The Masque of the Red Death – The Poe Museum

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The Masque of the Red Death

The “ Red Death ” had long devastated the country. No plague had been always then black, or so hideous. Blood was its Avator and its seal — the red and the repugnance of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleedings at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the torso and particularly upon the grimace of the victim, were the pest-ban which shut him out from the help and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole capture, advancement and end point of the disease were the incidents of half an hour .
But the Prince Prospero was happy and audacious, and perspicacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and blithe friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep privacy of one of his embattled abbey. This was an extensive and brilliant structure, the creation of the prince ’ s own bizarre yet august taste. A strong and exalted 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 entrance or egress to the sudden impulses of despair from without or of craze from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagious disease. The external world could take worry of itself. In the meanwhile 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 ballêt-dancers, there were musicians, there were cards, 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 plague raged most furiously afield, that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a mask ball of the most strange impressiveness. It was a juicy scene that masquerade.

But first base let me tell of the rooms in which it was held. There were seven — an imperial cortege. In many palaces, however, such suites form a long and square view, while the fold doors slide back about to the walls on either hand, so that the view of the unharmed extent is barely impeded. here the sheath 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 plow a novel effect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and minute Gothic window looked out upon a close corridor which pursued the windings of the cortege. These windows were of tarnish glaze whose color varied in accord with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That at the easterly extremity was hang, for case, in aristocratic — and vividly blasphemous were its windows. The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were imperial. The one-third was green throughout, and indeed were the casements. The fourth was furnished and litten with orange — the one-fifth with ashen — the sixth with violet. The one-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 entirely, the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes hera were scarlet — a deep rake tinge. now in no one of the seven apartments was there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of aureate ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the ceiling. There was no light of any kind emanating from lamp or candle within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors that followed the cortege, there stand, diametric to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire that projected its rays through the tint glass and so glaringly illumined the board. And therefore were produced a multitude of flashy and antic appearances. But in the westerly or black chamber the effect of the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was charnel in the extreme point, and produced sol hazardous 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, besides, that there stood against the western rampart, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swing to and fro with a dull, heavy, humdrum clang ; and when its minute-hand made the racing circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came forth from the brazen lungs of the clock a heavy which was net and loud and deep and extremely musical, but of so particular a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians in the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to harken to the sound ; and frankincense the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions ; and there was a brief upset of the hale brave ship’s company ; and, while the chimes of the clock even rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and that the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had amply ceased, a lighter laughter at once pervaded the assembly ; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and stupidity, and made whisper vows, each to the other, that the following chime of the clock should produce in them no like emotion ; and then, after the relapse of sixty minutes, ( which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies, ) there came yet another chime of the clock, and then were the same confuse and tremulousness and meditation as ahead .
But, in malice of these things, it was a gay and brilliant 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 bluff and ardent, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric luster. There are some who would have thought him delirious. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessity to hear and see and touch him to be certain that he was not .
He had directed, in great partially, the movable embellishments of the seven chambers, upon occasion of this capital fête, and it was his own guide taste which had given character to the costumes of the masqueraders. Be certain they were antic. There were much glare and glitter and nip and phantasm — a lot of what has been since seen in “ Hernani. ” There were arabesque figures with ill-sorted limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the lunatic fashions. There was much of the beautiful, much of the piddle, much of the bizarre, something of the awful, and not a fiddling 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 coal black clock which stands in the hall of the velvet. And then, momentarily, all is still, and all is dumb save the part of the clock. The dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand. But the echoes of the chime die away — they have endured but an instantaneous — 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 happily 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 nox is waning off ; and there flows a rubicund light through the blood-colored panes ; and the black of the sable drapery appals ; and to him whose foot falls upon the sable carpet, there comes from the about clock of ebon a smother peal more solemnly emphatic than any which reaches their ears who indulge in the more distant gaieties of the other apartments .
But these early apartments were densely crowded, and in them beat feverishly the heart of life. And the revel went whirlingly on, until at length was sounded the twelfth hour 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 ahead. But nowadays there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bell of the clock ; and frankincense it happened, possibly, that more of think fawn, with more of time, into the meditations of the thoughtful among those who revelled. And thus, again, it happened, possibly, that before the last echoes of the last chime had absolutely slump into secrecy, there were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become mindful of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before. And the rumor of this new bearing having spread itself whisperingly around, there get up at length from the whole company a hum, or heart murmur, expressive at first gear of disapprobation and surprise — then, finally, of terror, of repugnance, 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 about outright ; but the figure in interview had out-herod Herod, and gone beyond the bounds of even the prince ’ s indefinite decorum. There are chords in the hearts of the most heedless which can not be touched without emotion. tied with the absolutely lose, to whom life and death are evenly jests, there are matters of which no joke can be properly made. The whole company, indeed, seemed now deeply to feel that in the costume and bearing of the strange neither wag nor propriety existed. The figure was tall and bony, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the sculpt. The mask which concealed the countenance was made so closely to resemble the countenance of a stiffen cadaver that the closest examination must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat on. And however all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the delirious revellers around. But the mime had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His clothing was dabbled in blood — and his broad eyebrow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the red horror.

When the eyes of the Prince Prospero fell upon this apparitional prototype ( which with a slowly and earnest drift, as if more fully to sustain its rôle, stalked to and fro among the waltzers ) he was seen to be convulsed, in the first gear moment, with a strong shiver either of panic or antipathy ; but, in the adjacent, his eyebrow reddened with rage .
“ Who dares ? ” he demanded hoarsely of the group that stood around him, “ who dares therefore to make parody of our woes ? Uncase the page that we may know whom we have to hang to-morrow at sunrise from the battlements. Will no one raise at my offer ? — stop him and strip him, I say, of those redden vestures of profanation ! ”
It was in the eastern or blue bedroom in which stood the Prince Prospero as he uttered these words. They rang throughout the seven rooms forte and clearly — for the prince was a bluff and robust world, and the music had become hushed at the wave of his hand .
It was in the blue room where stood the prince, with a group of pale courtiers by his side. At foremost, as he spoke, there was a slender rushing drift of this group in the direction of the intruder, who at the consequence was besides approach at hand, and now, with debate and stately step, made closer set about to the loudspeaker. But from a certain nameless fear with which the brainsick assumptions of the mime had inspired the whole party, there were found none who put forth bridge player to seize him ; so that, unimpeded, he passed within a yard of the prince ’ s person ; and, while the huge assembly, as if with one impulse, shrink from the centres of the rooms to the walls, he made his way uninterruptedly, but with the same earnest and measured measure which had distinguished him from the inaugural, through the blue chamber to the imperial — through the purple to the green — through the green to the orange, — through this again to the whiten — and even thence to the violet, ere a decide motion had been made to arrest him. It was then, however, that the Prince Prospero, maddening with rage and the dishonor of his own fleeting cowardice, rushed hurriedly through the six chambers — while none followed him on history of a madly terror that had seized upon all. He bore aloft a drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuousness, to within three or four feet of the retreat figure, when the latter, having attained the extremity of the velvet apartment, turned abruptly circle and confronted his pursuer. There was a sharp cry — and the dagger dropped gleaming upon the coal black carpet, upon which instantaneously afterwards, fell prostrate in end the Prince Prospero. then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a multitude of the revellers at once throw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mime, whose tall figure stood rear and inactive within the shadow of the coal black clock, gasped in ineffable horror at finding the grave-cerements and corpse-like disguise which they handled with therefore violent a discourtesy, untenanted by any real form .
And now was acknowledged the bearing 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 despair position of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the brave. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable district over all.

Edgar Allan Poe
Published 1842
Image by Byam Shaw

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