Mother says we must stay here. She says we mustn’t go outside for a while and she says that Prince Prospero was very nice to let us come stay with him and that we shouldn’t cause any fuss. Mother says a lot of things.
And I’m trying to be good, I promise I am. But it is so boring here. Bobby and Nina and Cossette are babies compared to me. Bobby is closest to me in age and he’s still only four while I’m already six! Nina comes behind him at three while Cossette is the baby at one. I don’t know how Mother expects me to play with them. They don’t even notice how pretty my dress is or the new bows Daddy got me before he sent us away from him.
I’ve told Mother this, but she just patted me on the head while her handmaiden Lisette put that stuff on her face and said, “You are so big, Raven, I can hardly believe how grownup you are. It is because of how grownup you are that you are in charge of the other kids while the adults go to dinner. I just know that the Duke and Duchess de Pompfrey will be truly grateful for your help with little Cossette. And the Marquis de Winthrope told me personally that he could trust no one but our dear Raven to look after Bobby and Nina.”
I beamed at the praise and was in awe of the newfound responsibility that had just been laid on my shoulders. Being stuck in the baby room didn’t seem so bad now when I realized that I was in charge. I sat on the bed behind Mother, momentarily placated. I looked at her reflection in the mirror, and felt a momentary wiggle of jealousy at how pretty she was. Her hair was perfectly coifed, its golden strands held up in a testament to Lisette’s ability. Her dress was a pattern of white and silver, and flowed off her shoulders in an elegant waterfall. Two small ceramic wings protruded from her back, declaring the nature of her costume. I followed her gloves to the end of her fingers to where she was holding a bedecked masque, the only red of her outfit. She caught me staring at the masque.
“With so many shops closed as of now, it is difficult to find a white masque. I suppose the red of this shall have to do,” she pouted. “I look forward to the opening of the shops if only so I may have some white fabric with which to cover my masques.”
“Why are you so dressed up tonight, Mother?” I asked shyly of her. She was still staring at the mask in abject frustration.
“Prince Prospero is holding a masque. It’s supposed to be the ball of the century,” she said. She finally looked away from her masque and noticed me seated comfortably. “Now, Raven, it is time for you to head back to the nursery. Lissette, it is time I adjourned. Please see to Raven.”
I am trying to be good. It must have been hours since Lissette dropped me off at the baby room. Cossette won’t stop crying and no matter how I try, I can’t seem to make her happy. Bobby keeps pinching Nina and Nina keeps tugging on my dress to tell on Bobby. Then Bobby started to pinch me and now I’m yelling at him over the sound of Cossette that I am in charge! He says he doesn’t care!
None of them seem to care! I’m done being in charge! I’ve spent enough time in the baby room!
Outside the room, the halls are dark. I can hear the faint sounds of the music from the party below. Then, a clock, and everything goes silent. I pause in my creeping worried that the slightest creak of the floor beneath me will alert that I am there. I hold my breath as I too, wait for the silence to end. A moment later, I breathe again as the music once more picks up its tempo.
I keep walking towards the stairs and finally I see the ball below me. I am at the edge of the stairs leading down to it. I see a multitude of doors from where I stand, each surrounded by magnificent stained glass. Each of these doors is different in color and I am confused by the need for such colors. They are blue, purple, green, orange, white and violet. And the last one… well, the last one is black. It is so black that I inwardly cringe, though I can’t seem to stop staring at it. But even though the door is black, the panes around it are so deep a red that it only further deepens the black. In front of each of the windows stands a tripod that illuminates some form of light, and I can see as the guest go in and out that this illumination creates some sort of moving images within the rooms. These moving images are light and airy, almost fantastical. In the black room, however, there are only moving nightmares (Poe, 1842).
I must have been staring for a while, because before I know it the clock chimes again. This time I can see the source of the noise and find the imposing grandfather clock on the far wall, its large pendulum swinging to and fro. Again, the music stops and everyone pauses in their revelries. By the time the music starts up again, I find that I have been holding my breath as well.
Then, of a sudden, there is a tap. And then another. It seems to strike an antagonistic tempo when compared to the music downstairs.
Rap, tap, tap! I look for the sound but have trouble finding it.
Rap, tap, tap! Finally, I see a window in the opposite hall from me that leads to a grand balcony.
Standing upon that balcony is a man, more disguised than any of the guests downstairs. He stands on the balcony looking in, his hand poised on the glass to knock again.
As I walk closer, details of his appearance become clearer. He seems to wear clothes that could easily have shrouded a corpse. He is tall and gaunt and has a stare that reminds me of cold, wintery nights and makes me long for the safety of the room where the children are probably sleeping soundly by now. His masque has marked blood patterns on it, like the kind seen on Daddy before Mother and I left the countryside. The kind that means he’s sick. I shudder, but remind myself it’s only a mask. (Poe, 1842).
He continues to tap, never taking his eyes from me and the noise of his hand on the window makes me jump. I shake off my fears and remember that he is one of the quests. Probably stepped out to smoke a pipe and found himself locked out on the balcony. He could even be Marquis de Winthrope in costume, I tell myself, because he is thin like this man. But my heart knows this isn’t true.
I open the window to let the man in. He steps through gracefully, as if his feet never touched ground. He pauses before me and bows like a true gentleman before gliding past me down the grand staircase that I had been hiding on top of before.
The clock strikes midnight, and silence ensues. I am slow to view the revelry of the ball once more.
“Who dares?” I hear Prince Prospero exclaim. As I peer over the banister I see the prince with his face full of rage as he points to the man I had just let in. “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” (Poe, p322).
The man steps closer to the prince, and I feel the temperature within the room drop. The prince backs away…no… hurries away from him and takes to hiding within his colored rooms. But, no! The prince has turned around, and in his hand he holds a knife. I can see the sheen sweat of fear on the prince’s brow, but the guest I had let in remained as calm as the dead he so carefully crafted. The prince acts to stab the man, and now the prince is dead.
The revelers have woken from their trance, and I see them converge on the man (Mother included). They rip off his costume and Mother grabs for his masque. But he is a man no more. Only his costume remains, underneath there is nothing. But, where has he gone? Somehow, the people are all dying. How is he doing this? They are all dying. One by one they drop, faces a mask of blood. As Mother falls to the ground, I turn and flee.
I run to the children’s room, fear carrying me faster than I have ever gone before. I am probably there already, dreaming… merely sleeping. I’ll wake to find Bobby, Nina and Cossette as they were: screaming and pinching. I need only make it to my body, for surely I am not in my body right now.
I open the door to find them- dead. All dead. The children would seem as if they were sleeping if not for the blood on their face, painted in the style of a cruel jester’s masque. I am transfixed until I feel the breath on my neck.
I turn slowly and in horror to stare into a pair of winter cold eyes that bear no tangible form before blackness consumes me.
“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” (Poe, p323).