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 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 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 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 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.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .