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The Dancing Devil






On 16th November, 1870, Mr. Shchapoff, a Russian squire, the narrator,
came home from a visit to a country town, Iletski, and found his
family in some disarray. There lived with him his mother and his
wife's mother, ladies of about sixty-nine, his wife, aged twenty, and
his baby daughter. The ladies had been a good deal disturbed. On the
night of the 14th, the baby was fractious, and the cook, Maria, danced
and played the harmonica to divert her. The baby fell asleep, the
wife and Mr. Shchapoff's miller's lady were engaged in conversation,
when a shadow crossed the blind on the outside. They were about to go
out and see who was passing, when they heard a double shuffle being
executed with energy in the loft overhead. They thought Maria, the
cook, was making a night of it, but found her asleep in the kitchen.
The dancing went on but nobody could be found in the loft. Then raps
began on the window panes, and so the miller and gardener patrolled
outside. Nobody!

Raps and dancing lasted through most of the night and began again at
ten in the morning. The ladies were incommoded and complained of
broken sleep. Mr. Shchapoff, hearing all this, examined the miller,
who admitted the facts, but attributed them to a pigeon's nest, which
he had found under the cornice. Satisfied with this rather elementary
hypothesis, Mr. Shchapoff sat down to read Livingstone's African
Travels. Presently the double shuffle sounded in the loft. Mrs.
Shchapoff was asleep in her bedroom, but was awakened by loud raps.
The window was tapped at, deafening thumps were dealt at the outer
wall, and the whole house thrilled. Mr. Shchapoff rushed out with
dogs and a gun, there were no footsteps in the snow, the air was
still, the full moon rode in a serene sky. Mr. Shchapoff came back,
and the double shuffle was sounding merrily in the empty loft. Next
day was no better, but the noises abated and ceased gradually.

Alas, Mr. Shchapoff could not leave well alone. On 20th December, to
amuse a friend, he asked Maria to dance and play. Raps, in tune,
began on the window panes. Next night they returned, while boots,
slippers, and other objects, flew about with a hissing noise. A piece
of stuff would fly up and fall with a heavy hard thud, while hard
bodies fell soundless as a feather. The performances slowly died
away.

On Old Year's Night Maria danced to please them; raps began, people
watching on either side of a wall heard the raps on the other side.
On 8th January, Mrs. Shchapoff fainted when a large, luminous ball
floated, increasing in size, from under her bed. The raps now
followed her about by day, as in the case of John Wesley's sisters.
On these occasions she felt weak and somnolent. Finally Mr. Shchapoff
carried his family to his town house for much-needed change of air.

Science, in the form of Dr. Shustoff, now hinted that electricity or
magnetic force was at the bottom of the annoyances, a great comfort to
the household, who conceived that the devil was concerned. The doctor
accompanied his friends to their country house for a night, Maria was
invited to oblige with a dance, and only a few taps on windows
followed. The family returned to town till 21st January. No sooner
was Mrs. Shchapoff in bed than knives and forks came out of a closed
cupboard and flew about, occasionally sticking in the walls.

On 24th January the doctor abandoned the hypothesis of electricity,
because the noises kept time to profane but not to sacred music. A
Tartar hymn by a Tartar servant, an Islamite, had no accompaniment,
but the Freischutz was warmly encored.

This went beyond the most intelligent spontaneous exercises of
electricity. Questions were asked of the agencies, and to the
interrogation, "Are you a devil?" a most deafening knock replied. "We
all jumped backwards."

Now comes a curious point. In the Wesley and Tedworth cases, the
masters of the houses, like the cure of Cideville (1851), were at odds
with local "cunning men".

Mr. Shchapoff's fiend now averred that he was "set on" by the servant
of a neighbouring miller, with whom Mr. Shchapoff had a dispute about
a mill pond. This man had previously said, "It will be worse; they
will drag you by the hair". And, indeed, Mrs. Shchapoff was found in
tears, because her hair had been pulled. {205}

Science again intervened. A section of the Imperial Geographical
Society sent Dr. Shustoff, Mr. Akutin (a Government civil engineer),
and a literary gentleman, as a committee of inquiry appointed by the
governor of the province. They made a number of experiments with
Leyden jars, magnets, and so forth, with only negative results.
Things flew about, both _from_, and _towards_ Mrs. Shchapoff. Nothing
volatile was ever seen to _begin_ its motion, though, in March, 1883,
objects were seen, by a policeman and six other witnesses, to fly up
from a bin and out of a closed cupboard, in a house at Worksop. {206}
Mr. Akutin, in Mrs. Shchapoff's bedroom, found the noises answer
questions in French and German, on contemporary politics, of which the
lady of the house knew nothing. Lassalle was said to be alive, Mr.
Shchapoff remarked, "What nonsense!" but Mr. Akutin corrected him.
The bogey was better informed. The success of the French in the great
war was predicted.

The family now moved to their town house, and the inquest continued,
though the raps were only heard near the lady. A Dr. Dubinsky vowed
that she made them herself, with her tongue; then, with her pulse.
The doctor assailed, and finally shook the faith of Mr. Akutin, who
was to furnish a report. "He bribed a servant boy to say that his
mistress made the sounds herself, and then pretended that he had
caught her trying to deceive us by throwing things." Finally Mr.
Akutin reported that the whole affair was a hysterical imposition by
Mrs. Shchapoff. Dr. Dubinsky attended her, her health and spirits
improved, and the disturbances ceased. But poor Mr. Shchapoff
received an official warning not to do it again, from the governor of
his province. That way lies Siberia.

"Imagine, then," exclaims Mr. Shchapoff, "our horror, when, on our
return to the country in March, the unknown force at once set to work
again. And now even my wife's presence was not essential. Thus, one
day, I saw with my own eyes a heavy sofa jump off all four legs (three
or four times in fact), and this when my aged mother was lying on it."
The same thing occurred to Nancy Wesley's bed, on which she was
sitting while playing cards in 1717. The picture of a lady of
seventy, sitting tight to a bucking sofa, appeals to the brave.

Then the fire-raising began. A blue spark flew out of a wash-stand,
into Mrs. Shchapoff's bedroom. Luckily she was absent, and her
mother, rushing forward with a water-jug, extinguished a flaming
cotton dress. Bright red globular meteors now danced in the veranda.
Mr. Portnoff next takes up the tale as follows, Mr. Shchapoff having
been absent from home on the occasion described.

"I was sitting playing the guitar. The miller got up to leave, and
was followed by Mrs. Shchapoff. Hardly had she shut the door, when I
heard, as though from far off, a deep drawn wail. The voice seemed
familiar to me. Overcome with an unaccountable horror I rushed to the
door, and there in the passage I saw a literal pillar of fire, in the
middle of which, draped in flame, stood Mrs. Shchapoff. . . . I rushed
to put it out with my hands, but I found it burned them badly, as if
they were sticking to burning pitch. A sort of cracking noise came
from beneath the floor, which also shook and vibrated violently." Mr.
Portnoff and the miller "carried off the unconscious victim".

Mr. Shchapoff also saw a small pink hand, like a child's, spring from
the floor, and play with Mrs. Shchapoff's coverlet, in bed. These
things were too much; the Shchapoffs fled to a cottage, and took a new
country house. They had no more disturbances. Mrs. Shchapoff died in
child-bed, in 1878, "a healthy, religious, quiet, affectionate woman".





Next: The Wesley Ghost

Previous: The Lady In Black



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