Saturday, March 22, 2014

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

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 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 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

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

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

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.
Edgar Allan Poe is an American writer and poet, most famous for his poem the Raven.
Besides his poetry, however, he was quite a prolific short story writer, including The Masque of the Red Death,
The Pit and the Pendulum, and the Tell-Tale Heart, to name just a few. You can read his and other stories for free


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