Then he glanced at the table, turned a gas jet that was feebly burning completely off, closed one sash of the window on account of the draught, and chose a sheltered place for himself, with a remark:
"I must be careful; I have been better for a month, and now I am queer again these last few days.
I must have caught cold on Tuesday, coming out of the theater."
The door was opened, and, followed by a waiter, the two ladies appeared, veiled, muffled, reserved, with that charmingly mysterious bearing they assume in such places, where the surroundings are suspicious.
As Duroy bowed to Madame Forestier she scolded him for not having come to see her again; then she added with a smile, in the direction of her friend: "I know what it is; you prefer Madame de Marelle, you can find time to visit her."
They sat down to table, and the waiter having handed the wine card to Forestier, Madame de Marelle exclaimed: "Give these gentlemen whatever they like, but for us iced champagne, the best, sweet champagne, mind--nothing else."
And the man having withdrawn, she added with an excited laugh:
"I am going to get tipsy this evening; we will have a spree--a regular spree."
Forestier, who did not seem to have heard, said:
"Would you mind the window being closed?
My chest has been rather queer the last few days."
"No, not at all."
He pushed too the sash left open, and returned to his place with a reassured and tranquil countenance.
His wife said nothing. Seemingly lost in thought, and with her eyes lowered towards the table, she smiled at the glasses with that vague smile which seemed always to promise and never to grant.
The Ostend oysters were brought in, tiny and plump like little ears enclosed in shells, and melting between the tongue and the palate like salt bon-bons.
Then, after the soup, was served a trout as rose-tinted as a young girl, and the guests began to talk.
They spoke at first of a current scandal; the story of a lady of position, surprised by one of her husband's friends supping in a private room with a foreign prince.
Forestier laughed a great deal at the adventure; the two ladies declared that the indiscreet gossip was nothing less than a blackguard and a coward.
Duroy was of their opinion, and loudly proclaimed that it is the duty of a man in these matters, whether he be actor, confidant, or simple spectator, to be silent as the grave.
He added: "How full life would be of pleasant things if we could reckon upon the absolute discretion of one another.
That which often, almost always, checks women is the fear of the secret being revealed.
Come, is it not true?" he continued.
"How many are there who would yield to a sudden desire, the caprice of an hour, a passing fancy, did they not fear to pay for a short-lived and fleeting pleasure by an irremediable scandal and painful tears?"
He spoke with catching conviction, as though pleading a cause, his own cause, as though he had said:
"It is not with me that one would have to dread such dangers.
Try me and see."
They both looked at him approvingly, holding that he spoke rightly and justly, confessing by their friendly silence that their flexible morality as Parisians would not have held out long before the certainty of secrecy.
And Forestier, leaning back in his place on the divan, one leg bent under him, and his napkin thrust into his waistcoat, suddenly said with the satisfied laugh of a skeptic: "The deuce! yes, they would all go in for it if they were certain of silence.
And they began to talk of love.
Without admitting it to be eternal, Duroy understood it as lasting, creating a bond, a tender friendship, a confidence.
The union of the senses was only a seal to the union of hearts.
But he was angry at the outrageous jealousies, melodramatic scenes, and unpleasantness which almost always accompany ruptures.
When he ceased speaking, Madame de Marelle replied:
"Yes, it is the only pleasant thing in life, and we often spoil it by preposterous unreasonableness."
Madame Forestier, who was toying with her knife, added: "Yes--yes--it is pleasant to be loved."
And she seemed to be carrying her dream further, to be thinking things that she dared not give words to.
As the first _entree_ was slow in coming, they sipped from time to time a mouthful of champagne, and nibbled bits of crust.
And the idea of love, entering into them, slowly intoxicated their souls, as the bright wine, rolling drop by drop down their throats, fired their blood and perturbed their minds.
The waiter brought in some lamb cutlets, delicate and tender, upon a thick bed of asparagus tips.
"Ah! this is good," exclaimed Forestier; and they ate slowly, savoring the delicate meat and vegetables as smooth as cream.
Duroy resumed: "For my part, when I love a woman everything else in the world disappears."
He said this in a tone of conviction.
Madame Forestier murmured, with her let-me-alone air:
"There is no happiness comparable to that of the first hand-clasp, when the one asks,
'Do you love me?' and the other replies,
Madame de Marelle, who had just tossed a fresh glass of champagne off at a draught, said gayly, as she put down her glass:
"For my part, I am not so Platonic."
And all began to smile with kindling eyes at these words.