Many such impositions have been detected, and many others have been successfully concealed ; but to know what has been discovered in many instances, gives us the assurance of the ruling cause in all. I remember a scene of the kind attempted to be got up near Edinburgh, but detected at once by a sheriff"'s officer, a sort of persons whose habits of incredulity and suspicious observation render them very dangerous spectators on such occasions. The late excellent Mr. Walker, minister at Dunottar, in the Mearns, gave me a curious account of an imposture of this kind, practised by a young country girl, who was surprisingly quick at throwing stones, turf, and other missiles, with such dexterity, that it was for a long time impossible to ascertain her agency in the disturbances of which she was the sole cause.
* See Hone's Every-Day Book, p. 62.
The belief of the spectators that such scenes of disturbance arise from invisible beings, will appear less surprising, if we consider the common feats of jugglers, or professors of legerdemain, and recollect that it is only the frequent exhibition of such powers which reconciles us to them as matters of course, although they are wonders at which, in our fathers' time, men would have cried out either sorcery or miracles. The spectator also, who has been himself duped, makes no very respectable appearance when convicted of his error ; and thence, if too candid to add to the evidence of supernatural agency, is yet unwilling to stand convicted, by cross-examination, of having been imposed on, and unconsciously becomes disposed rather to colour more highly than the truth, than acquiesce in an explanation resting on his having been too hasty a believer. Very often, too, the detection depends upon the combination of certain circumstances, which, apprehended, necessarily explain the whole story.
For example, I once heard a sensible and intelligent friend in company, express himself convinced of the truth of a wonderful story told him by an intelligent and bold man about an apparition. The scene lay in an ancient castle on the coast of Morven, or the Isle of Mull, where the ghost-seer chanced to be resident. He was given to understand by the family, when betaking himself to rest, that the chamber in which he slept was occasionally disquieted by supernatural appearances. Being at that time no believer in such stories, he attended little to this hint, until the witching hour of night, when he was awakened from a dead sleep by the pressure of a human hand on his body. He looked up at the figure of a tall Highlander in the antique and picturesque dress of his country, whose brows were bound with a bloody bandage. Struck with sudden and extreme fear, he was willing to have sprung from bed, but the spectre stood before him in the bright moonlight, its one arm extended, so as to master him if he attempted to rise; the other hand held up in a warning and grave posture, as menaeing the Lowlander if he should attempt to quit his recumbent posture. Thus he lay in mortal agony for more than an hour, after which it pleased the spectre of ancient days to leave him to more sound repose. So singular a story had on its side the usual number of votes from the company, till, upon cross-examination, it was explained that the principal person concerned was an exciseman ; after which eclaircissement, the same explanation struck all present, viz. that the Highlanders of the mansion had chosen to detain the exciseman by the apparition of an ancient heroic ghost, in order to disguise from his vigilance the removal of certain modern enough spirits, which his duty might have called upon him to seize. Here a single circumstance explained the whole ghost story.
At other times it happens that the meanness and trifling nature of a cause not very obvious to observation, has occasioned it to be entirely overlooked, even on account of that very meanness, since no one is willing to acknowledge that he has been alarmed by a cause of little consequence, and which he would be ashamed of mentioning. An incident of this sort happened to a gentleman of birth and distinction, well known in the political world, and was detected by the precision of his observation. Shortly after he succeeded to his estate and title, there was a rumour among his servants concerning a strange noise heard in the family-mansion at night, the cause of which they had found it impossible to trace. The gentleman resolved to watch himself, with a domestic who had grown old in the family, and who had begun to murmur strange things concerning the knocking having followed so close upon the death of his old master. They watched until the noise was heard, which they listened to with that strange uncertainty attending midnight sounds, which prevents the hearers from immediately tracing them to the spot where they arise, while the silence of the night generally occasions the imputing to them more than the due importance which they would receive, if mingled with the usual noises of daylight. At length the gentleman and his servant traced the sounds which they had repeatedly heard, to a small store-room used as a place for keeping provisions of various kinds for the family, of which the old butler had the key. They entered this place, and remained there for some time, without hearing the noises which they had traced thither; at length the sound was heard, but much lower than it had formerly seemed to be, while acted upon at a distance by the imagination of the hearers. The cause was immediately discovered. A rat caught in an old-fashioned trap had occasioned this tumult, by its efforts to escape, in which it was able to raise the trap-door of its prison to a certain height, but was then obliged to drop it. The noise of the fall resounding through the house, had occasioned the disturbance which, but for the cool investigation of the proprietor, might easily have established an accredited ghost story. The circumstance was told me by the gentleman to whom it happened.