Come Lady Death

Beagle, Peter

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Belling, Catherine
  • Date of entry: Nov-29-2000


England in the 18th century. The wealthy Lady Neville finds that she has become sad and bored with life. So she arranges an elaborate ball and decides to invite Death as the guest of honor. To be invited, Death must first be found. After discussion about whether Death lives among the rich or the poor, Lady Neville remembers that her hairdresser’s child is dying, so she gives him the invitation to pass on when death arrives.

Two days later the heartbroken hairdresser arrives with a note of acceptance. All agree that Death’s handwriting looks feminine, but when the hairdresser will not describe the source of the note, Lady Neville has him whipped and thrown out.

At the ball, the guests become increasingly fearful until Death arrives, late, in the form of a beautiful young woman. Everyone falls in love with her. When she says she has to leave, they beg her to stay, and she says she will, if they’re sure. They are, so she says that she must now choose someone to take her place as immortal Death.

After a careful (and revealing) process of selection, Death chooses Lady Neville herself, concluding that one who could treat her hairdresser so heartlessly would take on the role well, since it is clear that only she knows "how meaningless it is to be alive." The story ends as Death kisses Lady Neville--and they, presumably, change roles.


A clever fable concerning the omnipresence of death and our ambivalence about its role. Lady Neville is tired of life, so death is attractive to her. The hairdresser no longer cares whether he lives or dies after the terrible death of his small child. Each guest at the ball has a different reason for living--or wanting to die--and these are economically presented.

Death is seductive but also, once the group has welcomed her, utterly implacable. We suspect that Lady Neville is not going to find her new role as easy as the old. A thought-provoking way to begin a discussion of attitudes to death and dying.

Primary Source

The Fantasy World of Peter S. Beagle



Place Published

New York



Page Count