I met with yesterday, which I shall give my reader an account of at large. As I was walking with my friend Sir Roger by the side of one of his woods, an old woman applied herself to me for my charity. Her dress and figure put me in mind of the following description of Otway:
• In a close lane as I pursu'd my journey, I spy'd a wrinkled hag, with age grown double, Picking dry sticks, and mumbling to herself. Her eyes with scalding rheum were gall’d and red; Cold palsy shook her head; her hands seem'd wither'd; And on her crooked shoulders had she wrapt The tatter'd remnant of an old striped hanging, Which served to keep her carcase from the cold : So there was nothing of a piece about her. Her lower weeds were all o'er coarsely patch'd With different colourd rags, black, red, white, yellow, And seem'd to speak variety of wretchedness!!!
As I was musing on this description, and comparing it with the object before me, the knight told me, that this very old woman had the reputation of a witch all over the country, that her lips were observed to be always in motion, and that there was not a switch about her house which her neighbours did not believe had carried her several hundreds of miles. If she chanced to stumble, they always found sticks
Orphan, Act II.
or straws that lay in the figure of a cross before her. If she made any mistake at church, and cried amen in a wrong place, they never failed to conclude that she was saying her prayers backwards. There was not a maid in the parish that would take a pin of her, though she should offer a bag of money with it. She goes by the name of Moll White, and has made the country ring with several imaginary exploits which are palmed upon her. If the dairy-maid does not make her butter come so soon as she would have it, Moll White is at the bottom of the churn. If a horse sweats in the stable, Moll White has been upon his back. If a hare makes an unexpected escape from the hounds, the huntsman curses Moll White. • Nay,' says Sir Roger, I have known the master of the pack, upon such an occasion, send one of his servants to see if Moll White had been out that morning.
This account raised my curiosity so far, that I begged my friend Sir Roger to go with me into her hovel, which stood in a solitary corner under the side of the wood. Upon our first entering, Sir Roger winked to me, and pointed at something that stood behind the door, which, upon looking that way, I found to be an old broom-staff. At the same time he whispered me in the ear to take notice of a tabby cat that sate in the chimney corner, which, as the old knight told me, lay under as bad a report as Moll White herself; for besides that Moll is said often to accompany her in the same shape, the cat is reported to have spoken twice or thrice in her life, and to have played several pranks above the capacity of an ordinary cat.
I was secretly concerned to see human nature in so much wretchedness and disgrace, but at the same time could not forbear smiling to hear Sir Roger, who is a little puzzled about the old woman, advising her as a justice of peace to avoid all communication with the devil, and never to hurt any of her neighbour's cattle. We concluded our visit with a bounty, which was very acceptable.
In our return home Sir Roger told me, that old Moll had been often brought before him for making children spit pins, and giving maids the nightmare ; and that the country people would be tossing her into a pond, and trying experiments with her every day, if it was not for him and his chaplain.
I have since found upon enquiry, that Sir Roger was several times staggered with the reports that had been brought him concerning this old woman, and would frequently have bound her over to the county sessions, had not his chaplain with much ado persuaded him to the contrary.
I have been the more particular in this account, because I hear there is scarce a village in England that has not a Moll White in it. When an old woman begins to dote, and grow chargeable to a parish, she is generally turned into a witch, and fills the whole country with extravagant fancies, imaginary distempers, and terrifying dreams. In the mean time, the poor wretch that is the innocent occasion of so many evils begins to be frighted at herself, and sometimes confesses secret commerces and familiarities that her imagination forms in a delirious old age. This frequently cuts off charity from the greatest objects of compassion, and inspires people with a malevolence towards those poor decrepid parts of our species, in whom human nature is defaced by infirmity and
N° 118. MONDAY, JULY 16, 1711.
Hæret lateri lethalis arundo.
VIRG. Æn. iv. 73.
This agreeable seat is surrounded with so many pleasing walks, which are struck out of a wood, in the midst of which the house stands, that one can hardly ever be weary of rambling from one labyrinth of delight to another. To one used to live in a city the charms of the country are so exquisite, that the mind is lost in a certain transport which raises us above ordinary life, and yet is not strong enough to be inconsistent with tranquillity. This state of mind was I in, ravished with the murmur of waters, the whisper of breezes, the singing of birds; and whether I looked up to the heavens, down on the earth, or turned to the prospects around me, still struck with new sense of pleasure; when I found by the voice of my friend, who walked by me, that we had insensibly strolled into the grove sacred to the widow. • This woman,' says he, “is of all others the most unintelligible; she either designs to marry, or she does not. What is the most perplexing of all is, that she doth not either say to her lovers she has any resolution against that condition of life in general, or .that she banishes them; but conscious of her own merit she permits their addresses, without fear of any ill consequence, or want of respect, from their rage or despair. She has that in her aspect, against which