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. 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. When his dominions were depopulated by half, 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.
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. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were musicians, there was beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”
Toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.
There were seven distinct rooms, forming an imperial suite. Each room was illuminated by a tall and narrow gothic window of stained glass, whose color varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the chamber into which it opened. The easternmost apartment was hung, for example, in blue.
The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries.
The third was green throughout.
The fourth was furnished and lighted with orange.
The seventh was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet. 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. Thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances. But in the black chamber the effect of the fire-light that streamed through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so ghastly a look upon those who entered, that few of the company were bold enough to set foot within its walls.
In this apartment, there stood against the wall a gigantic ebony clock. Its pendulum swung with a dull, monotonous clang; and when the hour was struck, there came from its brazen lungs of a sound of so peculiar a note that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians were constrained to pause in their performance. Thus the waltzers ceased their evolutions, and there was a brief disconcert of the whole company. While the chimes of the clock rang, the giddiest grew pale.
But when the echoes had ceased, a light laughter pervaded the assembly, each smiling at their own nervousness, vowing that the next chiming of the clock should produce no similar emotion. Then, after sixty minutes’ lapse, there came the same disconcert and tremulousness meditation as before.
In spite of this, it was a magnificent revel.
The tastes of the prince were peculiar, and it was his own guiding taste which had given character to the masqueraders. Be sure they were grotesque. 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, a multitude of dreams, writhing 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 then, for a moment, all is still, and all is silent save the voice of the clock, the dreams stiff-frozen as they stand.
To the most westwardly chamber, none of the maskers would venture. But the other apartments were densely crowded, beating feverishly the heart of life.
And so the revel went whirlingly on, until midnight was struck upon the clock. The music ceased, 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 endure, and thus it happened, perhaps, that more thoughts crept into the meditations of those who revelled. And thus, too, it happened, that before the last echoes of the last chime had sunk into silence, there were many in the crowd had become aware of the presence of a masked figure, whom none had noticed before.
In such an assembly of phantasms, it may be supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation. 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 decorum.
Even among the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made. The whole company seemed 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. His mask so closely resembled a stiffened corpse that it fooled the closest scrutiny. And yet all this might have been endured, had the stranger not gone so far as to assume the guise of the Red Death, his features besprinkled with the scarlet horror.
“Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him! So that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!”
At first, there was a slight rushing movement toward the intruder. But from a certain nameless awe, none put forth a hand to seize him. He passed within a yard of the prince’s person as the assembly, as if with one impulse, shrank toward the walls. He made his way unimpeded, with solemn and measured steps, through the blue chamber to the purple
The purple to the green
Through the green to the orange
Through this again to the white
Thence to the violet, without a single movement had 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 threw themselves into the black apartment, seizing the stranger standing within the shadow of the ebony clock.
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.