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The Cask of Amontillado
By Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe’s work reflects many and varied fears – some his own phobias, and some the peculiar fears of his time. “The Cask of Amontillado” uses some of the same themes he explores in other stories, but nowhere, for my money, better than this. What sets this story apart for me is the level of humor used – and how it actually heightens, rather than dampens, the growing suspense.
Alfred Hitchcock once observed that the difference between surprise and suspense lies in what the audience knows – especially when they know more than one or more of the characters. Certainly a part of what drives this story is that we know much more than Fortunato does about the danger he is in; and though we laugh when the unnamed narrator agrees he will not die of a cough, we also feel a chill, for we know what the narrator really means by that.
At the height of his powers, Poe carried on very public feuds with fellow writers, and there is evidence to suggest that he was painting himself and a rival in these portraits of wronged man and victim.
This is the edited version of the text I use in my storytelling. After a few years of doing the
I started tightening it up for performance - though I still like a lot of what I cut. Some jokes, like the mason's trowel bit, I've been sorry to lose.
I enjoy performing "Cask" very much; its narrator speaks directly to the audience, and more than half the story is in dialogue, a conversation between two people, which makes for good storytelling. Also, the conclusion gives plenty of opportunity for theatrics – a struggle, a scream, and a final hissing wish.
injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; but for now, by neither word nor deed would I give Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his destruction.
This Fortunato was a man to be respected and even feared. But he had a weak point – he prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine.
It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of Mardi Gras, that I encountered my friend. He accosted me with excessive warmth, for he had been drinking much. The man wore motley. He was costumed in the colorful motley of a court jester, and the bells on his cap jingled as I shook his hand.
“My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met. How remarkably well you are looking to-day! But I have received a cask of what passes for Amontillado, and I have my doubts.”
“How?” said he. “Amontillado? A cask? Impossible!”
“I have my doubts,” I replied; “and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter.”
“You were not to be found, and I was fearful
of losing a bargain.”
“I have my doubts.”
“I must be sure, so I am on my way to Luchesi. If
any one has a critical turn it is he. He will tell me – ”
“Bah! Luchesi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry.”
“And yet some fools will have it that his taste is a
match for your own.”
“Come – let us go. Is it in your vaults?”
“No, no; I will not impose upon your good nature. I perceive you have an engagement. Luchesi – ”
“I have no engagement; come.”
“My friend, no. It is not the engagement, but the severe cold with which I perceive you are afflicted. The vaults are insufferably damp.”
“The cold is merely nothing. Amontillado! Let us go.”
He grasped my arm. I put on a mask of black silk and drew my cloak closely about my collar, and we hurried to my palazzo.
There were no attendants at home; they had absconded to make merry in honour of the time. I had told them that I should not return until the morning, and had given them explicit orders not to stir from the house. These orders were sufficient, I well knew, to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as my back was turned.
I took from their sconces two torches, and giving one to Fortunato, bowed him through several suites of rooms to the archway that led into the vaults. We passed down a long and winding staircase, and stood together upon the damp ground of the catacombs of the Montresors.
The gait of my drunken friend was unsteady, making the bells on his cap jingle.
“The cask?” said he.
“It is farther on,” said I.
We passed through walls of piled bones, with wines and tombs intermingling, into the
inmost recesses of the catacombs.
“How long have you had that cough?”
“It – Ugh! ugh! ugh! – ugh! ugh! – It is nothing,” he said, at last.
“Come,” I said, with decision, “we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich,
respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter. We will go back; you will be ill, and I cannot be responsible. Besides, there is Luchesi ——”
“Enough,” he said; “the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die
of a cough.”
“True – true,” I replied; “and, indeed, I had no intention of alarming you unnecessarily – but you should use all proper caution. A draught of this Medoc will defend us from the damps.”
Here I knocked off the neck of a bottle which I drew from a long row of its fellows that lay upon the mould.
“Drink,” I said, presenting him the wine.
He raised it to his lips with a leer. “I drink,” he said, “to the buried that repose around us.”
“And I to your long life.”
He leaned upon my arm heavily as we continued our route in search of the Amontillado.
Descending once again, we eventually arrived at a deep crypt, in which the foulness
of the air caused our torches rather to glow than flame.
“These vaults are extensive.”
“The Montresors,” I replied, “were a great and numerous family.”
Bones and human remains littered this crypt, and piled against three walls. The fourth wall,
opposite us, opened into a tiny recess, in depth about four feet, in width three, in height six
or seven. In the feeble light, Fortunato could not see the far wall of solid granite.
“In there,” I said, “is the Amontillado. As for Luchesi – ”
“He is an ignoramus.” My friend stepped unsteadily forward. I followed immediately at his heels. In an instant he had reached the far wall, and finding his progress arrested by the rock, stood stupidly bewildered. A moment more and I had fettered him to the two iron rings in the granite. He was too much astounded to resist. Withdrawing the key I stepped back from the recess.
“Pass your hand,” I said, “over the wall; you cannot help feeling how damp and cold it is. Once more let me implore you to return. No? Then I must positively leave you. But I must first render you all the little attentions in my power.”
“The Amontillado!” ejaculated my friend, not yet recovered from his astonishment.
“True,” I replied; “the Amontillado.”
As I said these words I busied myself among the pile of bones, where I had hidden building stone, mortar and a trowel. I began vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche.
I had scarcely laid the first tier of my masonry when I discovered that the
intoxication of Fortunato had in a great measure worn off. A low moaning
cry came from the depth of the recess. It was not the cry of a drunken man.
There was then a long and obstinate silence. I laid the second tier, and the
third, and the fourth; and then I heard the furious vibrations of the chain. The
noise lasted for several minutes, during which, that I might listen to it
with the more satisfaction, I ceased my labours and sat down upon the bones.
When at last the clanking subsided, I resumed the trowel, and finished without
interruption the fifth, the sixth, and the seventh tier. The wall was now
nearly up to my chest. I again paused, and holding the torches over the
mason-work, threw a few feeble rays upon the figure within.
A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat
of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. For a brief moment
I hesitated – I trembled; but the thought of an instant reassured me. I placed
my hand upon the solid fabric of the catacombs, and felt satisfied. I re-
approached the wall. I replied to the yells of him who clamoured. I re-echoed –
I aided – I surpassed them in volume and in strength. When I had out-shouted
him, the clamourer grew still.
It was now midnight, and my task was drawing to a close. I had completed the eighth, the ninth, and the tenth tier. I had finished a portion of the last and the eleventh; there remained but a single stone to be fitted and plastered in. I struggled with its weight; I placed it partially in its destined position. But now I heard, faintly, a low laugh that raised the hairs upon my head, and a sad voice, which I had difficulty in recognising as that of the noble Fortunato.
“Ha! ha! ha! – he! he! he! – a very good joke, indeed – an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo – he! he! he! – over our wine – he! he! he!”
“The Amontillado!” I said.
“He! he! he! – he! he! he! – yes, the Amontillado. But is it not getting late? Will not they be awaiting us at the palazzo, the Lady Fortunato and the rest? Let us be gone.”
“Yes,” I said, “let us be gone.”
“FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, MONTRESOR!”
“Yes,” I said, “for the love of God!”
But to these words I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient. I called aloud –
No answer. I called again –
No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick – on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labour. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. And for the last half-century no mortal has disturbed them.
May he rest in peace!