Classics Translated

The Masque of the Red Death

Edgar Allan Poe, 1842. Translated to modern English, otherwise exactly the same. 
Original illustration

The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No plague had ever been so deadly or hideous. Blood’s redness and horror was its Avatar and seal. There were sharp pains, sudden dizziness, and excessive bleeding at the pores before death. The victim’s scarlet stained body and face outcast him from the sympathetic aid of others. The whole process, from infection to death, took 30 minutes.

Regardless, Prince Prospero was happy, fearless, and clever. When his kingdom’s population was reduced by half, he summoned a thousand healthy and light-hearted friends from the knights and women of his court. With them, he retreated to the seclusion of his towered abbey. It was a vast and magnificent place, a creation of the Prince’s eccentric yet respected taste. A strong, high wall with iron gates encircled it. The courtiers brought furnaces and massive hammers to weld the bolts. They were determined to close every exit against those who may later panic. The abbey was well stocked. With such precautions the courtiers might avoid the plague. The outside world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was foolish to grieve or think. The prince had provided all the instruments of pleasure. There were fools, poets, ballet-dancers, musicians, beauty, and wine. All these and safety were within. Out there was the “Red Death.”

It was toward the end of the 5-6th month of seclusion – while the plague raged across the country – that Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.

It was a shapely scene, but first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held. There were seven – an imperial suite. However, in many palaces, such suites form a long and straight view, while the folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either side. It allows the area to be viewed as a whole with minimal obstruction. Here the case was very different; as might have been expected from the duke’s love of the bizarre. The apartments were so unevenly placed, you could only see one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every 20-30 yards, each with a unique feature. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked upon a closed corridor after each turn.

These windows were stained glass with varying colors to match the decor of the chamber unto which it opened. For example, the eastern chamber was hung in blue – and its windows were vividly blue. 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 lit with orange – the fifth with white – the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries on the ceiling and walls, falling in heavy folds onto a matching carpet. But in this chamber only, the color of the windows did not match. The panes were scarlet – a deep blood color.

None of the seven apartments contained any lamp or candelabrum among the golden ornaments scattered everywhere or hanging from the roof. No light shined from the lamp or candle inside the suite, but in the corridors outside the suite, opposite each window, there stood a heavy tripod holding a warm fire that projected light through the tinted glass to illuminate the room. Thus a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances were produced, but in the black chamber the effect of the fire-light on the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes was ghastly and extreme. It produced so wild a look upon the faces of those who entered, that there were few bold enough to enter at all.

A gigantic clock of ebony stood against the western wall of the same apartment. Its pendulum swung back and forth with a dull, heavy, tedious clang; when the minute-hand made a full turn and the hour was to strike, its bold lungs made a sound which was clear, loud, deep, and exceedingly musical, but had such a peculiar sound that the orchestra would momentarily pause their performance to listen. Thus the dancers stopped twirling; and there was brief unease of the happy company; and, while the chimes continued to ring, the giddiest were seen growing pale. The older and calmer passed their hands over their brows as if confused or meditating. But when the echos had fully stopped, a light laughter immediately spread through the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled at their own nerves and foolishness, whispering vows that the next chiming will not cause such a reaction. Then, after sixty minutes (which is 3,600 seconds of the Time that flies,) there came another chime of the clock, and the same discomfort and quivering as before.

In spite of these things, it was a happy and magnificent party. The duke’s tastes were peculiar. He had a fine eye for color and decorations. He disregarded the decorum of mere fashion. His plans were bold and fiery, and his ideas glowed with a barbaric shimmer. There are some who would have thought him crazy. His followers did not think so. It was necessary to hear, see, and touch him to be sure he was not.

He had directed, in great part, the portable decorations in the seven chambers for this great party; and it was his guiding taste which had given character to the masqueraders. Be sure they were grotesque. There was much glare, glitter, spice, and phantasm – much of which has been seen in “Hernani.” There were ornamental figures with odd limbs and features. There were delirious fancies such as madman fashions. There were many of the beautiful, the wanton, the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of the disgusting.

Back and forth in the seven chambers there stalked a multitude of dreams. These dreams writhed about, taking color from the rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as an echo of their steps. And soon strikes the ebony clock which stands in the velvet hall. For a moment, all else is still and silent. The dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand, but these echoes of the chime die away, and a light, half-subdued laughter follows them as they leave. Now again the music swells, the dreams live and writhe about more happily than ever, taking color from the many lit up, tinted windows. But to the black chamber, there are now none who enter; for the night is coming to an end; and there flows a dimmer light through the blood-colored panes; the blackness of the drapery is appalling; those whose feet step upon the black carpet hear the clock’s chime more emphatically than those in other apartments.

But the other apartments were densely crowded, and in them the heart of life beat feverishly. The party continued until the clock chimed midnight. Then, as I have said, the music stopped. The twirling of the dancers and all things stopped. But now there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the clock; and thus it happened, perhaps as more time passed and thoughts crept into the minds of party-goers. Before the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, many individuals became aware of a masked figure who had not been noticed before. The rumor spread around in whispers. There arose a unanimous buzz, or whisper, expressing disapproval and surprise – then, finally, terror, horror, and disgust.

In an assembly of phantasms such as I have described, it may be assumed that no ordinary appearance could have caused such a reaction. In truth, the night’s masquerade license was nearly unlimited; but the figure in question had out-Heroded Herod, and gone beyond the appearance of even the prince’s indefinite taste. The most reckless have chords in their hearts which cannot be touched without emotion. Even the utterly lost who view life and death as a joke have matters of which no joke can be made. Everyone now seemed to deeply feel the stranger inside that costume possessed neither wit nor propriety. He was tall, gaunt, and shrouded head to foot in the outfit of the grave. The mask concealing his face was made to resemble that of a stiffened corpse. It would be difficult to recognize as fake even with close scrutiny. And yet, all this may have been endured, if not approved by the mad masqueraders around. But the whisper had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His clothes, broad brow, and face were dabbled in blood. When Prince Prospero’s eyes fell upon this spectral image (which slowly and solemnly stalked among the dancers as if to better sustain its role) he was seen shuddering at first, in either terror or distaste; but then his brow reddened with rage.

“Who dares?” He demanded hoarsely of those standing near him – “who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and remove his mask – so we may know who will hang at sunrise!”

It was in the blue room where the prince stood with a group of pale courtiers by his side. At first, as he spoke, this group made slight rushing movements toward the intruder, who was now also near, taking deliberate steps toward the prince. But not one of the whole party which the mad whispers inspired made an effort to stop him; he passed, unchallenged, within a yard of the prince. While the large assembly shrank back against the walls, he made his way with the same solemn and measured step which first distinguished him from the rest; through the previous six chambers, all without any effort made to stop him.

It was then Prince Prospero, maddening with rage and shame at his momentary cowardice, drew his dagger and rushed through the six chambers to within 3-4 feet of the retreating figure. None followed, all were frozen in deadly terror. The figure reached a dead-end, and turned to face his pursuer. There was a sharp cry as the dagger fell, gleaming, to the sable carpet. Instantly, Prince Prospero fell down, dead. Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of party-goers threw themselves into the black apartments, seizing the stranger who stood erect and motionless in the shadow of the ebony clock. They gasped in indescribable horror at finding the grave clothes and corpse-like mask (which they handled with violence and rudeness) uninhabited by a physical form.

And now they acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one the party-goers dropped in the blood-covered halls of their party, each dying in the position they fell. The life of the ebony clock went out with the last one. The flames of the tripods expired. Darkness, Decay, and Red Death held unlimited dominion over all.