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.”