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A short story by Francois Coppee

At Table

Title:     At Table
Author: Francois Coppee [More Titles by Coppee]

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.

Admitted into that high society by virtue of his renown as an artist, one of nature's aristocrats but without vanity, sprung from the people and not forgetting it, he breathed voluptuously that flower of civilization which is called good company.

He knew--none better than he--how everything in this environment--the charm of the women, the wit of the men, the glittering table, the furnishing of the hall, to the exquisite wine which he had just touched to his lips--how everything was choice and rare, and he rejoiced that a concourse of things so lovely and so harmonious existed. He was plunged in a bath of optimism; it seemed to him good that there should be, sometimes and somewhere in the weary world, beings almost happy. Provided that they were accessible to pity, charitable--and these happy people probably were that--who could distress them? what could injure them? Ah, beautiful and consoling chimera to believe that for such as these life is pleasant; that they retain always--or almost always--that gay, happy light in the eye, that half-blossomed smile upon the lips; that they have blotted out, as far as possible, from their existence, imperious and discreditable desires and abject infirmities.

He whom we will call the Dreamer was pursuing that train of thought, when the _maitre d'hotel_--the superb _maitre d'hotel_--entered with solemnity, carrying in a great silver plate a turbot of fabulous dimensions--one of those phenomenal fish which are only seen in the old paintings representing the miraculous draught of fish, or perhaps in the window of Chevet, before a row of astonished street-boys who flatten their noses against the glass window.

* * * * *

Dinner is served. But when the Dreamer had before him on his plate a portion of the monstrous turbot, the light odor of the sea evoked in his mind, prone to unexpected suggestions, that corner of Breton, that poor village of sailors, where he had been belated the other autumn until the equinox, and where he had rendered assistance in some dreadful storms. He suddenly called to mind that terrible night when the fishing-boats could not come back to port, the night that he had passed on the mole amid a group of frightened women, standing where the sea-spray streamed down his face, and the cold and furious wind seemed striving to tear his clothes from his back. What a life was theirs, those poor men! Down there how many widows, young and old, wearing always the black shawl, went at break of day, with their swarms of children, to earn their bread--oh, nothing but bread!--working in the sickening smell of hot oil in the sardine factories! He saw again in memory the church above the village, half-way up the cliff, the steeple painted white to show to the distant boats the passage between the reefs; and he saw, also, in the short grass of the cemetery nibbled by the sheep, the gravestones on which this sinister inscription was so often repeated: "_Lost at sea._" "_Lost at sea._" "_Lost at sea._"

The enormous turbot was of savory and delicate taste, and the shrimp sauce with which it was served proved that the _chef_ of the comte had followed a course in cooking at the Cafe Anglais and profited by it. For our refined civilization reaches even this point. One takes degrees in culinary science. There are doctors in roasts and bachelors in sauces. All of the guests eat as if they appreciated, and with delicate gestures, but without showing special favor for exceptional dishes, through good form and because they were habituated to exquisite food.

* * * * *

The Dreamer himself had no appetite. He was still in thought with the Bretons, with the sons of the sea, who had caught, perhaps, this magnificent turbot. He remembered the day that followed the tempest--that morning, rainy and gray--when, walking by the heavy, leaden sea, he had found a body at his feet and recognized it as that of an old sailor, the father of a family, who had been lost at sea three days before--mournful jetsam, stranded in the wrack and foam, so heart-rending to see, with the gray hair of the drowned full of sand and shells!

A shudder passed over his heart.

But the lackeys had already removed the plates; every trace of the giant fish had disappeared, and while they were serving another course, the diners, elegant triflers, had taken up their chat again. Hunger being already somewhat appeased, they were more animated, they spoke with more abandon--light laughs ran round. Oh, charming and gracious company!

* * * * *

Then the Dreamer, the silent guest, was seized with an infinite sadness; for all the work and distress that were required to create this comfort and well-being came surging on his imagination.

That these men of the world might wear light dress-coats in mid-December, that these women might expose their arms and their shoulders, the temperature of the room was that of a spring morning. And who furnished the coal? The poor devils of the black country, the subterranean workmen who lived in hellish mines. How white and fresh is the complexion of that young woman against her corsage of pink satin! But who had woven that satin? The human spider of Lyons, the weaver, always at his trade in the leprous houses of the Croix Rousse. She wears in her tiny ears two beautiful pearls. What brilliancy! what opaline transparence! Almost perfect spheres! The pearl which Cleopatra dissolved in vinegar and swallowed, and which was worth ten thousand sesterces, was not more pure. But does she know, that young woman, that in far-off Ceylon, on the pearl-oyster banks of Arripo and Condatchy, the Indians of the Indian Company plunge heroically down in twelve fathoms of water, one foot in the heavy stone weight which drags them down to the bottom, a knife in the left hand for defence against the shark?

* * * * *

But what of that? One is lovely and coquettish. The air of the dining-hall is warm and perfumed. There one can dine gaily, adorned and half nude, flirting with one's neighbors. What has one to do, I ask you, with a dark workman, who digs fifty feet under the ground, with a weaver sitting with stiffened joints before the loom, with a savage who emerges from the sea and sometimes reddens it with his blood? Why should one think of things so sad, so ugly? What an absurdity!

Meanwhile the Dreamer pursued his train of thought.

An instant ago, without taking thought, mechanically he crumbled on the cloth a bit of the gilded bread which was placed near his napkin. As a viand, a mere bit of fancy, insignificant in such a repast, it made him think of the _naif_ phrase of the great lady concerning the starving wretches--"Let them eat cake." Nevertheless, this little cake is bread all the same--bread made of flour, which in turn is made of wheat. Great heaven! yes, it is bread, simply bread, like the loaf of the peasant, like the bran-roll of the soldier; and that it might be here, on the table of the rich, required the patient labor of many poor.

The peasant labored, sowed, reaped. He pushed his plough or led his harrow across the fertile field, under the cold needles of the autumn rain; he started from sleep, full of terror for his crop, when it thundered by night; he trembled, seeing the passage of great violet clouds charged with hail; he went forth, dissatisfied and gloomy, to the heavy work and exhausting labor of harvest.

And when the old miller, twisted by rheumatism which he has caught in the river fogs, has sent the flour to Paris, the market-porters with the great white hats have carried the crushing sacks on their broad backs, and last night, even, in the baker's cellar the workmen toiled until morning.

Verily, yes! It has cost all these efforts, all these pains--the bit of bread carelessly broken by the white hands of these patricians.

And now the incorrigible Dreamer was possessed by these things. The delicacies of the repast only recalled to him the suffering of humanity. Presently, when the butler poured for him a glass of Chambertin, did he not remember that certain glass-blowers became consumptive through blowing bottles?

Let it pass--it is absurd. He well knows that so the world is made. An economist would have laughed in his face. Would he become a Socialist, perhaps? There will always be rich and poor, as there will always be well-formed men and hunchbacks.

Besides, the fortunates before him were not unjustly so. These were not vulgar favorites of the Gilded Calf--parvenus gross and conceited. The nobleman who presides at the table bears with honor and dignity a name associated with all the glories of France; the general with the gray mustache is a hero, and charged at Rezonville with the intrepidity of a Murat; the painter, the poet, have faithfully served Art and Beauty; the chemist, a self-made man who began life as a shop-boy in a drug-store, and to whom the learned world listens to-day as to an oracle, is simply a man of genius; these high-born dames are generous and good, and they will often dip their fair hands courageously in the depth of misfortune. Why should not these members of the _elite_ have exceptional enjoyment?

The Dreamer said to himself that he had been unjust. These were old sophisms--good, at the best, for the clubs of the faubourgs, which had been awakened in his memory, and by which he had been duped. Is it possible? He was ashamed of himself.

But the dinner neared its end; and while the lackeys refilled for the last time the champagne-glasses, the table grew silent--the guests felt the apathy of digestion. The Dreamer looked at them, one after the other, and all the faces had satiated, _blase_ expressions which disturbed and disquieted him. A sentiment, obscure, inexplicable, but so bitter! protested even from the depth of his soul against that repast; and when they rose at last from the table, he repeated softly and stubbornly to himself:

"Yes; they are within their rights. But do they know, do they understand, that their luxury is made from many miseries? Do they think of it sometimes? Do they think of it as often as they should? Do they think of it?"

[The end]
Francois Coppee's short story: At Table