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 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 towards 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. These 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 colour 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 colour of
the windows failed to correspond with the decorations.
The panes here were scarlet--a deep blood colour. 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
projected 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 all.
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 harken 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 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 colours 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 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 since
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 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-coloured
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
indulged 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 rumour 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
licence 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 the 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..

Популярность: 33, Last-modified: Thu, 09 Mar 2000 14:10:20 GMT