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An intermediate level English resource on  American history 

Dance Macabre

An American ghost story ......

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If you ask someone to tell you a strange or supernatural story, a ghost story, they will probably tell you a story that takes place in old Europe. In Bohemia, perhaps, the land of dark pine trees, or in Scotland, the land of mists and mountains. Yet not all ghost stories come from old and cold lands. Even the United States has its ghost stories. This one comes from New Mexico, and tells the story which was long remembered by soldiers in the US Army over a hundred years ago. .

Adapted from the original as told in Myths and Legends of our own Land, by Charles M Skinner

Dance macabre

    Around the year 1845, the army garrison at Fort Union, New Mexico, was a lonely place to be, a small encampment of American soldiers in the middle of a wide and empty desert. At night, you lay awake listening to the coyotes call, or the wind whipping across the dry sandy ground. Outside the fort, the tumbleweed blowing across the ground was often the only moving thing to be seen.
    As for Fort Union itself, it was a confusion of action and inaction, a small garrison inhabited mostly by men. Few ladies wished or dared to venture to this remote outpost of the Union; but some did. Among those there at the time, there was a very beautiful young lady, the sister-in-law of one of the captains.
    A coquettish sort of lady, she encouraged the attentions of the young officers, including a certain young Lieutenant, freshly arrived from Boston. The Lieutenant had hardly been at Fort Union for month before he was madly in love with the young lady. And one winter's evening, as he walked with her in the cool dusk, he proclaimed his love. The lady, not one to discourage attentions, told him that she loved him too. Indeed, she swore him eternal love.... just as she had done to several others before.
    Less than a week after this romantic moment, Fort Union was suddenly on the alert: Indians were approaching, and were attacking any White man they encountered. A detachment of soldiers was soon drawn up, with orders to intercept the Indians. In charge of the detachment was the young Lieutenant.
    As he rode proudly out of the fort, he called for all to hear: "My love, I'll be back soon, and then you'll be mine for ever"
    Two days later, the detachment returned, in sad contrast to its heroic departure. All the soldiers were tired and hungry, half of them were injured, and ten, including the Lieutenant, were missing.
    The young lady cried for half an hour, but soon seemed to have got over her grief; and when, after a few days, she appeared in public on the arm of a young Captain, no-one was very surprised. They were hardly more surprised when, a few weeks later, the Captain announced that they were to be married.
    They did not wait long; the wedding was fixed for the following weekend. It was to be the biggest social occasion of the year in Fort Union. And so it was.
    After the ceremony, all the officers and their ladies (the few that there were) gathered for a grand ball. There was food and drink, and the band played. The men and women ate and drank, laughed and danced; and in the middle danced the Captain and his bride.
    It was just before midnight, and the festive spirit was at its highest, when suddenly a strong gust of cool  wind blew in through the open doors and windows. Many of the candles were blown out with the sudden rush of air. The big door at the end of the room banged shut, then blew wide open again with a slow creak that made everyone turn to look at it. And there in the doorway stood the Lieutenant. Or at least, it looked like the Lieutenant.
    But his clothes were covered in blood, and a big dark cut ran right across his forehead. A large section of skin and hair had been cut off his head. It was a terrible sight to see.
    Everyone in the room froze with fear, as the Lieutenant entered silently, and walked up towards the lady. Reaching her, he took her from the Captain, and began to dance, slowly at first, but then faster and faster. One by one, the musicians began to play, as if driven by some strange force. The couple turned round and round in the half darkened room, dancing and dancing. The Lieutenant was smiling, the face of the lady fixed in terror; as they danced, she grew paler and paler, until finally, as the music rose to a frantic crescendo, she fell on the floor.
    Bending over her, the Lieutenant whispered something in her ear, then stood up and walked slowly out through the door he had come in by. It was several minutes before anyone else dared to move or to say anything. Then the Captain walked slowly across the floor to the spot where his bride was lying. He picked her up, but quickly let her fall again. She was dead, almost cold.
    Suddenly, everyone was talking. The musicians claimed that a demonic force had forced them to play music they had never played before. Some officers began explaining the strange events, while others swore the Lieutenant was a ghost. But with a dead lady in the middle of the room, it was clear that something strange had happened, whatever the explanation was.
    Next day, soldiers were sent out in all directions to look for the Lieutenant. Most soldiers who had been with him on his last mission swore that he had been killed by the Indians; and so, one group of men was sent back to where the encounter had taken place. Not far from there, they did indeed find the remains of the Lieutenant. Vultures had picked his bones. He had been dead for several weeks.


Word guide

desert: place where vegetation does not grow - tumbleweed: an unattached plant  - whipping: blowing - coyotes: wild dogs - garrison: army post - dare: be brave enough - remote: distant - outpost: base - sister in law: wife's sister - dusk: evening - swore: to swear is to proclaim - draw up: prepare - rode: to ride, travel on an animal - injure: hurt - get over: recuperate - wedding: marriage  gather: come together - gust: a short moment of wind - froze: from to freeze, to stop moving - vulture: a bird that eats dead bodies.

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Student worksheet

Dance Macabre

Grammar: prepositions.

Interactive exercise: Replace the missing prepositions in this extract from the text:

It was just  midnight, and the festive spirit was  its highest, when suddenly a strong gust of cool desert wind blew   the open doors and windows. Many of the candles were blown   the sudden rush of air. The big door  the end of the room banged shut, then blew wide open again  a slow creak that made everyone turn  look  it. And there  the doorway stood the Lieutenant. Or  least, it looked like the Lieutenant. But his clothes were covered  blood, and a big cut ran  his forehead. A large section  skin and hair had been cut  his head. Everyone  the room froze  fear as the Lieutenant entered silently, and walked   the lady. Reaching her, he took her  the Captain, and began to dance.

Comprehension exercise:

Read or listen to the story, then answer these questions. Interactive: You can type your answers into the boxes. Boxes will expand to contain as much text as you want to write.

1. What sort of place was Fort Union?


2. Why do you think the young lady was at Fort Union?


3. What caused an alert at the fort?


4. What can you say about the lady's love for the lieutenant?


5. Why do you imagine that the captain wanted to get married quickly?


6. Why had the lieutenant not been invited to the wedding?


7. Why were the musicians very surprised?


8. Why were people astonished to see the lieutenant at the wedding ?


For teachers

The expression Dance Macabre is an odd kind of English. Why does the adjective macabre come after the noun dance ? The answer is simple: this is an old fixed expression, that comes down to us from the Middle Ages. Often it is written in its medieval French form danse macabre, with an s in danse. In French, adjectives come after the noun.  The expression danse macabre has been used as the title of pieces of music and works of art. It is sometimes "translated" into English as The Dance of Death.

Some notes on literary style.
This is a literary text which uses some tools of literary style for effect.
 "In the middle danced the Captain".  This is not normal word order, because the subject is placed after the verb, which is unusual. It is used here as a literary effect, so that the sentence ends with, and therefore stresses "the Captain and his bride".
  The tension of the story mounts until we reach the key paragraph, starting Everyone in the room froze .  Note how, in this paragraph, the repetition of words is used for a great literary effect: faster and faster, one by one, round and round,  dancing and dancing, paler and paler

The recorded version: the text is recorded using a British English voice, which will be more familiar to most intermediate level learners. However the word lieutenant is pronounced in the American way... lioo-tenant.  In British English, this word is pronounced  leff-tenant.

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This teaching resource is © copyright Linguapress renwed 2021
Revised 2021 . Originally published in Freeway, the intermediate level English newsmagazine.

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Linguapress intermediate English reading
Level:  intermediate
Target readers : teenagers, young adults
Readability - Plain English.
 Flesch-Kincaid Grade level: 7.3
Reading ease level:  73.6
Fairly easy

CEF level: B1
IELTS Level  4-5

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Big red London buses
USA: Who was Buffalo Bill?
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Advanced level reading :
Charles Babbage, the father of the computer
Who killed Martin Luther King?
The story of the jet plane
London's Notting Hill Carnival
More: More advanced reading texts  
Selected grammar pages
Verbs in English
Noun groups in English
Word order in English
Reported questions in English
Language and style 
Word stress in English
The short story of English

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