The Tell-Tale Heart
by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
Approximate Word Count: 2093
True!-Nervous--very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! but
why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my
senses--not destroyed--not dulled them. Above all was the sense of
hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth.
I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and
observe how healthily--how calmly I can tell you the whole
It is impossible to tell how first the idea entered my brain; but
once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none.
Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged
me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I
think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled
that of a vulture--a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever
it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees--very
gradually--I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and
thus rid myself of the eye forever.
Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But
you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I
proceeded--with what caution--with what foresight--with what
dissimulation I went to work!
I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before
I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch
of his door and opened it--oh, so gently! And then, when I had made
an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all
closed, closed, so that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my
head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it
in! I moved it slowly--very, very slowly, so that I might not
disturb the old man's sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole
head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon
his bed. Ha!--would a madman have been so wise as this? And then,
when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern
cautiously--oh, so cautiously--cautiously (for the hinges
creaked)--I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon
the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights--every night
just at midnight--but I found the eye always closed; and so it was
impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me,
but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went
boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him
by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he had passed the
night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man,
indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in
upon him while he slept.
Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening
the door. A watch's minute hand moves more quickly than did mine.
Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers--of
my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To
think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he
not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled
at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed
suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back--but
no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness (for the
shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers), and so I
knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept
pushing it on steadily, steadily.
I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb
slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in bed,
crying out: "Who's there?"
I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not
move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He
was still sitting up in the bed listening;--just as I have done,
night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.
Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of
mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or grief--oh no!--it was
the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when
overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at
midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own
bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that
distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt,
and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had
been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had
turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him.
He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had
been saying to himself: "It is nothing but the wind in the
chimney--it is only a mouse crossing the floor," or "it is merely
a cricket which has made a single chirp." Yes, he had been trying
to comfort himself with these suppositions; but he had found all in
vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him. had stalked
with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. And it
was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused
him to feel--although he neither saw nor heard--to feel the
presence of my head within the room.
When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him
lie down, I resolved to open a little--a very, very little crevice
in the lantern. So I opened it--you cannot imagine how stealthily,
stealthily--until, at length, a single dim ray, like the thread of
the spider, shot from out the crevice and full upon the vulture
It was open--wide, wide open--and I grew furious as I gazed upon
it. I saw it with perfect distinctness--all a dull blue, with a
hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but
I could see nothing else of the old man's face or person: for I had
directed the ray, as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned
And now--have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is
but over-acuteness of the senses?--now, I say, there came to my
ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped
in cotton. I knew that sound well too. It was the beating of the
old man's heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum
stimulates the soldier into courage.
But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I
held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could maintain
the ray upon the eye. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart
increased. It grew quicker and quicker' and louder and louder every
instant. The old man's terror must have been extreme! It grew
louder, I say, louder every moment!--do you mark me well? I have
told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of
night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a
noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some
minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew
louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new
anxiety seized me--the sound would be heard by a neighbor! The old
man's hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and
leaped into the room. He shrieked once--once only. In an instant I
dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then
smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes,
the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex
me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased.
The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse.
Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and
held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone
dead. His eye would trouble me no more.
If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I
describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the
body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First
of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms
and the legs.
I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and
deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so
cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye--not even his--could have
detected anything wrong. There was nothing to wash out--no stain of
any kind--no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A
tub had caught all--ha! ha!
When I had made an end of these labors, it was four o'clock--still
dark as midnight. As the bell sounded the hour, there came a
knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light
heart--for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who
introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the
police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbor during the night:
suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been
lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been
deputed to search the premises.
I smiled--for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The
shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned,
was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house.
I bade them search--search well. I led them, at length, to his
chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the
enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and
desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in
the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon
the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.
The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was
singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they
chatted familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale
and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my
ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more
distinct:--it continued and became more distinct: I talked more
freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained
definiteness--until, at length, I found that the noise was not
within my ears.
No doubt I now grew very pale,--but I talked more fluently, and
with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased--and what could I
do? It was a low, dull, quick sound--much such a sound as a watch
makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath--and yet the
officers heard it not. I talked more quickly--more vehemently; but
the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced
the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by
the observation of the men--but the noise steadily increased. Oh,
God; what could I do? I foamed--I raved--I swore! I swung the chair
upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but
the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew
louder--louder --louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and
smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!--no, no! They
heard!--they suspected--they knew!--they were making a mockery of
my horror!--this I thought, and this I think. But anything was
better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this
derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt
that I must scream or die!--and now--again!--hark! louder! louder!
"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed!--tear
up the planks!--here, here!--it is the beating of his hideous
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