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At Table
by [?]

When the maitre d’hotel–oh, what a respectable paunch in an ample kerseymere vest! What a worthy and red face, well framed by white whiskers! (an English physique, I assure you)–when the imposing maitre d’hotel opened with two raps the door of the salon, and announced in his musical bass voice, at the same time sonorous and respectful, “The dinner of madame la comtesse is served,” hats were hung on the corners of brackets, while the more distinguished of the guests offered their arms to the ladies, and all passed into the dining-room, silent, almost meditative, like a procession.

The table glittered. What flowers! What lights! Each guest found his place without difficulty. As soon as he had read his name on the glazed card, a grand lackey in silk stockings pushed gently behind him a luxurious chair embroidered with a count’s coronet. Fourteen at the table, not more: four young women in full toilets, and ten men belonging to the aristocracy of blood or of merit, who had put on that evening all their orders in honor of a foreign diplomat sitting at the right hand of the mistress of the house. Clusters of jewelled decorations hung from button-holes, plaques of diamonds glittered in the lapel of one or two black coats, a heavy commander’s cross sparkled on the starched front of a general with a red cravat. As to the ladies, they bore all the splendors of their jewel-boxes.

An elegant and exquisite reunion! What an atmosphere of good-living in the high hall–splendidly decorated and ornamented on its four panels with studies for a dining-hall in the fine style of olden days–where were fruits, venison, and eatables of all sorts. The service of the table was noiseless; the domestics seemed to glide upon the thick carpet. The butler whispered the wines in the ears of the guests with a confidential tone, and as if he were revealing a secret upon which life depended.

At the soup–a consomme at the same time mild and stimulating, giving force and youthful vigor to the digestion–chat between neighbors began. Undoubtedly these were the merest trifles that were at first so low spoken. But what politeness in the grave gestures! What affability in looks and smiles! Soon after the Chateau-yquem, wit sparkled. These men, for the most part old or very mature, all remarkable through birth or through talent, had lived much; full of experience and memories, they were made for conversation, and the beauty of the women present inspired them with a desire to shine, and excited them to a courteous rivalry. There was a snapping of bright words, a flight of sudden sallies, and the conversationalists broke into groups of two or three. A famous voyager with bronzed skin, recently returned from the farthest deserts, told his two neighbors of an elephant hunt, without any boasting, with as much tranquillity as though he were speaking of shooting rabbits. Farther off, the fine profile and white hair of an illustrious savant was gallantly inclined towards the comtesse, who listened to him laughing–a very slender blonde, her eyes young and intent, with a collar of splendid emeralds on a bosom like a professional beauty, and the neck and shoulders of the Venus de Medici.

* * * * *

Decidedly the dinner promised to be charming as well as sumptuous. Ennui, that too frequent guest at mundane feasts, would not come to sit at that table. These fortunate ones were going to pass a delicious hour, drinking enjoyment through every pore, by every sense.

Now, at that same table, at the lower end, in the most modest place, a man still young, the least qualified, the most obscure of all who were there, a man of reverie and imagination, one of those dreamers in whom is something of philosophy, something of poetry, sat silent.