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The Old Wives' Tale

IV.1. Frensham's
I
Matthew Peel-Swynnerton sat in the long dining-room of the Pension Frensham,
Rue Lord Byron, Paris; and he looked out of place there. It was an apartment
about thirty feet in length, and of the width of two windows, which sufficiently
lighted one half of a very long table with round ends. The gloom of the other
extremity was illumined by a large mirror in a tarnished gilt frame, which filled a
good portion of the wall opposite the windows. Near the mirror was a high
folding-screen of four leaves, and behind this screen could be heard the sound of
a door continually shutting and opening. In the long wall to the left of the windows
were two doors, one dark and important, a door of state, through which a
procession of hungry and a procession of sated solemn self- conscious persons
passed twice daily, and the other, a smaller door, glazed, its glass painted with
wreaths of roses, not an original door of the house, but a late breach in the wall,
that seemed to lead to the dangerous and to the naughty. The wall-paper and the
window drapery were rich and forbidding, dark in hue, mysterious of pattern.
Over the state-door was a pair of antlers. And at intervals, so high up as to defy
inspection, engravings and oil-paintings made oblong patches on the walls. They
were hung from immense nails with porcelain heads, and they appeared to depict
the more majestic aspect of man and nature. One engraving, over the
mantelpiece and nearer earth than the rest, unmistakably showed Louis Philippe
and his family in attitudes of virtue. Beneath this royal group, a vast gilt clock,
flanked by pendants of the same period, gave the right time--a quarter past
seven.
And down the room, filling it, ran the great white table, bordered with bowed
heads and the backs of chairs. There were over thirty people at the table, and the
peculiarly restrained noisiness of their knives and forks on the plates proved that
they were a discreet and a correct people. Their clothes--blouses, bodices, and
jackets--did not flatter the lust of the eye. Only two or three were in evening
dress. They spoke little, and generally in a timorous tone, as though silence had
been enjoined. Somebody would half-whisper a remark, and then his neighbour,
absently fingering her bread and lifting gaze from her plate into vacancy, would
conscientiously weigh the remark and half-whisper in reply: "I dare say." But a
few spoke loudly and volubly, and were regarded by the rest, who envied them,
as underbred.
Food was quite properly the chief preoccupation. The diners ate as those eat
who are paying a fixed price per day for as much as they can consume while
observing the rules of the game. Without moving their heads they glanced out of
the corners of their eyes, watching the manoeuvres of the three starched maids
who served. They had no conception of food save as portions laid out in rows on
large silver dishes, and when a maid bent over them deferentially, balancing the
dish, they summed up the offering in an instant, and in an instant decided how
much they could decently take, and to what extent they could practise the
theoretic liberty of choice. And if the food for any reason did not tempt them, or if
 
 
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