The masque of the red death by Edgar Allan Poe


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1842
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 or 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 toward 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. There 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 color 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 color of the windows failed to correspond
with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet –a deep blood
color. 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 protected 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 hearken 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 reverie 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 colors 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 moveable embellishments of the
seven chambers, upon occasion of this great fete; 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 was 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-colored 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 indulge 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
rumor 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 license 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 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.
-THE END-

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