The Masque of the Red Death

Written Text

Edgar Allan Poe

The Masque of the Red Death

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

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.