Ninny Moulin; "you are very lucky that to-morrow will perhaps be the end of the world, or else I should pick a quarrel with you for having kissed my lovely LOVE." "Which proves to you, O Rubens! O Raphael! the thousand advantages of the Cholera, whom I declare to be essentially sociable and caressing." "And philanthropic," said one of the guests; "thanks to him, creditors take care of the health of their debtors. This morning a usurer, who feels a particular interest in my existence, brought me all sorts of anti-choleraic drugs, and begged me to make use of them." "And I!" said the pupil of the great painter. "My tailor wished to force me to wear a flannel band next to the skin, because I owe him a thousand crowns. But I answered `Oh, tailor, give me a receipt in full, and I will wrap myself up in flannel, to preserve you my custom!'" "O Cholera, I drink to thee!" said Ninny Moulin, by way of grotesque invocation. "You are not Despair; on the contrary, you are the emblem of Hope--yes, of hope. How many husbands, how many wives, longed for a number (alas! too uncertain chance) in the lottery of widowhood! You appear, and their hearts are gladdened. Thanks to you, benevolent pest! their chances of liberty are increased a hundredfold." And how grateful heirs ought to be! A cold--a heat--a trifle--and there, in an hour, some old uncle becomes a revered benefactor!" "And those who are always looking out for other people's places--what an ally they must find in the Cholera!" "And how true it will make many vows of constancy!" said Modeste, sentimentally. "How many villains have sworn to a poor, weak woman, to love her all their lives, who never meant (the wretches!) to keep their word so well!" "Gentlemen," cried Ninny Moulin, "since we are now, perhaps, at the eve of the end of the world, as yonder celebrated painter has expressed it, I propose to play the world topsy-turvy: I beg these ladies to make advances to us, to tease us, to excite us, to steal kisses from us, to take all sorts of liberties with us, and (we shall not die of it) even to insult us. Yes, I declare that I will allow myself to be insulted. So, LOVE, you may offer me the greatest insult that can be offered to a virtuous and modest bachelor," added the religious writer, leaning over towards his neighbor, who repulsed him with peals of laughter; and the proposal of Ninny Moulin being received with general hilarity, a new impulse was given to the mirth and riot. In the midst of the uproar, the waiter, who had before entered the room several times, to whisper uneasily to his comrades, whilst he pointed to the ceiling, again appeared with a pale and agitated countenance; approaching the man who performed the office of butler, he said to him, in a low voice, tremulous with emotion: "They are come!" "Who?" "You know--up there"; and he pointed to the ceiling. "Oh!" said the butler, becoming thoughtful; "where are they?" "They have just gone upstairs; they are there now," answered the waiter, shaking his head with an air of alarm; "yes, they are there!" "What does master say?" "He is very vexed, because--" and the waiter glanced round at the guests. "He does not know what to do; he has sent me to you." "What the devil have I to do with it?" said the other; wiping his forehead. "It was to be expected, and cannot be helped." "I will not remain here till they begin." "You may as well go, for your long face already attracts attention. Tell master we must wait for the upshot." The above incident was scarcely perceived in the midst of the growing tumult of the joyous feast. But, among the guests, one alone laughed not, drank not. This was Jacques. With fixed and lurid eye, he gazed upon vacancy. A stranger to what was passing around him, the unhappy man thought of the Bacchanal Queen, who had been so gay and brilliant in the midst of similar saturnalia. The remembrance of that one being, whom he still loved with an extravagant love, was the only thought that from time to time roused him from his besotted state. It is strange, but Jacques had only consented to join this masquerade because the mad scene reminded him of the merry day he had spent with Cephyse--that famous breakfast, after a night of dancing, in which the Bacchanal Queen, from some extraordinary presentiment, had proposed a lugubrious toast with regard to this very pestilence, which was then reported to be approaching France. "To the Cholera!" had she said. "Let him spare those who wish to live, and kill at the same moment those who dread to part!" And now, at this time, remembering those mournful words, Jacques was absorbed in painful thought. Morok perceived his absence of mind, and said aloud to him, "You have given over drinking, Jacques. Have you had enough wine? Then you will want brandy. I will send for some." "I want neither wine nor brandy," answered Jacques, abruptly, and he fell back into a sombre reverie. "Well, you may be right," resumed Morok, in a sardonic tone, and raising his voice still higher. "You do well to take care of yourself. I was wrong to name brandy in these times. There would be as much temerity in facing a bottle of brandy as the barrel of a loaded pistol." On hearing his courage as a toper called in question, Sleepinbuff looked angrily at Morok. "You think it is from cowardice that I will not drink brandy!" cried the unfortunate man, whose half-extinguished intellect was roused to defend what he called his dignity. "Is it from cowardice that I refuse, d'ye think, Morok? Answer me!" "Come, my good fellow, we have all shown our pluck today," said one of the guests to Jacques; "you, above all, who, being rather indisposed, yet had the courage to take the part of Goodman Cholera." "Gentlemen," resumed Morok, seeing the general attention fixed upon himself and Sleepinbuff, "I was only joking; for if my comrade (pointing to Jacques) had the imprudence to accept my offer, it would be an act, not of courage, but of foolhardiness. Luckily, he has sense enough to renounce a piece of boasting so dangerous at this time, and I--" "Waiter!" cried Jacques, interrupting Morok with angry impatience, "two bottles of brandy, and two glasses!" "What are you going to do?" said Morok, with pretended uneasiness. "Why do you order two bottles of brandy?" "For a duel," said Jacques, in a cool, resolute tone. "A duel!" cried the spectators, in surprise. "Yes," resumed Jacques, "a duel with brandy. You pretend there is as much danger in facing a bottle of brandy as a loaded pistol; let us each take a full bottle, and see who will be the first to cry quarter." This strange proposition was received by some with shouts of joy, and by others with genuine uneasiness. "Bravo! the champions of the bottle!" cried the first. "No, no; there would be too much danger in such a contest," said the others. "Just now," added one of the guests; "this challenge is as serious as an invitation to fight to the death." "You hear," said Morok, with a diabolical smile, "you hear, Jacques? Will you now retreat before the danger?" At these words, which reminded him of the peril to which he was about to expose himself, Jacques started, as if a sudden idea had occurred to him. He raised his head proudly, his cheeks were slightly flushed, his eye shone with a kind of gloomy satisfaction, and he exclaimed in a firm voice: "Hang it, waiter! are you deaf? I asked you for two bottles of brandy." "Yes, sir," said the waiter, going to fetch them, although himself frightened at what might be the result of this bacchanalian struggle. But the mad and perilous resolution of Jacques was applauded by the majority. Ninny Moulin moved about on his chair, stamped his feet, and shouted with all his might: "Bacchus and drink! bottles and glasses! the throats are dry! brandy to the rescue! Largess! largess!" And, like a true champion of the tournament, he embraced Modeste, adding, to excuse the liberty: "Love, you shall be the Queen of Beauty, and I am only anticipating the victor's happiness!" "Brandy to the rescue!" repeated they all, in chorus. "Largess!" "Gentlemen," added Ninny Moulin, with enthusiasm, "shall we remain indifferent to the noble example set us by Goodman Cholera? He said in his pride, `brandy!' Let us gloriously answer, 'punch!'" "Yes, yes! punch!" "Punch to the rescue!" "Waiter!" shouted the religious writer, with the voice of a Stentor, "waiter! have you a pan, a caldron, a hogshead, or any other immensity, in which we can brew a monster punch?" "A Babylonian punch!" "A lake of punch!" "An ocean of punch!" Such was the ambitious crescendo that followed the proposition of Ninny Moulin. "Sir," answered the waiter, with an air of triumph, "we just happen to have a large copper caldron, quite new. It has been used, and would hold at least thirty bottles." "Bring the caldron!" said Ninny Moulin, majestically. "The caldron forever!" shouted the chorus. "Put in twenty bottles of brandy, six loaves of sugar, a dozen lemons, a pound of cinnamon, and then--fire! fire!" shouted the religious writer, with the most vociferous exclamations. "Yes, yes! fire!" repeated the chorus! The proposition of Ninny Moulin gave a new impetus to the general gayety; the most extravagant remarks were mingled with the sound of kisses, taken or given under the pretext that perhaps there would be no to-morrow, that one must make the most of the present, etc., etc. Suddenly, in one of the moments of silence which sometimes occur in the midst of the greatest tumult, a succession of slow and measured taps sounded above the ceiling of the banqueting-room. All remained silent, and listened. CHAPTER XXI. BRANDY TO THE RESCUE. After the lapse of some seconds, the singular rapping which had so much surprised the guests, was again heard, but this time louder and longer. "Waiter!" cried one of the party, "what in the devil's name is knocking?" The waiter, exchanging with his comrades a look of uneasiness and alarm, stammered Out in reply: "Sir--it is--it is--" "Well! I suppose it is some crabbed, cross-grained lodger, some animal, the enemy of joy, who is pounding on the floor of his room to warn us to sing less loud," said Ninny Moulin. "Then, by a general rule," answered sententiously the pupil of the great painter, "if lodger or landlord ask for silence, tradition bids us reply by an infernal uproar, destined to drown all his remonstrances. Such, at least," added the scapegrace, modestly, are the foreign relations that I have always seen observed between neighboring powers." This remark was received with general laughter and applause. During the tumult, Morok questioned one of the waiters, and then exclaimed in a shrill tone, which rose above the clamor: "I demand a hearing!" "Granted!" cried the others, gayly. During the silence which followed the exclamation of Morok, the noise was again heard; it was this time quicker than before. "The lodger is innocent," said Morok, with a strange smile, "and would be quite incapable of interfering with your enjoyment." "Then why does he keep up that knocking?" said Ninny Moulin, emptying his glass. "Like a deaf man who has lost his ear-horn?" added the young artist. "It is not the lodger who is knocking" said Morok, in a sharp, quick tone; "for they are nailing him down in his coffin." A sudden and mournful silence followed these words. "His coffin no, I am wrong," resumed Morok; "her coffin, I should say, or more properly their coffin; for, in these pressing times, they put mother and child together." "A woman!" cried PLEASURE, addressing the writer; "is it a woman that is dead?" "Yes, ma'am; a poor young woman about twenty years of age," answered the waiter in a sorrowful tone. "Her little girl, that she was nursing, died soon after--all in less than two hours. My master is very sorry that you ladies and gents should be disturbed in this way; but he could not foresee this misfortune, as yesterday morning the young woman was quite well, and singing with all her might--no one could have been gayer than she was." Upon these words, it was as if a funeral pall had been suddenly thrown over a scene lately so full of joy; all the rubicund and jovial faces took an expression of sadness; no one had the hardihood to make a jest of mother and child, nailed down together in the same coffin. The silence became so profound, that one could hear each breath oppressed by terror: the last blows of the hammer seemed to strike painfully on every heart; it appeared as if each sad feeling, until now repressed, was about to replace that animation and gayety, which had been more factitious than sincere. The moment was decisive. It was necessary to strike an immediate blow, and to raise the spirits of the guests, for many pretty rosy faces began to grow pale, many scarlet ears became suddenly white; Ninny Moulin's were of the number. On the contrary, Sleepinbuff exhibited an increase of audacity; he drew up his figure, bent down from the effects of exhaustion, and, with a cheek slightly flushed, he exclaimed: "Well, waiter? are those bottles of brandy coming? And the punch? Devil and all! are the dead to frighten the living?" "He's right! Down with sorrow, and let's have the punch!" cried several of the guests, who felt the necessity of reviving their courage. "Forward, punch!" "Begone, dull care!" "Jollity forever!" "Gentlemen, here is the punch," said a waiter, opening the door. At sight of the flaming beverage, which was to reanimate their enfeebled spirits, the room rang with the loudest applause. The sun had just set. The room was large, being capable of dining a hundred guests; and the windows were few, narrow, and half veiled by red cotton curtains. Though it was not yet night, some portions of this vast saloon were almost entirely dark. Two waiters brought the monster-punch, in an immense brass kettle, brilliant as gold, suspended from an iron bar, and crowned with flames of changing color. The burning beverage was then placed upon the table, to the great joy of the guests, who began to forget their past alarms. "Now," said Jacques to Morok, in a taunting tone, "while the punch is burning, we will have our duel. The company shall judge." Then, pointing to the two bottles of brandy, which the waiter had brought, Jacques added: "Choose your weapon!" "Do you choose," answered Morok. "Well! here's your bottle--and here's your glass. Ninny Moulin shall be umpire." "I do not refuse to be judge of the field," answered the religious writer, "only I must warn you, comrade, that you are playing a desperate game, and that just now, as one of these gentlemen has said, the neck of a bottle of brandy in one's mouth, is perhaps more dangerous than the barrel of a loaded pistol." "Give the word, old fellow!" said Jacques, interrupting Ninny Moulin, "or I will give it myself." "Since you will have it so--so be it!" "The first who gives in is conquered," said Jacques.
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