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 madness 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 incidents of half an hour.
But 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 crenellated
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 toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion 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 extant 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 the right and left, in the middle of each
wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor of 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 were scarlet--a deep blood color. Now in no one of any of the seven apartments was there
any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of golden ornaments that lay scattered to and fro and
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 each window, a heavy
tripod, bearing a brazier of fire, that projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly lit the
room. And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances. But in the western or
back 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 within this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony.
It 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 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 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 color 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_ he was not.
He had directed, in great part, the movable 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 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 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 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 of 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 appalls; and to him whose foot falls on 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, 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, of horror, and
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 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 his face, was
besprinkled with the scarlet horror.
When the eyes of Prince Prospero fell on 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 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 a hand to seize him; so that,
unimpeded, he passed within a yard of the prince's person; and while the vast assembly, as with one
impulse, shrank from the centers 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--to 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, maddened 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 most instantly afterward,
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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