The men stepped out in evening clothes and the women stepped out after them, their hair coiffed up in elaborate detail.

“So that’s Usher!”

“But where’s the door?”

At this moment Stendahl appeared. The women laughed and chattered. Mr. Stendahl raised a hand to quiet them. Turning, he looked up to a high castle window and called:

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.”

And from above, a beautiful maiden leaned out upon the night wind and let down her golden hair. And the hair twined and blew and became a ladder upon which the guests might ascend, laughing, into the House.

What eminent sociologists! What clever psychologists! What tremendously important politicians, bacteriologists, and neurologists! There they stood, within the dank walls.

“Welcome, all of you!”

Mr. Tryon, Mr. Owen, Mr. Dunne, Mr. Lang, Mr. Steffens, Mr. Fletcher, and a double-dozen more.

“Come in, come in!”

Miss Gibbs, Miss Pope, Miss Churchil, Miss Blunt, Miss Drummond, and a score of other women, glittering.

Eminent, eminent people, one and all, members of the Society for the Prevention of Fantasy, advocators of the banishment of Halloween and Guy Fawkes, killers of bats, burners of books, bearers of torches; good clean citizens, every one, who had waited until the rough men had come up and buried the Martians and cleansed the cities and built the towns and repaired the highways and made everything safe. And then, with everything well on its way to Safety, the Spoil-Funs, the people with mercurochrome for blood and iodine-colored eyes, came now to set up their Moral Climates and dole out goodness to everyone. And they were his friends! Yes, carefully, carefully, he had met and befriended each of them on Earth in the last year!

“Welcome to the vasty halls of Death!” he cried.

“Hello, Stendahl, what is all this?”

“You’ll see. Everyone off with their clothes. You’ll find booths to one side there. Change into costumes you find there. Men on this side, women on that.”

The people stood uneasily about.

“I don’t know if we should stay,” said Miss Pope. “I don’t like the looks of this. It verges on—blasphemy.”

“Nonsense, a costume ball!”

“Seems quite illegal.” Mr. Steffens sniffed about.

“Come off it.” Stendahl laughed. “Enjoy yourselves. Tomorrow it’ll be a ruin. Get in the booths!”

The House blazed with life and color; harlequins rang by with belled caps and white mice danced miniature quadrilles to the music of dwarfs who tickled tiny fiddles with tiny bows, and flags rippled from scorched beams while bats flew in clouds about gargoyle mouths which spouted down wine, cool, wild, and foaming. A creek wandered through the seven rooms of the masked ball. Guests sipped and found it to be sherry. Guests poured from the booths, transformed from one age into another, their faces covered with dominoes, the very act of putting on a mask revoking all their licenses to pick a quarrel with fantasy and horror. The women swept about in red gowns, laughing. The men danced them attendance. And on the walls were shadows with no people to throw them, and here or there were mirrors in which no image showed. “All of us vampires!” laughed Mr. Fletcher. “Dead!”

There were seven rooms, each a different color, one blue, one purple, one green, one orange, another white, the sixth violet, and the seventh shrouded in black velvet. And in the black room was an ebony clock which struck the hour loud. And through these rooms the guests ran, drunk at last, among the robot fantasies, amid the Dormice and Mad Hatters, the Trolls and Giants, the Black Cats and White Queens, and under their dancing feet the floor gave off the massive pumping beat of a hidden and telltale heart.

“Mr. Stendahl!”

A whisper.

“Mr. Stendahl!”

A monster with the face of Death stood at his elbow. It was Pikes. “I must see you alone.”

“What is it?”

“Here.” Pikes held out a skeleton hand. In it were a few half-melted, charred wheels, nuts, cogs, bolts.

Stendahl looked at them for a long moment. Then he drew Pikes into a corridor. “Garrett?” he whispered.

Pikes nodded. “He sent a robot in his place. Cleaning out the incinerator a moment ago, I found these.”

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Categories: Bradbury, Ray