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The Masque of the Red Death

by

Edgar Allan Poe

The "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had
ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its
seal--the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and
sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with
dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the
face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid
and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure,
progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an
hour.

But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his
dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand
hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his
court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his
castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure,
the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong
and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The
courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and
welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor
egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The
abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might
bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of
itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The
prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were
buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there
were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and
security were within. Without was the "Red Death".

It was towards the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion,
and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince
Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most
unusual magnificence.

It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell of


the rooms in which it was held. These were seven--an imperial suite.
In many palaces, however, such suites form a long and straight vista,
while the folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either hand,
so that the view of the whole extent is scarcely impeded. Here the
case was very different, as might have been expected from the duke's
love of the _bizarre_. The apartments were so irregularly disposed that
the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a
sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel
effect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and
narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued
the windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whose
colour varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations
of the chamber into which it opened. That at the eastern extremity was
hung, for example in blue--and vividly blue were its windows. The
second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the
panes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were the
casements. The fourth was furnished and lighted with orange--the fifth
with white--the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closely
shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and
down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same
material and hue. But in this chamber only, the colour of the windows
failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were
scarlet--a deep blood colour. Now in no one of the seven apartments
was there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of golden
ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the roof.
There was no light of any kind emanating from lamp or candle within the
suite of chambers. But in the corridors that followed the suite, there
stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of
fire, that projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly
illumined the room. And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and
fantastic appearances. But in the western or black chamber the effect
of the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through the
blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a
look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of
the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.

It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western
wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a
dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the
circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from
the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep
and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that,
at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were
constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to harken to
the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and
there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the
chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew
pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows
as if in confused revery or meditation. But when the echoes had fully
ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians
looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and
folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next
chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and
then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, (which embrace three thousand
and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,) there came yet another
chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and
tremulousness and meditation as before.

But, in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel. The
tastes of the duke were peculiar. He had a fine eye for colours and
effects. He disregarded the _decora_ of mere fashion. His plans were
bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. There
are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he
was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be _sure_
that he was not.

He had directed, in great part, the movable embellishments of the seven


chambers, upon occasion of this great _fête_; and it was his own guiding
taste which had given character to the masqueraders. Be sure they were
grotesque. There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and
phantasm--much of what has been since seen in "Hernani". There were
arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were
delirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There were much of the
beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the _bizarre_, something of the
terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.
To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of
dreams. And these--the dreams--writhed in and about taking hue from
the rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as the
echo of their steps. And, anon, there strikes the ebony clock which
stands in the hall of the velvet. And then, for a moment, all is
still, and all is silent save the voice of the clock. The dreams are
stiff-frozen as they stand. But the echoes of the chime die away--they
have endured but an instant--and a light, half-subdued laughter floats
after them as they depart. And now again the music swells, and the
dreams live, and writhe to and fro more merrily than ever, taking hue
from the many tinted windows through which stream the rays from the
tripods. But to the chamber which lies most westwardly of the seven,
there are now none of the maskers who venture; for the night is waning
away; and there flows a ruddier light through the blood-coloured panes;
and the blackness of the sable drapery appals; and to him whose foot
falls upon the sable carpet, there comes from the near clock of ebony a
muffled peal more solemnly emphatic than any which reaches _their_ ears
who indulged in the more remote gaieties of the other apartments.

But these other apartments were densely crowded, and in them beat
feverishly the heart of life. And the revel went whirlingly on, until
at length there commenced the sounding of midnight upon the clock. And
then the music ceased, as I have told; and the evolutions of the
waltzers were quieted; and there was an uneasy cessation of all things
as before. But now there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bell
of the clock; and thus it happened, perhaps, that more of thought
crept, with more of time, into the meditations of the thoughtful among
those who revelled. And thus too, it happened, perhaps, that before the
last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, there were
many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of
the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no
single individual before. And the rumour of this new presence having
spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole
company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and
surprise--then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.

In an assembly of phantasms such as I have painted, it may well be


supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation.
In truth the masquerade licence of the night was nearly unlimited; but
the figure in question had out-Heroded Herod, and gone beyond the
bounds of even the prince's indefinite decorum. There are chords in the
hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion.
Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests,
there are matters of which no jest can be made. The whole company,
indeed, seemed now deeply to feel that in the costume and bearing of
the stranger neither wit nor propriety existed. The figure was tall
and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the
grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to
resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest
scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all
this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers
around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the
Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in _blood_--and his broad brow, with
all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.

When the eyes of the Prince Prospero fell upon this spectral image
(which, with a slow and solemn movement, as if more fully to sustain
its role, stalked to and fro among the waltzers) he was seen to be
convulsed, in the first moment with a strong shudder either of terror
or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage.

"Who dares,"--he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood near


him--"who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and
unmask him--that we may know whom we have to hang, at sunrise, from the
battlements!"

It was in the eastern or blue chamber in which stood the Prince


Prospero as he uttered these words. They rang throughout the seven
rooms loudly and clearly, for the prince was a bold and robust man, and
the music had become hushed at the waving of his hand.

It was in the blue room where stood the prince, with a group of pale
courtiers by his side. At first, as he spoke, there was a slight
rushing movement of this group in the direction of the intruder, who at
the moment was also near at hand, and now, with deliberate and stately
step, made closer approach to the speaker. But from a certain nameless
awe with which the mad assumptions of the mummer had inspired the whole
party, there were found none who put forth hand to seize him; so that,
unimpeded, he passed within a yard of the prince's person; and, while
the vast assembly, as if with one impulse, shrank from the centres of
the rooms to the walls, he made his way uninterruptedly, but with the
same solemn and measured step which had distinguished him from the
first, through the blue chamber to the purple--through the purple to
the green--through the green to the orange--through this again to the
white--and even thence to the violet, ere a decided movement had been
made to arrest him. It was then, however, that the Prince Prospero,
maddening with rage and the shame of his own momentary cowardice,
rushed hurriedly through the six chambers, while none followed him on
account of a deadly terror that had seized upon all. He bore aloft a
drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three
or four feet of the retreating figure, when the latter, having attained
the extremity of the velvet apartment, turned suddenly and confronted
his pursuer. There was a sharp cry--and the dagger dropped gleaming
upon the sable carpet, upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate
in death the Prince Prospero. Then, summoning the wild courage of
despair, a throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into the
black apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect
and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in
unutterable horror at finding the grave cerements and corpse-like mask,
which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any
tangible form.

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come
like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the
blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing
posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with
that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired.
And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over
all.

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