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  The Masque of the Red Death


  Edgar Allan Poe

  The "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence hadever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and itsseal--the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, andsudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, withdissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon theface of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aidand from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure,progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half anhour.

  But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When hisdominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousandhale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of hiscourt, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of hiscastellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure,the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strongand lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. Thecourtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers andwelded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress noregress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. Theabbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers mightbid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care ofitself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. Theprince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There werebuffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, therewere musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these andsecurity 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 PrinceProspero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the mostunusual magnificence.

  It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell ofthe 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 thecase was very different, as might have been expected from the duke'slove of the _bizarre_. The apartments were so irregularly disposed thatthe vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was asharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a noveleffect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall andnarrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursuedthe windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whosecolour varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorationsof the chamber into which it opened. That at the eastern extremity washung, for example in blue--and vividly blue were its windows. Thesecond chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here thepanes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were thecasements. The fourth was furnished and lighted with orange--the fifthwith white--the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closelyshrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling anddown the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the samematerial and hue. But in this chamber only, the colour of the windowsfailed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here werescarlet--a deep blood colour. Now in no one of the seven apartmentswas there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of goldenornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the roof.There was no light of any kind emanating from lamp or candle within thesuite of chambers. But in the corridors that followed the suite, therestood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier offire, that projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringlyillumined the room. And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy andfantastic appearances. But in the western or black chamber the effectof the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through theblood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild alook upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few ofthe company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.

  It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the westernwall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with adull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made thecircuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came fromthe brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deepand exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that,at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra wereconstrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to harken tothe sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; andthere was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while thechimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grewpale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their browsas if in confused revery or meditation. But when the echoes had fullyceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicianslooked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness andfolly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the nextchiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; andthen, after the lapse of sixty minutes, (which embrace three thousandand six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,) there came yet anotherchiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert andtremulousness and meditation as before.

  But, in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel. Thetastes of the duke were peculiar. He had a fine eye for colours andeffects. He disregarded the _decora_ of mere fashion. His plans werebold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. Thereare some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that hewas 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 sevenchambers, upon occasion of this great _fete_; and it was his own guidingtaste which had given character to the masqueraders. Be sure they weregrotesque. There were much glare and glitter and piquancy andphantasm--much of what has been since seen in "Hernani". There werearabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There weredelirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There were much of thebeautiful, much of the wanton, much of the _bizarre_, something of theterrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude ofdreams. And these--the dreams--writhed in and about taking hue fromthe rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as theecho of their steps. And, anon, there strikes the ebony clock whichstands in the hall of the velvet. And then, for a moment, all isstill, and all is silent save the voice of the clock. The dreams arestiff-frozen as they stand. But the echoes of the chime die away--theyhave endured but an instant--and a light, half-subdued laughter floatsafter them as they depart. And now again the music swells, and thedreams live, and writhe to and fro more merrily than ever, taking huefrom the many tinted windows through which stream the rays from thetripods. But to the chamber which lies most westwardly of the seven,there are now none of the maskers who venture; for the night is waningaway; and there flows a ruddier light through the blood-coloured panes;and the blackness of the sable drapery appals; and to him whose footfalls upon the sable carpet, there comes from the near clock of ebony amuffled peal more solemnly emphatic than any which reaches _their_ earswho indulged in the more remote gaieties of the other apartments.

  But these other apartments were densely crowded, and in them beatfeverishly the heart of life. And the revel went whirlingly on, untilat length there commenced the sounding of midnight upon the clock. Andthen the music ceased, as I have told; and the evolutions of thewaltzers were quieted; and there
was an uneasy cessation of all thingsas before. But now there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bellof the clock; and thus it happened, perhaps, that more of thoughtcrept, with more of time, into the meditations of the thoughtful amongthose who revelled. And thus too, it happened, perhaps, that before thelast echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, there weremany individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware ofthe presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of nosingle individual before. And the rumour of this new presence havingspread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the wholecompany a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation andsurprise--then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.

  In an assembly of phantasms such as I have painted, it may well besupposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation.In truth the masquerade licence of the night was nearly unlimited; butthe figure in question had out-Heroded Herod, and gone beyond thebounds of even the prince's indefinite decorum. There are chords in thehearts 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 ofthe stranger neither wit nor propriety existed. The figure was talland gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of thegrave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly toresemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closestscrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet allthis might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellersaround. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of theRed Death. His vesture was dabbled in _blood_--and his broad brow, withall 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 sustainits role, stalked to and fro among the waltzers) he was seen to beconvulsed, in the first moment with a strong shudder either of terroror distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage.

  "Who dares,"--he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood nearhim--"who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him andunmask him--that we may know whom we have to hang, at sunrise, from thebattlements!"

  It was in the eastern or blue chamber in which stood the PrinceProspero as he uttered these words. They rang throughout the sevenrooms loudly and clearly, for the prince was a bold and robust man, andthe music had become hushed at the waving of his hand.

  It was in the blue room where stood the prince, with a group of palecourtiers by his side. At first, as he spoke, there was a slightrushing movement of this group in the direction of the intruder, who atthe moment was also near at hand, and now, with deliberate and statelystep, made closer approach to the speaker. But from a certain namelessawe with which the mad assumptions of the mummer had inspired the wholeparty, 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, whilethe vast assembly, as if with one impulse, shrank from the centres ofthe rooms to the walls, he made his way uninterruptedly, but with thesame solemn and measured step which had distinguished him from thefirst, through the blue chamber to the purple--through the purple tothe green--through the green to the orange--through this again to thewhite--and even thence to the violet, ere a decided movement had beenmade 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 onaccount of a deadly terror that had seized upon all. He bore aloft adrawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within threeor four feet of the retreating figure, when the latter, having attainedthe extremity of the velvet apartment, turned suddenly and confrontedhis pursuer. There was a sharp cry--and the dagger dropped gleamingupon the sable carpet, upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostratein death the Prince Prospero. Then, summoning the wild courage ofdespair, a throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into theblack apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erectand motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped inunutterable horror at finding the grave cerements and corpse-like mask,which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by anytangible form.

  And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had comelike a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in theblood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairingposture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out withthat of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired.And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion overall.